Many of us in our search for healing, understanding, and purpose have unwittingly taken on ideologies which cultivate aversion and hopelessness. These state that we are alienated from a broader African world community or that African men and women are stark rivals or worse, fetters on our collective welfare. These are poisonous ways of thinking.
One of the most striking challenges of living in a society with “fundamental alienation” as its asili (foundation, essence) is that it infects us on every level. Many of us, in our quest for wholeness & meaning have taken on more of this poison via the ideologies that we imbibe.
We are beset by the fact that the most accessible solutions or answers also happen to be those which are most divergent from an African worldview. As such, we should never be surprised that the most popular or progressive discourses amount to little more than celebrations of alienation. This is why Mama Marimba Ani says that “To be Afrikan is the revolutionary act of our times.” She recognizes being African as an imperative for both personal and social transformation. An African worldview not only informs how we live as individuals, but directs us to reshape the world.
Thus, if we truly understand re-Africanization then, it is not a means for conformity to or within the dominant order. It is an imperative to dismantle a social order that creates and sustains conditions of alienation and to replace it with one that creates and sustains life, power, and health. True re-Africanization then, is nothing short of revolutionary thought and practice.
The mind is endowed with infinite potential. In fact, the mind is the wellspring that has enriched human life since its inception on this planet. When we survey African history, we are continually astounded by the grand potentiality of the human mind, in particular its capacity to create ideas, objects, and conditions that optimize human life.
Today, African people find themselves living in a world shaped by the Maafa—the interrelated process of slavery, colonization, and its legacy. We reside in a world that has been shaped by tyranny and plunder, one wherein the deprivations, campaigns of destabilization, and alienation continue characterize our existence.
We are even taught that we are bereft of possibility, that we have arrived at the end of history, and that the established order—despite its inescapable problems—represents the best possible expression of human potentiality. All of these messages are not happenstance, but have been devised specifically to impoverish our imaginations and deaden our creativity.
However, for those of us who know our history, we know that these things are untrue. We know that our history provides a testament of African ingenuity, and that, as Marcus Garvey has said, “Whatsoever things common to man, that man has done, man can do.” Garvey reminds us that history, beyond being a chronicle of the past, is also a measure of human capacity. Our history is no different, for its reveals to us that we are capable of building vast cities, maintaining effective and just governance, developing ecologically-balanced food systems, preparing our youth to be the stewards of our future, devising profound and stirring art forms, and creating practices and principles that gives the people a powerful and expansive sense of identity, purpose, and direction. In effect, history teaches us what we have been and what we might become. It is the deep well of knowledge that fuels the imagination, and enlivens our creativity, a creativity that once awakened, is boundless in what it can achieve. This is the essence of Kuumba.
We are not living at the apex of African civilization. In fact, we must face the unfortunate reality that our civilizations, our societies have been reduced and that their resources—intellectual and material—have been usurped to serve as a foundation for the current world order. Our orientation towards the present condition is most instructive as to our vision for the prospects of the African world–meaning do we acquiesce to our oppressors, or do we resist and join a struggle to achieve our restoration?
Nia challenges us to choose the latter path. It challenges us to understand that we are not struggling for the sake of our personal aggrandizement or for a place within the established order, but are struggling “to restore our people to their traditional greatness”. The question of restoration raises urgent questions about the “source material” that informs our efforts. In 1987, speaking in Aswan at the Conference of the Association for the Study of Classical African Civilizations, Jacob H. Carruthers stated, “We cannot move our people by borrowing our foundations from other people.” Carruthers challenges us to draw fully and deeply from the deep well of African thought, and to apply these insights to the malaise confronting us, recognizing that our history, our culture carries within it the seed of our potential renewal.
Nia also challenges us to realize that the restoration of our people must be the driving force in our lives. It is work that must animate our thoughts and give purpose to our actions. We recognize that though our enemies are legion, that each act of resistance is a victory in that it defies the lie that we are a people bereft of a history and future possibility, and that the key is to sustain such resistance, enabling it to grow in scale and intensity until victory is achieved.
Ultimately, Nia is a challenge for us to live lives that makes us worthy of remembrance, to be like those ancestors whom we call upon when we pour libations, true exemplars of our determination to be free, true models of African excellence.
Eric Williams’s monumental work Capitalism and Slavery captures the synergistic links between the rise of modern capitalism and white racism. In it, Williams argues that racism, as an ideological framework that argued for and sought to concretize in the realm of social relations the subordination of Africans and the superordination of Europeans, emerged as a necessary by-product of the system of chattel slavery. Williams’s analysis thus shows that racism cannot be delinked from capitalism, and that from this vantage point, the struggle against racism must also necessarily entail a struggle against the malformations of capitalism.
