The myopia of absolutist pragmatism

Commitment to an absolutist pragmatism can impoverish our imaginations and diminish our determination to strive for and create another world. Zumbi, Dandara, Dessalines, Sanité Bélair, Denmark Vesey, Marcus Garvey, and Amy Jacques Garvey rejected the myopia of absolute pragmatism in their striving to create a new reality for our people. Similarly, we too are capable of such audacious thought and action.

Peppers

I was harvesting peppers today. The peppers are green like the surrounding foliage. As a result it is very easy to overlook them when harvesting. Hence I have adopted the habit of scanning the row two more times to make sure that I haven’t missed anything.

This reminds me that in life, sometimes the very thing that we are looking for is near us, but we cannot see it, not necessarily because it disappears into its surroundings, but because these things are often obscured by the other concerns of our lives. These matters, some big, others trivial, often distract us, preventing us from focusing on what matters most. But when we are intentional and focused, diligent and patient, everything comes together.

The peppers are wise teachers.

Traversing “cultural worlds”

I just made my third visit to an Afro-Asian fusion class at the University of Wisconsin-Madison via Zoom. Today I participated on a panel of absolutely wonderful folks who were discussing a range of things including healing, movement, transformation, and so on. It was a very rich and empowering discussion.
 
For my part I discussed our family’s farm work, Vijay Prashad’s thesis of “polyculturalism”, the synergies of African and Asian philosophies and movement practices in my own life, and the implications of Afro-Asian knowledges in how we understand social transformation. To the latter point, I offered examples from the Tao Te Ching and the Odù Ifá which explicates the power of our personal striving for good character as a means to transform both society and the world.
 
One of the questions that was posed queried our relationship to the kind of Afro-Asian synergies which are a central topic in the course. I shared that in my youth there were two books that I read that had a transformative impact on my consciousness–The Art of War by Sun Tzu and The Autobiography of Malcolm X. The former gave me a framework to engage the world. The latter helped me to understand the state of our people and compelled me to think about my role in changing it. Such synergies continue to the present day, in ways that are conscious and unconscious.
 
Three final points. A day or so ago I wrote that “People will get lost in Asia on their way to Africa.” To be sure, I am troubled by the efforts of some to present many Asian knowledges as African. Resonance and affinity are not necessarily reliant upon heredity. This means that simply because we feel a connection to a particular cultural tradition does not mean that it necessarily derives from our own ancestral tradition. Furthermore, one can participate in the cultures of others without needing to lay claim to them and to justify such claims through fabricated tales of origins.
 
Secondly, while I am critical of the fact that many of us have a profound paucity of knowledge with regards to our history and culture as Africans, I also know that this is not due to our own actions. We live in a world where Africanness has been devalued and Africans dehumanized. I see such a finitude of knowledge and the racialization of African people as contributing to the aforementioned quandary. Clearly we enrich and empower ourselves when we more fully understand ourselves as Africans.
 
Thirdly, as Prashad has argued, we live in a polycultural milieu. Given this, we are increasingly impacted by seemingly disparate cultural traditions that reflect rich commonalities across “cultural worlds”, practices which may also appear to be our own due to our proximity to them. Such forms of entangled cultural practice are also at play in terms of what I have been observing and critiquing.

Why I am not a “person or color”

I used to think that the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People’s name was anachronistic, but now since so many willingly refer to Black people as “colored people” or “people of color” clearly it is reflective of current sensibilities. I do find this quite interesting.

To be sure, I do not use these terms to refer to us (Africans/Black people). Identifiers are, as is all else, political. They can anchor one in a consciousness that is dynamic and compelling with respect to a grander vision of social possibility or they can moor one to visionlessness. I see no grand conception of our peoplehood in terms like “people of color” or “colored people”. They seem both generic and impotent to my thinking.

My rejection of this term is based on the following criticisms:

  1. Many so-called people of color are defined as such within the borders of the US, but may be a part of dominant racial, ethnic, or caste groupings in their home countries. Therein, given the global prevalence of anti-Blackness these groups may be actors in the on-going subjugation of Black people in their homelands. Does one, by simply crossing the US border become filled with an overwhelming sense of solidarity with Black people and their on-going struggle for freedom while regarding the Blacks of one’s homeland with loathing and derision?
  2. The term, by virtue of its generic nature, posits a shared reality among so-called POC, but we know that many groups position themselves in various ways in relation to the hegemony of Whites in US society. Some may identity themselves as White due to the material advantages afforded Whites. Others may attempt to assimilate themselves into Whiteness via the acts of marriage and procreation. Still others may participate in or sanction the subordination and exploitation of other racialized and oppressed groups, such as Africans/Blacks for their own advantage as in the case of many non-Black merchants who operate commercial businesses in Black communities.
  3. The term is used increasingly in contexts where clearly Black/African people are the subject of discussion. It is as if by generalizing the discourse to an amorphous body of racialized and oppressed people (i.e., “POC”), that one’s language may prove more satisfactory or less disconcerting. It does beg the question as to who such sterile language is intended to assuage in the first place. One must also ask whose experience is being erased in the process of such speech acts.
  4. I am reminded that during the Black Power era there was no revolutionary politics that argued vociferously on the basis of such an ambiguous identity. Formations and theories of liberatory struggle drew substantively upon notions of Blackness or Africanness. There was a reason for this, and this is at the heart of my thinking.

