Learning from nature: Reflections on African history and culture on the farm

When I am at our family’s farm, I sometimes see things that I interpret as notable lessons. Today, I spent about 15 minutes removing weeds from among our carrots. It is interesting how that which is undesirable embeds itself alongside that which we intentionally cultivate. Hence our gains are often beset by inevitable struggles. Fortunately, the Yorùbá wisdom reminds us that struggle is a constant of life. The Odù Ifá states: “We are constantly struggling. All of us.”

Also today I saw a smaller bird that was pursuing and harassing a hawk. I don’t know what their conflict was about. Perhaps the hawk threatened its nest, I am unsure. It brought to mind a similar incident from a week ago where a smaller bird was pursuing and harassing a goose. In both instances, the smaller birds’ determination was commendable. It reminds me that a mightier adversary can still be confronted, cowed or even defeated. Those facing seemingly powerful foes should remember that their resolve and strategic approach may be sufficient to carry the day. Such is the basis of the Africans’ victory in Haiti. It was a lesson which was the terror of enslavers throughout the hemisphere.

Finally, yesterday I noticed that a spider had spun its web between two poles that I put out about a week ago. I was struck by the fact that the spider used whatever materials that were available to it to achieve its goal—survival. It reminded me that we often regard our cultural traditions as being static, frozen, but this cannot be true as these traditions have been adapted as our people have moved throughout time and space. Even today, many of us are situated in these traditions, but often do not recognize them as such due to our estrangement from our ancestral homeland and cultural traditions that we recognize as explicitly “African”, yet they nonetheless are—having retained many aspects of their African essence. Thus the spider taught me that we can adapt, as needed, to ensure our survival without the fundamental loss of our asili—our essence. However such an outcome is a matter of determination.

Ideational vectors

Ideas do not emerge out of the ether, but are indelibly shaped by the milieu of their conception. This is true of all constructs whether they purport to be ideologies, identities, theories, and so on. This is an urgent matter for people struggling for cultural reclamation and sovereignty.

My understanding of the social and political bases of knowledge, in addition to my commitment to decolonization of African consciousness, re-Africanization, and sovereignty informs my discernment regarding such matters.

Impermanence

This world presents to us an illusion of permanence. Such is also evident in various discourses, often fundamentalist, which ascribe (or express a desire for) a quality of unchanging within our terrestrial reality. I think that such notions are also buoyed by the sometimes painful dislocations of a phenomenal world that constantly reminds us (despite our resistance) of the incessant nature of change, as well as the insubstantial nature of all things, or what is sometimes called sunyatta in Buddhist philosophy.

I do not believe that denial of change’s constancy is an idle matter. I think that it has profound consequences, both personally and collectively.

Ideology

Many claim that ideology enables us to better see. This is only partially true. Ideology draws our attention to particular things or ideas in such a way that it also blinds. Thus one must resist the seduction of ideological myopia and its reduction of reality to absolutisms.

Dualistic thinking

The problems of dualistic thinking are manifold. It sustains the notion of a disjuncture between the self and other, when in fact these are often entangled.

Yes, I am not part of the air, but I breath the air. My use of an automobile subtly changes its molecular composition. The air supplies oxygen, a necessary element for my body’s functioning. Every exhalation contributes carbon dioxide to the air around me. The air and I are bound in a cycle of exchange which will continue until I cease to breathe.

I am not my children, or my wife, or my parents. Yet, I am clearly a part of all of them. For some this connection is biological (to my parents and children). For all, the context of shared experience reveals the myriad ways in which we are connected. Even for my father, from whom I was mostly estranged while growing up, his struggles with respect to exemplifying a compelling standard of manhood and to live ethically provide much of my determination to transcend his shortcomings. Thus even in his error, I have found inspiration and insight in his life. My journey is merely the continuation of his.

Indeed, there is no absolute disjuncture between these varied phenomenon. They are entangled.

Of late, much of my thinking about this has consisted of continued reflection on my practice of the arts, as they do not exist outside of me. At a certain point, they became a part of me. In fact, it was during a time when I attempted to take a much narrower perspective on the arts when I became more aware of the extent to which all of these experiences had shaped me, influenced how I perceived movement, and stimulated my thinking about the inextricable links between body and mind—a connection that combat training is supposed to augment. Further, I began to understand–perhaps unconsciously, that on the level of principle, I was not talking about Capoeira, or Choy Lay Fut, or Wing Chun, or this, or that–but circular arcs of movement, linear thrusts, lateral downward movement, sidestepping, flowing, intercepting, and on and on. I began to realize that the barriers between these arts were sustained not merely in the traditions that they embodied and their respective lineages, but that these had crystalized my mind. Thus my mind became the arbiter of an imagined disjuncture between these arts, it became the border guard policing the mental/physical territories that they were supposed to inhabit.