In Kawaida Theory (the body of ideas that spawned both the Nguzo Saba and Kwanzaa), there are seven areas of culture. These are: “history, religion (ethics and spirituality), social organization, economic organization, political organization, creative production, and ethos” (Karenga 1997, 10). Of these, economic organization, offers valuable lessons pertaining to the form and character of our liberation struggle, and is directly related to the principle of Ujamaa, “Cooperative Economics”.
There are two dimensions to be discussed here. First, it is critical that we control the economics of our communities. This means that we must produce, distribute, and consume goods and services produced by ourselves for ourselves. No sovereign people, nor any people aspiring to sovereignty, can attain such a status so long as they remain dependent on another for their basic, day-to-day necessities.
Second, it is necessary that our economic institutions do not reproduce the malformations of the dominant society—that is extreme forms of stratification and dispossession. Ours must be a humanizing system, that is a system that respects the rights and dignity of people over that of capital, profit, and greed, and that seeks to enable people to achieve their maximum development. And as an African people, such systems must also be Africanizing, that is that they must facilitate our process of cultural reclamation and renewal, and reflect the African value system.
This latter point takes us to the root of the word ujamaa itself, which is jamaa. Jamaa translates into English as “family”. Ujamaa translates as “familyhood”, and denotes a collective interest or concern. This is part of why the word ujamaa has been employed to refer to socialism—an economic system emphasizing shared resources and shared profit in the interest of all. This was not due to a reliance on the ideas of any European theorist, but due to the values inherent in the economic systems of traditional African society, which entailed concerns about the collective welfare, the greater good. Thus, while the pursuit of profit was welcomed and envouraged, the values of compassion and generosity were also enforced. Such a sentiment is born out in the ancestral wisdom which states, “Ubepari ni unyama,” which translates as “Capitalism [exploitation] is animalistic”, that is, savage. A just economy, must enhance our humanity, not negate it.
Karenga, Maulana. 1997. Kawaida Theory: A Communitarian African Philosophy. Los Angeles: University of Sankore Press.
Williams, Eric. 1994. Capitalism and Slavery. Chapel Hill, NC: University of North Carolina Press.
One message of the dominant culture is the ethos of atomistic individualism. This is the notion that we are all solitary individuals, having no obligations beyond our own person, wherein our own preferences take greater priority over any imagined collective interests, and that in fact the very notion of collective interests is in fact oppressive.
It should go without saying that thought and practice based on such premises is antithetical to the African worldview. This is borne out in the deep thought of our ancestors which teaches us that there is no separation between the individual and the collective, in fact the individual is merely an extension or expression of it. The Zulu put it this way, “Umuntu ngumuntu ngabantu”, that is, “A person is a person through other persons (or people)” (Karenga 2015, A6). This teaches that our humanity is bound up in the humanity of others, hence we are all connected and interdependent. In fact, this statement articulates the ethos of ubuntu or humanity in the African worldview.
By contrast, we are also forcefully reminded that those who rule the world, enforce their power through collective means, particularly through institutions built in the image and interest of their hegemony. Many of our wise ancestors and elders including the Honorable Marcus Garvey, the Honorable Elijah Muhammad, Mwalimu Julius Nyerere, Osagyefo Kwame Nkrumah, Baba Hannibal Afrik, and others recognized the following truths:
- That we are capable of liberating ourselves
- That our capacity to achieve liberation is dependent on our ability to engage in collective actions, including the building of organizations and institutions dedicated to African redemption
It is this message of collective struggle that the All-African People’s Revolutionary Party so wonderfully articulates in their insistence that all African people should be a part of an organization dedicated to struggle. This is the essence of the third principle of the Nguzo Saba—Ujima: Collective Work and Responsibility.
Ujima is not merely a principle of those who advocate for revolutionary social change (though it is an imperative of such possibility), it is also present in the ancestral wisdom. The Akan put it this way, “Nsa baako nkukuru adesoa, which translates into English as “One hand cannot lift a [heavy] load.” Ujima teaches us that those who would dare to take on the audacious aim of liberating their people, must necessarily share such work. It is impossible to succeed by doing otherwise.
Karenga, Maulana. 2015. “The Ideal and Ethics of Ubuntu: A Kawaida Conversation”. Los Angeles Sentinel. April 9, 2015. Accessed January 23, 2017. http://www.us-organization.org/position/documents/TheIdealandEthicsofUbuntu04-09-10.pdf
Years ago I read Oyèrónkẹ́ Oyèwùmí’s work on gender in Yorùbá society. I found her work exceedingly interesting.
