Unsung Heroes: Dr. Cheikh Anta Diop
A Black History Month Series
Welcome back to our blog series “Unsung Heroes,” lifting up Black leaders around the world for Black History Month—continued from February 2021! Because of my extensive travel experience and the ways those travels influenced my life, worldview, and career, I find it important to not only lift up Black American voices during this month, but Black voices from around the world. This is consistent with my perspective that we are celebrating Black History Month and not just African American history month. Stick with us this month to learn about some relatively unknown, uncelebrated Black heroes.
Who Was Dr. Cheikh Anta Diop?
Dr. Cheikh Anta Diop (1923–1986) was a Senegalese physicist, anthropologist, philosopher and historian who advocated for pan-Africanism and a higher — more accurate — view of African civilizations throughout his personal and professional life. His scientific research on African history has had a ripple effect on the African diaspora over the decades and remains relevant today — and his work has had an incredible influence on my life and work. Let’s dive deeper into Diop’s life and career to learn how he can provide inspiration and information for our work today.
Diop earned degrees in philosophy and diplomas in chemistry from the University of Paris in the 1950s and 1960s. He taught sciences in Parisian schools and organized and attended meetings like the first Pan-African Student Congress and the First World Congress of Black Writers and Artists during his time there. Returning to Senegal, which had recently achieved liberation from the French colonial government, he taught and researched at Dakar University.
Diop was a political activist for African unity and anti-colonialism, founding multiple opposition parties to challenge the French-sympathizing Senegalese president of the time. This led him to be arrested and serve a life-threatening sentence in prison.
Later, Diop garnered more recognition for his studies, becoming a research fellow and receiving multiple awards for his writing and research. After a career full of groundbreaking work, Diop died of a heart attack in 1985 at age 62.
Diop’s Thought Leadership
Diop’s research and publications focused on pan-Africanism and the edification of the African diaspora. He argued that only a united and federated African state could overcome underdevelopment; he also proposed that a single African language be used across the continent for official, educational, and cultural purposes in order to create that sense of unity. From that foundation, Diop proposed strategies for developing Africa’s raw materials and industry. He also called for the building up of an African continental army, in order to defend the African people and their nations.
Some of Diop’s most interesting work focused on the societal development of European versus African cultures. Take a look at this table illustrating the main points of his “Two Cradle Theory”:
Alongside his Two Cradle Theory, Diop challenged Eurocentric views of history and culture and proposed Africentric views of history and cultural development. He claims Egypt as a Black, African civilization that produced thought and science on par with, and even as an influence on, the ideas originating in ancient Greece. These ideas were not just theoretical but had, and have, incredible value in bolstering the sense of cultural history and self-worth of people across the African diaspora. His recognition of the richness and depth of African cultures allowed him to rewrite a racist history that contributes to centuries of subjugation.
Dr. Cheikh Anta Diop claims Egypt as a Black, African civilization that produced thought and science on par with, and even as an influence on, the ideas originating in ancient Greece.
More than six decades ago, Immanuel Wallerstein (economic historian) summarized Diop’s contribution as follows: “Perhaps the most ambitious attempt to reconstruct African history has been the numerous writings of Cheikh Anta Diop.” In 1966, at the First World Festival of Negro Arts, Diop shared a special award with the late W.E.B. DuBois, granted to recognize the two writers’ outsized influence on “Negro thought” in the 20th century.
Challenges and Critiques
Over the years, Diop fought hard to have his work accepted. The University of Paris rejected his doctoral work multiple times and only granted Diop the degree after it was published elsewhere.
Diop’s work also faced some criticism of being controversial, revisionist, and unfocused. His multidisciplinary “polyrhythmic” approach brought together a variety of streams of thought across social studies, scientific research, and political activism to create what some called “chaos.” Over time, though, many of his ideas and proposals came to be celebrated by prolific thinkers.
Dr. Cheikh Anta Diop has had a great influence on my personal life. I first remember being exposed to his work by Ghanaians and Nigerians while I was living in Melbourne, Australia. When I returned to the US, I bought my first book of his: The African Origin of Civilization: Myth or Reality. But it was not until I lived in Ghana in 1996–97 that I studied him and learned of his teachings from repatriated African Americans who lived there. Through them, I experienced the positive impact of his work on African people in terms of their racial and ethnic identity and their sense of connection to antiquity — to their African forebears, the progenitors and preservers of humanity and civilization.
Returning to the US in 1997, I began to immerse myself in cultural elements of the African American communities rooted in Africentric identity. This is something I continue to do today! Diop inspires and informs Africentrism in academia and Black activism — and his work led me to design and teach the first-ever Pan-African studies course at the International Academy of Design and Technology in 2005.
And most personally, Diop’s work informed my liberatory transformation process from identifying myself as a Black American… to identifying myself today as an African American.