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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...

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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.

A Father’s Influence

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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.

The Concept of Race

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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.

The “Essence” of Africa

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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 autonomous “we” in a body of literature comes in the form of his exploration of the works of Soyinka, especially his commentaries on literature in Myth, Literature, and the African World (1976). Appiah finds Soyinka guilty of making the same mistake as Du Bois does in that Soyinka extrapolates an assumed racial essence from the content of his cultural background. African literature draws upon a belief in African religious beliefs and a belief in the power of the community. Using Soyinka’s own writing, Appiah points out that it draws most heavily on Yoruba beliefs from a region in what is now Nigeria and that it is impossible to extrapolate from that any African “essence.” Although Appiah insists that “African literature” is a meaningful concept and that African cultures do share significant aspects, to generalize too broadly is to repeat the mistake of Du Bois in defining Africa in terms of its history of suffering at the hands of Europe. African identities—but not an African essence—can be expressed in literature.

Postcolonialism vs. Postmodernism

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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.

African Unity and Identity

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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 can serve as the basis of any future pan-Africanism? What little Appiah has to offer about the first question sounds remarkably like Du Bois. African cultures do share a history of forced incorporation of Western languages, literatures, and culture. The difference between his view and Du Bois’s is that Appiah cautions against trying to make this the basis for a mystical essence. About the second question, pan-Africanism, Appiah is almost as vague, but he makes it clear that he would like to see the emergence of a sense of fraternity between African nations, one that would be quick to recognize common interests without wallpapering over the very real differences that exist between Africans.

Appiah’s work is still emerging, but the most significant consequence of his work in In My Father’s House is likely to be his deconstruction of any identity formation based on an us-against-them ideology. Though he acknowledges that Europe and Africa have often defined themselves against one another, such a definition is ultimately too paltry to do justice to the rich variety of African and European identities. Further, to define oneself antagonistically against the other is to continue the game of domination and resistance. It would be a mistake to say that his arguments have convinced those committed to an Afrocentric or black nationalist perspective, but even the negative responses he has received indicate that he has certainly hit a nerve.

Effect on Literature and Scholarship

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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 model that makes possible this mixture of philosophy, literary criticism, sociology, history, and autobiography. Whatever criticisms Appiah has of Du Bois, the book itself honors a debt to the man by keeping alive a personal but scholarly form of the essay collection that Du Bois raised to an art form.

Most important, In My Father’s House established Appiah as a spokesperson for African scholarship in North America, and his seeming ease with the intellectual background of Africa, Europe, and North America has made him an articulate spokesperson. The widespread attention In My Father’s House received has helped call attention to the true diversity of philosophical and cultural traditions associated with Africa.

Additional Reading

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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 Robert Gooding-Williams on the validity of Appiah’s attack on Du Bois’s theory of race. Outlaw disagrees with Appiah’s criticisms, while Gooding-Williams tries to show that Du Bois himself was already anticipating and replying to the concerns Appiah raises.

Choice. XXX, December, 1992, p. 629. A review of In My Father’s House.

The Christian Science Monitor. September 18, 1992, p. 13. A review of In My Father’s House.

The Chronicle of Higher Education. XXXVIII, May 6, 1992, p. A7. A review of In My Father’s House.

Gates, Henry Louis, Jr., ed. “Race” Writing and Difference. Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1986. This compilation of articles that originally appeared in the journal Critical Inquiry in 1985 and 1986 deals with issues related to the definition of race and the difference it makes in arts and culture. Besides printing the original version of an essay on Du Bois, “The Uncompleted Argument: Du Bois and the Illusion of Race,” that served as the basis for Appiah’s essay on Du Bois in In My Father’s House, this collection is notable for the reply by Houston A. Baker Jr., “Caliban’s Triple Play,” in which he notes the shortcomings of Appiah’s biological dismissal of the category of race, comments that, though short, have proven to be the core of most objections to Appiah’s work.

Houessou-Adin, Thomas. “The Big Con: Europe Upside Down.” Journal of Black Studies 26, no. 2 (November, 1995): 185-200. Houessou-Adin, a student of Molefi K. Asante, one of the founders of Afrocentrism, replies to Appiah’s attack on the movement. Though the reply is needlessly personal, a failing that considerably lessens its overall merit, it does point out some Appiah’s mistakes in his account of Afrocentrism and is of note as an example of an Afrocentrist reply to Appiah’s criticism of the philosophical underpinnings of that movement.

Imbo, Samuel Oluoch. An Introduction to African Philosophy. Totowa, N.J.: Rowman and Littlefield, 1998. This well organized book concentrates on the ethnophilosophy question of the nature and function of African philosophy. Imbo also pits Leopold Senghor’s negritude philosophy against Appiah’s universalism.

