(Student Guide to World Philosophy)

In My Father’s House is a collection of essays written over a period of about six years. When Kwame Anthony Appiah was writing these essays, there was much debate among African and African American writers about the status of race as a concept. The argument that racial differences are real and significant, which had long been used in the United States to justify segregation and unequal treatment, was being used by African American leaders and artists to defend affirmative action against those who saw no need for the continued existence of such programs in the face of the civil rights gains of the 1960’s. These leaders argued for the existence of distinctive African and African American forms of expression. At the same time, there was a growing body of what has been termed black public-sphere intellectual writing. Black writers with academic backgrounds, including Cornel West, Charles Johnson, bell hooks, Houston Baker, Jr., and Henry Louis Gates, Jr., increasingly directed their debates on issues of race and identity toward a general, nonacademic audience. Though In My Father’s House, unlike the works of West and the other black intellectuals, makes little attempt to focus on the most controversial issues of black life in the United States, it does touch on the same ideas, and its cross-disciplinary approach makes it significant to a large, general audience interested in the importance of the idea of Africa in culture.

In My Father's House A Father’s Influence

(Student Guide to World Philosophy)

In My Father’s House opens with a brief autobiographical sketch in which Appiah presents his current work in terms not only of his own life but also that of his father, Joe Appiah. His father was a dedicated pan-Africanist and lawyer in Ghana who befriended Kwame Nkrumah, the first president of independent Ghana, when he was a young man and who broke with Nkrumah to form an opposition party. Appiah’s father never stopped working for African unity and cooperation but was completely untempted by racism. The title of Appiah’s work, In My Father’s House, part of a passage from the Bible (John 14:2) that concludes “In my father’s house are many mansions,” refers to the beliefs that Appiah’s father inculcated in him—that it is possible to believe in African unity without resorting to notions of race founded on anger or hatred and that there is no such thing as a monolithic African essence—core ideas that Appiah explores throughout the book.

In My Father's House The Concept of Race

(Student Guide to World Philosophy)

Appiah begins with an examination of the racial beliefs of Alexander Crummell and W. E. B. Du Bois, two black Americans born in the nineteenth century (the former a role model for the latter) who worked for diasporic unity among people of African ancestry and who each eventually migrated to Africa. Appiah finds in Crummell’s thought an intrinsic racism, which assumes that race determines identity and which also saw Africa as a negative space, one in need of the enlightenment and culture that Americans of African ancestry could bring to the continent. By contrast, he finds in the writings of Du Bois an extrinsic theory of race, one that replaces the intrinsically determinative feature of biology with the extrinsically determinative feature of sociohistory. Taking his cue from Georg Wilhelm Friedrich Hegel, who saw the history of the world as the history of great peoples, Du Bois asserts that each race has a message for humanity and that the message of blacks was only beginning to be heard. Du Bois wants to move beyond the basic features of color and hair in his definition of African identity but ends up defining race only in terms of the suffering and insult those of African ancestry have endured at the hands of Europeans and Euro-Americans. Du Bois employs the negative terms of the Euro-American tradition to define being black first and foremost as not being white. Appiah argues that only under these terms could anyone see unity among the diverse populations of sub-Saharan Africa. Although Du Bois’s theorizing is more complex than Crummell’s, Appiah asserts that it is ultimately as unproductive in that it rests upon an identification of a black “race” that was actually invented to justify racism and that has no basis in human biology, sociology, or anthropology.

In My Father's House The “Essence” of Africa

(Student Guide to World Philosophy)

After attacking the notion of race, Appiah investigates the uses to which the concept has been put in the construction of national literatures. The very notion of studying “English” or “American” literature is based, he points out, less on the raw merit of the literature to be studied than on a belief that in studying the poetry of a people, one is in fact studying the “essence” of a people. At every stage of development, race partisanship has been a crucial, determining factor in deciding what gets studied, and only in the last few decades of the twentieth century was this type of partisanship cast in the role of something that had to be overcome by the inclusion of works of African or African American literature on a reading list for students. Appiah would like to see an end to chauvinistic claims of autonomy that are fostered by the assertion of a self-contained body of literature. Although cultural differences are indeed real, virtually all of the cultural background that an audience needs can usually be found through a sensitive reading of individual texts.

Appiah generally supports Nigerian novelist Chinua Achebe’s position that African assimilation of Western art forms is a historical fact that African art will inevitably express, but he speaks against—though not directly opposes—writer Wole Soyinka’s essentialist notion of an African essence expressed in art. Appiah’s most in-depth example of the dangers of asserting an...

