Mama Ife Carruthers’s libation reminded us of our connection to our ancestors and reiterated the charge of our association.
Dr. Conrad Worrill presented an insightful presentation on Jacob H. Carruthers and Anderson Thompson as the “twin engines” of the African-centered idea. He captured the intellectual synergy between these two African thinkers.
Afterwards, he was joined by myself and the young men of Akoben Rites-of-Passage Society as we engaged with one another on a panel titled “Beginning an Intergenerational Conversation”.
At one point, Dr. Harold Pates asked about the importance of “African” as a basis of identity. I, Akoben, and Dr. Worrill offered responses. I began by asking the brothers of Akoben to perform their opening ritual, wherein they recite their pledge. This is a pledge that they wrote about six years ago when we began the program. They end their pledge by saying, “We will struggle to recover our traditions and create a new world in an African worldview.” They were around the ages of 11 and 12 when they wrote this. I then addressed Dr. Pates’ question with the following: “When we reject an African identity we impoverish our imaginations by failing to plant our ideas, our work in the fertile soil of African history and tradition.” Dr. Worrill concluded by offering the rich insights of our ancestor Dr. John Henrik Clarke about identity confusion among African people. He remarked on how our confusion about who we are confounds our efforts to find our way to liberation.
We began with Baba Larry Crowe discussing the current focus on 1619. One insight that he shared was the remark by Henry Clay, that “The free negro is a menace.” It would seem that this notion still informs social conceptions of African people in US society.
Dr. Josef Ben Levi discussed the tradition of “Black scrappers”. I learned of a number of 19th Century Black intellectuals whom I knew little or nothing about. His presentation was a reminder that African American history is too a deep well.
Heru Aquil discussed the saga of Thornton and Lucy Blackburn, a couple that fled enslavement in Kentucky to Michigan and finally to Michigan. Later on they moved to Canada where Thornton became a very successful businessman. Later he returned to Kentucky for his mother.
Baba Abdul-Musawwir Aquil provided some critical insights about the role of the study group process to the redemption of African consciousness, particularly to achieve that task that Dr. Conrad Worrill noted in his presentation–the training of intellectual warriors.
Professor Yvonne Jones discussed the sbAyt (sebayet) of Dr. Anderson Thompson. She noted that Dr. Thompson made any setting any occasion a classroom, that he was a consummate teacher whose good works lives on in his many, many students.
Baba Kwadwo Oppong-Wadie provided a powerful discussion of the role of symbols as repositories of cultural memory. His presentation examined Adinkra and their presence among African Americans. He highlighted their ubiquity in Chicago’s Black communities.
Professor Arthur Amaker presented on the maroon tradition in the US and Brazil. His presentation highlighted the centrality of the tradition of maroonage to the retention of African cultural patterns. This is a very compelling historical connection.
The young men of Akoben Rites-of-Passage Society returned to discuss their efforts to create an timeline of African history using a wiki platform. They (along with Heru Aquil) demonstrated the ways in which our youth can not only learn our history, but become its purveyors.
Mama Muriel Balla discussed the benefits membership in ASCAC. She noted that the greatest benefits have been the opportunity to work on behalf of African liberation while also being in a community of scholars, artists, and educators united in purpose.
My presentation sought to explore Nubia, given Dr. Thompson’s interest in this area. Among other things, I highlighted the efforts to revitalize the Nubian language and to recovery Nubia’s ancient history. This presentation is the basis for a number of my current and future efforts.
Our commissions had critical conversations and began hatching bountiful plans. African people are on the move in determined ways.
Finally, we concluded with a spiritual service from The Temple of the African Community of Chicago. hm nTr (Priest) iri pianxi xprw provided a discussion Piankhi’s victory stela relating it to the personal and social challenges of African people.
In this society forgetfulness is encouraged. Forgetting serves several ends such as severing the ties of ancestral remembrance, an erasure of cultural identity, and the disruption of an intergenerational struggle for freedom.