However, there are times when these mental crystals begin to crack, when the markings at the border have been obscured, when a greater awareness of  underlying principles blurred distinction, prompting a recognition of a sense of connection and unity. It is at these moments, when I have been most clear that when practicing these arts, I am not simply engaging in some discipline that exists external to me, but that they facilitate my embodiment of these underlying principles. Thus while the art exists as a particular type of kinesthetic tradition emerging out of its respective milieu, it is also a tradition that, when embodied, is expressed through me, one that becomes a part of me. And in so doing, removes the disjuncture between the practitioner and their practice. Ideally, the two become one.

The bombast of fear, the vacuity of doubt

One mustn’t choose to live in the shadow of fear and doubt. Fear can populate the mind with thoughts of legions of potential perils. Fear may provoke anxiousness and anxiety, but these feelings possess an energetic quality that if properly harnessed can also motivate one to act.

Doubt is the corrosive acid of self-assurity that if not faced and divested of its power can compel inaction when action is needed, capitulation when perseverance might carry the day.

When I was 9 years old I resolved to eradicate my fear of the dark. I went into the darkest room of my apartment and sat. I wanted the darkness to envelope me. I wanted for fear to show itself, to unleash the doom that it so often promised lay just outside my covers.

In the beginning I was terribly afraid. I feared the invisible hordes, who draped in darkness, might prey upon me. But this fear was counter-balanced by something else, my knowledge that the darkness was merely the absence of light, and my fear merely the triumph of irrationality and the absence of reason.

I conquered my fear of the dark, and also learned something more, fear and doubt are synergistically linked, one compelling us to retreat, the other assures us that no matter what we do, the possibility of triumph is illusory. In spite of this, fear can be bested. In fact when confronted we often find that fear’s ominous vestments merely hide a withered and frail form. Similarly, doubt can also be overcome. Much of its power over us is that it faces us in the mirror, it lurks in our memories of failure, it resides in the certainty that what we are striving after is–like so many things–simply beyond our capacity. Doubt has to be seen for what it is, mediocrity’s companion, the one sure path that will always divert us from evolving into the people that we might potentially become. It is a fetter, yes, but an impermanent one that if discarded enables us to rediscover who we are and what we can accomplish.

While my forays into the dark eventually bested that fear, others remained. Thus throughout my life I have found it continually necessary to seek out fear, challenge it to show itself and to deliver the oblivion that had promised, or to leave me be. I have also had to remind myself that it is not doubt that faces me in the mirror or lurks in my memories, but that doubt is a shadow that grows proportionally to the light within which one walks. Doubt is the inescapable echo of your voice projected into the world, faint and diminishing, but never fully absent.

Despite the bombast of fear and the vacuity of doubt, the future remains undetermined, providing us the chance to fashion our lives and the world into an image and form worthy of our highest potential.

Towards the reclamation and redemption of African philosophy

The New York Times featured an interesting article on philosophy in the academy entitled “When Philosophy Lost Its Way“. After reading it, it provoked some of my thinking about the nature of academic knowledge production and the significance of African philosophy.

This is a good discussion of the ruinous nature of so many forms of academic knowledge production. The academy has succeeded (along with the academic publishing industry) in commodifying knowledge in rather unnatural ways that divorces its productive cycles and areas of emphases from the existential quandaries that exist in the world.

I think that a number of questions are in order here. How does philosophy answer the crises that so typify so-called modern life? How does philosophy inform a mode of social criticism capable of forming a new conception of society? How does philosophy reinforce the more generalized and diffuse Eurocentric hegemony of Western education? Is philosophy (as we know it) more trouble than it’s worth? What might we pose as an alternative?

While I am disinclined to suggest a forward path for Western philosophy, I will argue that for people of African descent, the resuscitation of philosophical discourses and modalities of knowledge production are a vital part of social transformation. Whether we are examining the deep thought of the ancient Nile Valley pertaining to “good speech”, or the cosmological insights of the Dogon, or the Yoruba conception of struggle and its necessity, the love of wisdom as captured in the works of Ahmed Baba and his contemporaries at the Univ. of Sankore in the 16th Century, the social theories of Prince Hall or Martin R. Delany or Anna Julia Cooper, the cultural analysis of Du Bois from the 30s and 60s, Master Fard Muhammad’s and the Honorable Elijah Muhammad’s discourse on moral intractability, Malcolm X’s critique of America’s vaunted and dubious morality, Sista Souljah’s thesis about enslavement as the default condition of Africans in the American social order, and on and on. Philosophy has a great deal to offer us, but first we must do as Jacob H. Carruthers instructed and resolve ourselves to cultivate bodies of knowledge both divorced from the imperatives of the West and inextricably linked to our efforts to transform both the world and ourselves.

Rhythm and the synergistic flow of time

“What is called the spirit of an age is something to which one cannot return. That this spirit dissipates is due to the world’s coming to an end. Though one would like to change today’s world back to the spirit of five thousand years ago or more, it cannot be done. Therefore we must make the best out of every generation.”
-Wayne B. Chandler​, quoting an ancient proverb