New Statesman and Society. V, March 13, 1992, p. 45. A review of In My Father’s House.

The New York Times Book Review. XCVII, June 21, 1992, p. 8. A review of In My Father’s House.

Nicol, Davidson. “Race Ethnohistory and Other Matters: A Discussion of Kwame Anthony Appiah, In My Father’s House: Africa in the Philosophy of Culture.” African Studies Review 36, no. 3 (December, 1993): 109-116. An excellent and mostly approving review of the importance of Appiah’s work by a scholar familiar with much of the same material and who therefore brings an informed perspective to his discussion.

The Observer. March 8, 1992, p. 62. A review of In My Father’s House.

The Village Voice. September 22, 1992, p. 68. A review of In My Father’s House.

Research in African Literatures 27, no. 1 (Spring, 1996). The entire issue is devoted to an investigation of In My Father’s House. These essays are mostly by four scholars of African philosophy and culture. Though the scholars find much to correct and question in Appiah’s work, they find more to laud, and much of their work is in applying the philosophical concerns Appiah develops to other works and to considering further ramifications of his work for Africans and African Americans.

The Washington Post Book World. XXII, June 14, 1992, p. 3. A review of In My Father’s House.

Bibliography

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Last Updated on May 6, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 679

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 importance of W. E. B. Du Bois as a cultural figure begins with a spirited exchange of views by authors Lucius Outlaw and Robert Gooding-Williams on the validity of Appiah’s attack on Du Bois’s theory of race. Outlaw disagrees with Appiah’s criticisms, while Gooding-Williams tries to show that Du Bois himself was already anticipating and replying to the concerns Appiah raises.

Choice. XXX, December, 1992, p. 629. A review of In My Father’s House.

The Christian Science Monitor. September 18, 1992, p. 13. A review of In My Father’s House.

The Chronicle of Higher Education. XXXVIII, May 6, 1992, p. A7. A review of In My Father’s House.

Gates, Henry Louis, Jr., ed. “Race” Writing and Difference. Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1986. This compilation of articles that originally appeared in the journal Critical Inquiry in 1985 and 1986 deals with issues related to the definition of race and the difference it makes in arts and culture. Besides printing the original version of an essay on Du Bois, “The Uncompleted Argument: Du Bois and the Illusion of Race,” that served as the basis for Appiah’s essay on Du Bois in In My Father’s House, this collection is notable for the reply by Houston A. Baker Jr., “Caliban’s Triple Play,” in which he notes the shortcomings of Appiah’s biological dismissal of the category of race, comments that, though short, have proven to be the core of most objections to Appiah’s work.

Houessou-Adin, Thomas. “The Big Con: Europe Upside Down.” Journal of Black Studies 26, no. 2 (November, 1995): 185-200. Houessou-Adin, a student of Molefi K. Asante, one of the founders of Afrocentrism, replies to Appiah’s attack on the movement. Though the reply is needlessly personal, a failing that considerably lessens its overall merit, it does point out some Appiah’s mistakes in his account of Afrocentrism and is of note as an example of an Afrocentrist reply to Appiah’s criticism of the philosophical underpinnings of that movement.

Imbo, Samuel Oluoch. An Introduction to African Philosophy. Totowa, N.J.: Rowman and Littlefield, 1998. This well organized book concentrates on the ethnophilosophy question of the nature and function of African philosophy. Imbo also pits Leopold Senghor’s negritude philosophy against Appiah’s universalism.

New Statesman and Society. V, March 13, 1992, p. 45. A review of In My Father’s House.

The New York Times Book Review. XCVII, June 21, 1992, p. 8. A review of In My Father’s House.

Nicol, Davidson. “Race Ethnohistory and Other Matters: A Discussion of Kwame Anthony Appiah, In My Father’s House: Africa in the Philosophy of Culture.” African Studies Review 36, no. 3 (December, 1993): 109-116. An excellent and mostly approving review of the importance of Appiah’s work by a scholar familiar with much of the same material and who therefore brings an informed perspective to his discussion.

The Observer. March 8, 1992, p. 62. A review of In My Father’s House.

The Village Voice. September 22, 1992, p. 68. A review of In My Father’s House.

Research in African Literatures 27, no. 1 (Spring, 1996). The entire issue is devoted to an investigation of In My Father’s House. These essays are mostly by four scholars of African philosophy and culture. Though the scholars find much to correct and question in Appiah’s work, they find more to laud, and much of their work is in applying the philosophical concerns Appiah develops to other works and to considering further ramifications of his work for Africans and African Americans.

The Washington Post Book World. XXII, June 14, 1992, p. 3. A review of In My Father’s House.

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