When we forget we are given new memories, histories, and lineages by those who profit from our loss of memory. Some of us, sadly, revel in this erasure, while others seek to ameliorate such loss and its destructive consequences.
Q: How does the issue of alienation apply to spirituality? There is a noted dialectic between the harmful effects of alien religions and the corresponding rejection of African spiritual systems.
A: I’ve tried to follow in Jacob H. Carruthers’s footsteps by (A) acknowledging the importance of indigenous African spirituality as a necessary component in our re-Africanization and (B) acknowledging the need for a posture of “non-aggression” pertaining to this, lest we descend into the idiocy of Holy Wars. However, I think that we have to consider what is lost when we ground ourselves in alien paradigms, as religion is so central for many African people, who see it as a way of living. The question becomes what ways of living, being, and knowing do these systems propagate and if these are detrimental or advantageous to our community.
There are many aspects of indigenous African spirituality that are valuable on the conceptual, social, and even structural levels. I’ll discuss these in turn. First, is the emphasis on inner “divinity”, that is the mtu (human being) as divine as an alternative to the idea of one being born in sin, which is really just another example of fundamental alienation.
Second, are the ethical values of African cultures, which compel for us to act ethically towards ourselves, community, and nature. There is no African belief that I am aware of wherein watu (humans) have been given dominion over nature. This is a worldview born of a fundamental misunderstanding of the consubstantial nature of life on this planet. In fact, in the African paradigm, one has a moral obligation to safeguard nature for the denizens of the future.
Third, is the value of ancestral veneration, which in reality is a means for keeping people connected to the lineage. This provides a connection that compels the mtu to study, honor, and ground themselves in their traditions–as opposed to eschewing them in preference for venerating someone else’s ancestors.
Fourth, is that African traditions offers a basis of critique for many of the conceptual assumptions of other religions–pacifism and detachment versus the need to act deliberately to actualize one’s destiny, intolerance and forced conversion rather than a perspective that emphasizes commonality across related traditions, resignation to an oppressive and alienating order in contrast to a mandate to actualize Maat or what the Akan call Onyame Nhye-Hyɛe–a conception of divine order, and so on.
Finally is the rejection of the cultural primacy and conceptual hegemony of non-Africans. When we embrace our own traditions, we demonstrate not only their suitability, but the value and relevance of our ancestors and what they bequeathed to us.
Given that our notions of “progress” derive from others and not ourselves, we have limited ourselves to actualizing their vision of the future and not our own.
I was outside weeding the garden and saw that weeds on the outside of the raised bed often find a way inside of the raised bed. Once inside, they can overtake one’s plants. Thus problems just beyond recognizable boundaries can easily become internal difficulties, which can overwhelm our capacity. This reminded me of the type of moral discernment in traditional African cultures, that isft (wrong-doing) was intolerable, not merely because of its immediate effects, but because of its corrosive capacity.
One of the themes that we see across African cultures are very specific discourses on 1) the existence of behaviors antithetical to the social order, 2) the hazards that these pose for the community, and 3) the appropriate responses towards this.
With regards to number one, this is most evident in the African wisdom on evil. One Hausa proverb captures this well. It states, “Ta fi chikka kasua’n munafukai” or “The market of evildoers is always fullest.” This proverb illustrates not only the existence of evil, but that fact that it can become deeply entrenched in society. Thus, evil can become fashionable and a basis for community among the like-minded.
With respect to the dangers that such behaviors pose to the social order, consider the following Akan proverb which states, “Nkontompo ama nokorɛ boɔ ayɛ den” or “Abundance of lies has made truth a high priced commodity.” This proverb illustrates the corrosive impact that lies can have on truth, such as obscuring it. This is important, as truth is a basis of trust, and trust is a foundation for social relations. Thus the proliferation of lies results, not only in truth being less visible, but also in undermining the very fabric of society.
