To suggest that there is such a thing as an African personality may be misleading. Africa is the second largest continent, with just over 1 billion people spread out among over fifty different countries. It has been the target of extensive colonization over the centuries, and the struggle for liberation from European countries has surely left an indelible mark on the nature of the people there. In addition, the Sahara Desert creates a significant natural division of the people in the north from those in the south. The people of North Africa are primarily Arab-Berber Muslims, with ready access to southern Europe across the Mediterranean Sea. This region can rightly be viewed as an extension of Western Asia, in terms of culture, spirituality, and race/ethnicity (Chatterji, 1960; Senghor, 1971). In contrast, the Black Africans live south of the Sahara Desert, and they are the people usually referred to when we think about Africans. Indeed, for the remainder of this section I will use the term African to refer to Blacks living in Sub-Saharan Africa. Though many people in Africa identity themselves in terms of their unique ethnicity, history, and geography, this book would be incomplete if no effort was made to address the people of this continent. Keep in mind, however, that there is a great deal more work to do regarding our understanding of indigenous people around the entire world.
In 1999, James Lassiter wrote a very helpful article covering many of the historical problems that have affected the study of personality in Africa. Unfortunately, many studies sought to identify the nature of personality among Africans in terms of Western ideals, values, and socioeconomic and technological advancement. This biased view created a very negative attitude toward the people of Africa, a negative attitude that the people of Africa often adopted themselves. Thus, the study of personality fell into disrepute, and largely came to a halt. However, a number of professionals from other disciplines, such as sociology and anthropology, continued to examine whether or not there were characteristics common to the people of Africa, a unique and valuable personality distinct from other regions of the world. Though some controversy remains, and the definitions of what personality is from an African perspective are quite different than those we might recognize in traditional Western psychology, this work has led to some interesting insights. Fundamentally, these perspectives are summarized by the following simple proverb:
Umuntu ngumuntu ngabantu (a person is a person through other persons)
- Xhosa proverb (cited in Lassiter, 1999 and Tutu, 1999)