Modern Africans find themselves at the juncture of several worlds: As Basil Davidson might have noted, revolution, episodic nationalism, and postcolonial debacles have cast a pall of chaos onto an already historically chaotic field of peoples. The philosophies of Europe, the roots of tradition, African nationalism, Pan-Africanism, racial, tribal and ethnic solidarity, and a modernity which seeks to unleash individualism all come into conflict when Africans attempt to assess the problems they face, and detail solutions for these problems. Kwame Antony Appiah calls African thinkers to take up this important work, and he offers several assessments of these problems and possible solutions in his book. He believes that a better basis for solidarity in Africa is needed to replace decaying philosophies of negritude, and he discredits Pan Africanism's ability to fulfill this role. He addresses the question of what African philosophers should be preoccupied with, and whether, in their seeking to establish, unify, or recreate cultures, African philosophers can really draw upon philosophies and identities unique to Africa. The importance of an "African" identity has emerged since colonialism, and Appiah questions what such an identity should be founded upon, using Wole Soyinka and his own father Joseph Appiah as examples of intellectuals at work on the question.
After a reading of Appiah's book, I question whether an African solidarity can be usefully articulated. Can inclusive, constructive and accessible modern culture be derived in a continent-wide scale, with some collective experience as its sourcebook? Perhaps the question rides on whether tradition is truly expendable, although so far it has apparently not been expendable (although it has proven malleable). Appiah's arguments in favor of reexamining what it means to be African, while he has labored to disassociate them from the Pan-Africanist agenda, seem unsure on the issue of Pan Africanist hopes. Pan Africanism, whether informal or economic, seems more than mired in implied racialism - it seems to ignore the idea that there is a need for modern African nations to promote overture to the world, rather than aggrandized protectionism, which invariable carries with it repressive nationalist agendas. The reality is that Africa is dependent upon its ties to the rest of the world. I believe that Appiah would argue that any "Africanism" is not useful as a method of affirming culture, either, precisely because to be simply "an African" implies such a tremendous negation of one's own past.
I still want to know if Soyinka has also successfully divorced himself from a bogus Pan-Africanist and unianimist use of an "African" culture in his metaphors and references. Does he somehow successfully escape from the confines of this label with his individual-focused explorations (which are thus really Nigerian, or Yoruban?)
Also, how usefully can a philosophical agenda be furthered by an intellectual class focused on bipolarity? The implied bipolarity of African philosophers, working to justify themselves to the world while preserving the value of traditional discourse, seems in danger of trying too hard to mold tradition, and thus lose useful contact with traditional people.
Appiah questions "...the evaluative assumption that recovery of tradition is worthwhile," implying that it is not (95). This comment seems like an important and perhaps controversial one: is it really good for philosophers in Africa, if working to establish an agenda for future clarity and intelligibility for Africans, to be ready to dismiss recovering tradition in their countries and societies? The negative effects of tradition are many, but its benefits seem easily slighted.
Appiah's critique of the ethno philosophical response to modernity seems to leaves out the important fact that a new citizen of the world, as African citizen, is rapidly, and permanently, emerging - and that as people grow up separating themselves from tradition, tribalism and rural politics, they are reassessing their traditional background while trying to create an identity. Perhaps the ethno philosophy he criticizes is in fact an attempt at an honest reappraisal of tradition, for certainly all summaries of the condition of African traditions will end up preferentially consolidating these traditions.
The question is where in the African intellectual consciousness should fit the multi-lingual, multi-national views of tradition. I think to roundly press African intellectuals to serve the highest ideals of "their people" and guide them into a modernity that is not based on European models and yet also not based upon African tradition should be recognized as especially dangerous, as such a plan may well leave its chosen flock behind.
This book, for the density and complexity as well as honesty of its inquiry, should be seen as a sold introudction to what makes Africa so problematic on the level of identity and solidarity. The existence of an "african" identity can no longer be ignored. Appiah finds all the roots of this identity and gives them rigorous criticism in light of his own personal view of Africa as well as a solid reading of African philosophy, social science and history.