For me, much of the problem with terms such as POC is based on the fact that they do not arrive at what one actually is—an African whose ancestors were kidnapped, tortured, and assaulted in an attempt to both forge America and to neutralize one’s determination to resist domination. This question of resistance is ultimately, I believe, at the heart of why an African identity is so powerful in contrast to a more generic one. We find that much of the resistance to enslavement was driven by a very clear consciousness among the enslaved of who they were. This is especially so among the maroons whose very actions rejected the logic of White domination, the structural arrangements of that domination, and posed another paradigm reflective of core elements of an African worldview. This means that the maroons did not only resist enslavement, they sought to establish an African way of life on alien soil and to make their reclaimed sovereignty the basis of their resistance to those forces opposed to African freedom. Herein we find the conjoined components of sovereignty and culture as key bases of African life reasserted in a contested milieu. Hence the maroon struggle was indelibly an act of African resistance.

Some will insist that the conception of Africanness is not by default one of resistance, however given the significance of African culture and the imperative of sovereignty as a necessary condition for the full expression of one’s culture, Africanness becomes, in the milieu of European terror, a site of resistance out of necessity. In fact, Dr. Marimba Ani has declared that “To be Afrikan is the revolutionary act of our times.” The key element of this statement is the use of the verb be. As to be Afrikan—in Dr. Ani’s conception and in the conception of those many ancestors who struggled, fought, and died for African freedom and self-determination—is to be engaged in the work of the restoration of African sovereignty and the reclamation of African culture. To be African is to understand both of these processes as necessarily requiring the elimination of all forces opposed to that sovereignty and the cessation of cultural mis-orientation as an inescapable barrier to the full expression of the African ethos. Thus, to be African on this basis is to embrace the politics of revolutionary struggle and to recognize the distinctiveness and specificity of Black struggle. It is not to be some amorphous “person of color” or a “colored person”. It is not a politics based on an erasure of one’s distinctiveness as an African.

I am an African. I am not a “person of color”.

Averting extinction and being true to tradition

Every African combat art is a critical reflection of the dynamic mosaic that comprises our history and culture. Sadly, many of our combat arts have passed into oblivion and others teeter on the brink of doing so. However, in Trinidad and Martinique determined efforts were made to institutionalize and propagate Kalinda and Danmyé respectively. There is much that can be learned from this.

One of the things that is critically important in the work that I and others are doing is that we sustain these fighting traditions. This means taking the time to learn these arts and to teach them to others. This is the only means whereby they can survive. For my part I practice about a half a dozen African arts. Some of these arts I am actively learning, some I teach publicly, others I teach privately. Each one is a piece in larger puzzle that is the African warrior tradition. Each one connects me to a lineage of practitioners through which these knowledges have been transmitted. For some I can name this lineage going back six generations. In every instance, I see myself as an inheritor of this knowledge and recognize the obligation that such an inheritance represents–that is the perpetuation of the lineage going forward.

I recognize that every African martial artist will not commit themselves to this work, many having situated themselves in the domain of Asian combat traditions. Others will embrace the African arts, but not necessarily the propagation of a lineage. To each his own. However, for those of us concerned about the survival of African culture, a different set of commitments is required. Herein, fidelity in the transmission of these arts does necessitate commitments to the legacy of the traditions that we have inherited.

Reclaiming Culture, Restoring Sovereignty: From Theory to Action

I often say that the reclamation of our culture and the restoration of our sovereignty should be our two primary goals as a people wherever we are on this planet. As it pertains to cultural reclamation, Kawaida Theory poses the following as the seven domains of culture:

  1. Spirituality
  2. History
  3. Social organization
  4. Economic organization
  5. Political organization
  6. Creative production
  7. Ethos

Below I elaborate on the implications and significance of each.

Spirituality: Our dependence on foreign religions and spiritual practices is a basis of alienation that not only estranges us from our ancestors and the African way, but also makes us the subordinates of those people for whom such a religion or spiritual system is their cultural inheritance. Hence, we can never truly center ourselves within another people’s tradition. The stories, the ethics, the protocols, and rituals are the product of their worldview and history, not ours. We are either consigned to the periphery of these traditions or burdened with the imagined need to constantly demarcate a “Black” modality within it. One of the critical points here is that religion and spirituality, for all of its talk of the otherworldly, is inescapably political and as such is a critical ground of struggle.

