Two Cradle Theory

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The Two Cradle Theory was advanced by the Senegalese scholar Cheikh Anta Diop to account for African and European cultural characteristics. Diop's knowledge of indigenous culture played an essential role in shaping his analytical acumen and inspiring his untiring devotion to investigative scholarship. His academic training in Western sociology raised questions in Diop's mind about common assumptions regarding human advancement and defining social structures like the family, society, and state. These questions, coupled with Diop's inability to accept the inferiorization of African intellectual and institutional development, drove Diop to create new theories and concepts. For Diop, culture naturally became the source for defining human realities. His Two Cradle Theory traces the cultural characteristics of African and European concepts, behaviors, values, and beliefs to their origins. The theory thus provides a model that situates Africans in the context of their own cultural paradigm for human development rather than the Western paradigm.
Rectifying scholastic attempts to debase Africa and her people, in his 1959 book The Cultural Unity of Black Africa, Diop challenged European evolutionists who argued that the transition of the world from matriarchy to patriarchy marked the beginning of civilization. Instead, he theorizes two distinct cradles of civilization existing side by side, one matriarchal, one patriarchal. The southern cradle, Africa, where humanity began, produced matriarchal societies. Over time, the migration of peoples to the colder climates of the northern cradle, Europe, produced patriarchal societies. Diop attributes matriarchy to an agrarian lifestyle in a climate of abundance, and patriarchy to nomadic traditions arising from a harsh environment.
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Dr. John Henrik Clarke, one of the Elder Scholars, speaking on the Two Cradle Theory at City College, New York
The cultural distinctions Diop draws between these cradles is based on the arrangement of female-male power relations. A matriarchy is nonhierarchical and expresses the complementary rather than competitive aspect of the female-male relationship, as well as its manifestation in all forms of institutional, spiritual, and social life. The union of the female and male in the production of children represents the smallest unit of the family and therefore society. Within the matriarchal family, the females and males seek reciprocal and harmonious relationships. From this family matrix a “pacifistic morality” arose, underpinning societal notions of “justice” and “democracy.” Most distinctive in this family model is the critical significance of the mother around whom the family gravitates, for she carries inside her the greatest wealth—future generations.
In contrast, patriarchy involves the domination of male over female. The northern cradle family produces hierarchical personal relations as a result of this domination. Thus, as Nah Dove wrote in her 1998 essay “African Womanism,” hierarchical notions of inferiority and superiority rationalize woman's subservience to man. This unjust relationship is the core of conflict and aggression and is reflected in the greater society in beliefs about race and human inequality, characteristics of xenophobia. Diop considers the structure of the patriarchal family diametrically opposed to that of the matriarchal family.
Through comparative analysis and research, contemporary cultural distinctions and similitude among peoples can be traced historically. In this pursuit, Diop revealed the African origin of ancient Egypt. Thus, for those of African descent globally, Diop left a living legacy of continuous discovery about the achievements of Africa. In light of this, the Two Cradle Theory is and has been pivotal to the development of culturally centered scholarship in the Afrocentric movement.

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Further Reading

  • Diop, Cheikh Anta. (1987). Black Africa. Chicago: Lawrence Hill; Trenton, NJ: Africa World Press. This is indispensable reading on the origins and form of African civilization and culture.
  • Diop, Cheikh Anta. (1990). The Cultural Unity of Black Africa. Chicago: Third World Press. (Original work published 1959). This is Diop's fullest explanation of the cultural unity of black Africa. He lays the groundwork for an examination of the various dimensions of unity, from matrilineal families to the burial of the dead.
  • Diop, Cheikh Anta. (1991). Civilization or Barbarism. Chicago: Lawrence Hill. This is Diop's powerful anthropological and linguistic argument for the emergence of African civilization.
  • Diop, Cheikh Anta. (1996). Towards the African Renaissance: Essays in African Culture and Development, 1946–1960. London: Karnak House. In this book, Diop contends that Africa will have a rebirth only when African leaders and intellectuals put in place men and women who will work toward cultural development from Africa's own traditions.
  • Dove, Nah.African Womanism. Journal of Black Studies (5) 515–539 (1998) In this essay, Dove applies Diop's theory to the experiences of African women. dx.doi.org.