Lastly, African wisdom is replete with recommended responses to the consequences of socially corrosive actions. The following Swahili proverb provides an example of this. It states, “Ukimtendea mwizi vizuri, mwishowe atakuibia” or “If you treat a thief nicely, they’ll rob you at the end.” The implication here is that accommodating a wrong-doer, may result in being the victim of their misdeeds. Thus, not only should one be discerning of the nature of those with whom one is dealing, but that failure to do so may have negative consequences.
The preceding illustrate the following basic aspects of African thought: 1) The African paradigm posits the existence of actions or behaviors which are socially inharmonious, 2) the African wisdom argues that these can negatively affect the nature of social relations, and 3) rather than being all-embracing–the African perspective contends that both wrongful acts and actors have no place in the community and that their presence may prove detrimental.
Beyond this however, moral judgements are instruments of group survival, as no group can purposely direct its growth and development without some form of authority (moral, political, etc.) to direct social life. Social functions, that is the things which facilitate group survival such as child rearing, food production, security, housing construction, healing, and so forth are not domains where relativism and functionality are optimally compatible. Thus, the types of protocols that emerged in the traditional society evolved in relation to on-going negotiation of human beings to the exigencies of the world around them. These moral foundations were not mere philosophical abstractions, but a part of the functional adaptation of a people. They were driven by a clear recognition that upon the foundation of a shared sense of identity, purpose, and direction optimal conditions for living could be established and maintained.
Chombo hakiendi ikiwa kila mtu anapiga makasia yake.
“A boat doesn’t go forward if each one is rowing his/her own way.”
One of the things that has emerged as a consequence of the attempted deAfrikanization of our people via the Maafa is an irreverence for African tradition, our ancestral traditions. In this–the modern, western context–tradition is described as the abode of the dead, the static, and the anachronistic. Herein, tradition is not that which links the children to the elders to the ancestors–thus providing a necessary force of social cohesion. Tradition is not regarded as that accumulated wisdom, borne of our people’s deep study of the universe, society, and humankind. Rather our traditions are described as fetters, as encumbrances–things and ideas which impedes the full flowering of our modern, individual expression.
What must be noted here is that while African tradition is decried, the western tradition is embraced. Thus western notions of governance (i.e., liberal democracy), economics (i.e., free market capitalism), ethics (i.e., Dr. Ani’s “rhetorical ethic”), family (i.e., the nuclear family), humanity (i.e., hyper-individualism), and so forth are not relegated to the rubbish bin as useless, outmoded, or alien ways of being. Instead, having been described and imposed as universal, these notions are thus ever-relevant, ever-compelling, and ever-suited for African people today. These traditions, though embraced in the modern context, owe their formation to older intellectual, political, economic, and philosophical traditions in the west–from ancient Greek philosophers to 19th and 20th Century social theorists. Thus, these modern and supposedly universal ideas are grounded in a European tradition.
Given that what is occurring is not the evisceration of tradition per se, but rather the the continuing supplanting of an African one by a European one, several urgent questions come to mind:
- What are psychological, economic, or political the implications of privileging the traditions of aliens over one’s own?
- What are the economic and political systems that buttresses the hegemony of the western paradigm–and by extension facilitate the erasure of our own?
- How does dependence upon alien paradigms and ways of being inevitably determine the form and parameters of our cultural expression?
- Can African people free themselves , political and economically, on the basis of alien constructs?
I will not take up the first three questions now, but I will offer Dr. Carruthers’s wisdom with respect to the final question, whose insights suggest that any supposed freedom based on alien paradigms will ultimately prove insufficient. Our ancestor stated: “We cannot move our people by borrowing our foundations from other people.”
In traditional African societies nature was seen as sacred. The trees, rivers, rocks, and soil were believed to possess a divine essence. Such beliefs necessarily encouraged reverence and respect for nature, while they also discouraged rapacious plunder of the local ecosystem.