History: We cannot know ourselves absent the reclamation of our history, our living memory of our journey through time and space. In fact, no people can be fully conscious of itself, its character, or its culture bereft of such knowledge. Nor we can draw upon history’s lessons in our efforts to solve the various problems that loom before us.

Social organization: The way that we create, organize, and manage our families, organizations, and institutions must be based on an African worldview, while also reinforcing our political aim of total sovereignty.

Economic organization: Far too many Africans have taken refuge in the polarities of capitalism or socialism without realizing that both of these frameworks consign us to alienation and subordination within someone else’s paradigm and social structure. The key challenge is for us to discover African models of economic organization and to employ those in our work to restore ourselves.

Political organization: Despite the vaunted claims of liberal democracy, African models of governance have, for millennia proved sufficient to effectively govern vast societies and ensure the welfare of the people. Europeans have erased our historical memory or our achievements prior to the Maafa and have thus convinced us than only within the context of liberal democracy can human flourishing occur. Yet we must ask where liberal democracy has delivered a higher standard of living for our people anywhere on this planet.

Creative production: The creative capacity of African people has been tethered to the system of European domination. As such, we create, but those capacities are harnessed in order to enrich Europeans and to further our cultural mis-orientation (consider the popular music of Africans in the US). Instead, we must use our genius to create for ourselves, not only art, but also in the arena of problem-solving.

Ethos: The collective conscious of our people, our asili (essence), is the foundation upon which we recognize ourselves as an African people. It is also the framework that informs the best of who we are in both our day-to-day practice amongst our people and our struggle against our enemies.

Within this framework, one seeks to revitalize our culture in each area, with the understanding that all of these, in total, represent a comprehensive way of living/being for a people.

Regarding the restoration of sovereignty, the Council of Independent Black Institutions has offered a framework that posits that independence rests upon our self-sufficiency in six basic areas. These areas are as follows:

  1. Education
  2. Food
  3. Clothing
  4. Shelter
  5. Health care
  6. Defense

Hence, if we are not educating, feeding, clothing, housing, healing, and defending African people either then we are not an independent people. Our failure to provide these things for ourselves is both a basis of dependency and an instrument of control.

The beauty of this model is that it is scalable, that is that it can implemented on the level of a grassroots organization consisting of a few individuals, or it can be implemented on the global level. For my part, we have worked consistently to build institutions focused on education, food, and defense. We have also supported independent institutions active in all six of these domains. Specifically, our work has consisted of supporting homeschool collectives (Indigo Nation Homeschool Association), rites-of-passage programs (Akoben Rites-of-Passage Society), political education (The Communiversity), cultural and historical education (The Kemetic Institute of Chicago), outdoors skills education (Aya Leadership Development Institute and the Black Survival Network), gardening, urban farming, and food preservation (Your Bountiful Harvest Family Farm), and defense (Black Survival Network and Chicago Malandros de Mestre Touro). We have both practiced and provided instruction in these domains, as talk is insufficient, one must be a living example of the kind of practice that one advocates.

Tough talk, insufficient action, impoverished vision

People often speak of the need to “tear down”, “disrupt”, or “reform” the existing system. I find such discourse fascinating, if not unimaginative. The 3rd position’s popularity is proportionate to its futility. Africans in this country have labored tirelessly to reform the US. We have been the river that flows into the desert that Armah wrote of so long ago. The 2nd option seems to be anomalous in meaning. Disrupt for how long? To what end? I have always seen this as a more “militant” sounding reformist declaration. Vociferous rhetoric is, ultimately, futile in a world where power is based on structural capacity. The 1st is ill-defined. Tear down to replace with what?

Such ambiguous language is not sufficient to inform a critical understanding of the world or to provide a conceptual model that would serve as a basis for its reorganization. This is why it is important to study the works of great thinkers, organizers, and leaders–who thought deeply about such things, built institutions, and left us a path to follow. People such as Marcus Garvey, Malcolm X, Fannie Lou Hamer, Thomas Sankara, and others come to mind. As Amos Wilson would note in his book Afrikan-Centered Consciousness Versus the New World Order of Marcus Garvey, the true nationalist studies the needs of the people and works to bring into being an institutional framework based on such needs. Their work is driven by a “grand vision” of the future, one wherein African sovereignty is an existential reality and the African worldview is the basis of our consciousness.

We will discover that such clarity and determination does not need vacuous appeals for reform, vociferous rhetoric, or bold but visionless declarations. It only requires, as has been stated, constant and determined effort.