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In My Father's House Postcolonialism vs. Postmodernism

(Student Guide to World Philosophy)

One of the most useful essays in the book sets forth a careful distinction between the varieties of postcolonialism and postmodernism. Because postmodernism (which rebelled against the high seriousness and secular certainties of the modernist period) appeared in the Western world about the same time that postcolonialism (which rebelled against the dictates of colonialism) appeared in the non-Western world, these concurrent movements have often been conflated as different expressions of the same spirit. Taking as his starting point a postcolonial Yoruba sculpture entitled Man with a Bicycle (a photograph of which adorns the cover of the 1992 Oxford edition of In My Father’s House), Appiah traces the work’s postcolonial aesthetics not to the culture of postmodernism but to the culture of modernism, the culture that informs much postcolonial African art and literature. The situation is by no means simple, however. If postmodernism is the term used to denote the period after the end of overarching metanarratives, as philosopher Jean-François Lyotard asserts, then postcolonialism, which by its nature must resist the metanarratives of the European empire, would seem to be the natural home for postmodernity. In fact, though, much postcolonial art seeks to posit not an end to all narratives but instead a counternarrative to the European narrative of empire. Postcolonialism seeks a universal ground of truth that can establish at least that the wrongs suffered by African peoples are in fact wrong. The Western narrative of modernity is incorporated into African forms and turned against the Western narrative of colonialism, which is rejected. Returning to the Yoruba statue, this reasoning allows a bicycle to become an African machine not because of who made it, but because it is a machine that will get the rider to town faster than his feet.

In My Father's House African Unity and Identity

(Student Guide to World Philosophy)

Though the last essay, an epilogue titled “In My Father’s House,” adds little to the philosophical content of the entire book, it adds much to the book’s overall value. The author’s father, Joe Appiah, died while the book was being written, and this epilogue traces the power struggle that erupted in his family over how and when the funeral should be held. Partly this chapter is important in that it brings the reader deeper into Appiah’s world, filling in the picture suggested by his autobiographical comments throughout the book, and partly because it gives the reader the fullest glimpse into how the traditional ways of the Asante people coexist with and adapt to the flux that was Ghana in the late twentieth century. In Ghana, Joe Appiah had been a lawyer, a diplomat, and an important politician, who often found himself in opposition to the father of Ghana’s independence, President Kwame Nkrumah. In the kingdom of Asante, part of modern Ghana, Appiah had been a nobleman and nephew to the king. Accordingly, the struggle over the details of his funeral turned into a struggle over lineage and, implicitly, rank in the royal family. Although this story does not add to concepts already listed, it does serve as a vivid representation of what Appiah means when he calls for a recognition of the variety of local African identities that are themselves always in flux.

What if anything, then, do Africans have in common that makes them African, and what...

(The entire section is 489 words.)

In My Father's House Effect on Literature and Scholarship

(Student Guide to World Philosophy)

Although In My Father’s House is a philosophically informed, cross-disciplinary work, it probably has had the greatest impact in the study of literature, particularly in African and African American literary criticism, and in that field, the chapter on Du Bois has had the greatest impact. Though In My Father’s House is critical of Du Bois’s race theory, it is also respectful of the man, his aims, and his accomplishments. Furthermore, there can be no denying that the recurring use of autobiography as a unifying motif in In My Father’s House has had a great deal to do with the book’s impact on a general audience, or that Du Bois’s landmark work, The Souls of Black Folk (1903), serves as...

(The entire section is 238 words.)

In My Father's House Additional Reading

(Literary Masterpieces, Critical Compilation)

Appiah, K. Anthony. “Reconstructing Racial Identities.” Research in African Literatures 27, no. 3 (Fall, 1996): 68-72. This article is Kwame Anthony Appiah’s reply to an earlier edition of the journal that featured four essays on his work. In his reply, Appiah cites his lack of a clearly articulated alternative to a racially conceived notion of African ancestry as the major shortcoming of In My Father’s House.

Bell, Bernard W., Emily Gosholz, and James B. Stewart, eds. W. E. B. Du Bois: On Race and Culture. New York: Routledge, 1995. This collection of essays on the importance of W. E. B. Du Bois as a cultural figure begins with a spirited exchange of views by authors Lucius Outlaw and...

(The entire section is 677 words.)

In My Father's House Bibliography

(Student Guide to World Philosophy)

Additional Reading

Appiah, K. Anthony. “Reconstructing Racial Identities.” Research in African Literatures 27, no. 3 (Fall, 1996): 68-72. This article is Kwame Anthony Appiah’s reply to an earlier edition of the journal that featured four essays on his work. In his reply, Appiah cites his lack of a clearly articulated alternative to a racially conceived notion of African ancestry as the major shortcoming of In My Father’s House.

Bell, Bernard W., Emily Gosholz, and James B. Stewart, eds. W. E. B. Du Bois: On Race and Culture. New York: Routledge, 1995. This collection of essays on the...

(The entire section is 679 words.)