Cheikh Anta Diop (1923-1986) was an African historian who, in a series of studies, dramatically and controversially maintained that the scope of Africa's contribution to world civilization was considerably larger than heretofore acknowledged.
Cheikh Anta Diop was born at the end of 1923 in Diourbel, Senegal, a city reknowned for spawning great Islamic philosophers and historians. He received his higher education at the University of Paris (France), where he earned a doctorate of letters and was active in African student politics. Upon returning to Senegal, he joined what is today the Institut Fondamentale d'Afrique Noire, where he founded and ran the only carbon-14-dating laboratory in Africa. Diop experienced the great explosion of independence which began in early 1958 in Ghana. The hope that this movement created soon turned sour, as former European colonial powers, unseen, remained in control. Diop led and founded two political parties in Senegal: the Bloc des Masses Senegalaises in 1961 and a few years later the Front Nationale Senegalaise, both of which were outlawed by the government on the grounds that they threatened destruction of the existing order.
Diop, however, left his mark in the realm of the reassessment of the role of black people in world history and culture. Combining an unusual breadth of knowledge— including linguistics, history, anthropology, chemistry, and physics—he uncovered fresh evidence about the ancient origins and common principles of classical African civilization. He believed that people who feel they possess no past of their own tend to be absorbed and assimilated into the governing system, and are made to feel inferior because of this apparent deficiency. In fact, Diop argued, African culture and history was older than any other, and influenced the course of other cultures more than usually given credit.
Diop's argumentative thesis stressed the great contributions of Egypt, in particular, to the origins of culture and science, and asserted that Egyptian civilization was of black origin, a theory that has since been corroborated with anthropological evidence. Diop also challenged the prevailing view that the flow of cultural influence was from the north, the European or "Hamitic" areas, southward to the more primitive areas. He instead believed that the beginnings of civilization arose below the Sahara.
The center of a storm of controversy, Diop nevertheless opened up new paths of exploration, gave a new generation redemptive faith in its roots, and presented, if nothing else, a poetic image of greatness. In its daring, this dream of a lofty cradle of civilization may come closer to truth than the prosaic rebuttal of its critics, and as discoveries continue to be made, it proves itself more real than any dream.
Among Diop's books is Anteriorité des civilisations nègres: Mythe ou vérité historique (1967; Roots of Black Civilizations: Myth or Historical Truth). In 1966 at Dakar the World Festival of Negro Arts honored Diop as "the black intellectual who has exercised the most fruitful influence in the twentieth century." In 1981, Diop's Civilisation Ou Barbarie ("Civilization or Barbarism") appeared. Some consider it his greatest work. Diop intended it as the intellectual summation of his previous research. Shortly before his death, he spoke of devoting the rest of his life to a master plan that would preserve Africa for Africans. He passed away on February 7, 1986.
Further Reading on Cheikh Anta Diop
The best way to understand Diop's life is through his writings. These include Precolonial Black Africa (trans. 1987); The African Origins of Civilization: Myth or Reality (1974); The Cultural Unity of Black Africa (trans. 1990); and his opus, Civilization or Barbarism (trans. 1991). Summaries of Diop's work can be found in Claude Wauthier, The Literature and Thought of Modern Africa (1964; trans. 1966). An important selection from Diop's Nations, nègres, et cultures, in which he accounts for the myths of Negro inferiority, can be found in Irving Leonard Markovitz, ed., African Politics and Society (1970).