I was struck by the indigenous conceptualization of Ọṣun (Oshun) as “Oore yeye”, the “generous mother”. I found this quite interesting given that Ọṣun also represents (among other things water and harmonious relations). This made me think about the Kemetic concept of nwn (nun), which is primordial water, as well as ast (Aset), and to a lesser degree mAat (Maat). While I don’t think that Ọṣun is the Yorùbá “equivalent” of these Kemetic concepts (the search for conceptual equivalencies across cultures betrays a number of problematic assumptions about cultural universalism, but more on that at another time), it is interesting that both societies represented these ideas in the form of women.
The critical role of women as the vessels of new life was not lost on the architects of these ancient civilizations. The reproductive and educational roles of women were not just physical or instructional, what we might term “instrumental functions”. In the Yorùbá imagination women were reflective of the conduit of life, the stream of human consciousness from time immemorial to the present, the maintenance of ethical and nurturing relations, and the deep feelings of love that sustain them. Thus the role of rivers, lakes, and streams in sustaining food production systems paralleled the roles of mothers as sustainers of humanity.
This echoes the role of Aset, who was not only the mother of Hr (Heru), but also represented the archetype of human motherhood. Again, this was not simply an instrumental or functional role, but was one that expressed the role of women as carriers of future possibility. In this case Aset carried Heru, who delivered the country from the rule of his uncle stX (Set). Heru represented the triumph of right or righteousness over might. Aset therefor represented the possibility of renewal, redemption from injustice, reclamation of truth, and the forward flow of human society. Again, these are similar concepts. Though they differ in critical ways, they reveal a great deal about the ontology of gender in at least two indigenous African civilizations.
African spirituality is obviously an edifice of traditional practices and beliefs, however undergirding this is a conceptual infrastructure that reveals the structural dynamics of African spiritual practices and their social-psychological role.
One of the chief elements of this is the significance of divinity in African thought. African cultures do not posit separations between the sacred and profane, that is between the mundane and the spiritual. These overlap. Some might even argue that they are the indistinguishable.
As such, humans, nature, values, and so on all exist within the realm of the divine. Their sacredness is often attested to in the formation of ritual and beliefs pertaining to them. As such, as Jacob H. Carruthers has attested, there is no fundamental alienation in the traditional African worldview.
The construction of divinity in African culture must be understand as a process which seeks to represent all of the above, not only forces of nature, but also principles and ideals as representations of divinity—or more broadly conceived—as facets of reality itself. Hence African conceptions of divinity reveal a variety of forms as the following examples from Kemet, the Yorùbá, and the Akan demonstrate.
|Djehuti||Articulate speech and wisdom||Kemet|
|Maat||Truth, justice, and divine order||Kemet|
|Nana Adade Kofi||Iron, strength, and warriorhood||Akan/Guan|
|Nana Asuo Gyebi||The river and cultural reclamation in the Diaspora||Akan/Guan|
|Ogun||Iron, warriorhood, and technology||Ogun|
|Ori||Human consciousness and personal divinity||Yorùbá|
|Oshun||The river, beauty, femininity||Yorùbá|
|Shango||Lightening and thunder||Yorùbá|
What these examples suggest is that African spirituality reflects concerns with the elements which constituted human life in both its most functional and expansive senses. The need to live in harmony with nature and other human beings, the promotion of positive ideals, and the encouragement of aspiration and productivity are all represented in these and other concepts of divinity. Thus African spirituality is concerned with both issues pertaining to the unseen and immaterial, but clearly to the visible material world as well. In fact, the physical world of utu (humanity) was the arena wherein one’s (spiritual) journey was expressed as captured in the Igbo conception of chi or the Akan concept of nkrabea, both of which refer to the destiny of the human being.
Sources for further reading
Balla, Muriel. 2009. Handbook of Concepts in Kemetic Spirituality. Chicago, IL: Kemetic Institute.
Carruthers, Jacob H. 1984. Essays in Ancient Egyptian studies. Los Angeles: University of Sankore Press.
Carruthers, Jacob H. 1995. MDW NTR: Divine Speech. London: Karnak House.
Kamalu, Chukwunyere. 1998. Person, Divinity, & Nature. London, England: Karnak House.
Karade, Baba Ifa. 1994. The Handbook of Yoruba Religious Concepts. Boston: Weiser Books.
Opokuwaa, Nana Akua Kyerewaa. 2005. The Quest for Spiritual Transformation. New York: iUniverse.
Cultural hybridity is perhaps an inevitable feature of human cultures in this era. The movement of people, goods, and information over the last five centuries accounts for this. This is no different for African people wherever we find ourselves. This is part of why I argue that cultural purity is an unrealistic striving. It is incongruent with the material condition of humanity. This, whether positive or negative, is simply an extant reality.
The manifestations of such hybridity among our people reveals itself in a myriad of ways–language, religion, music, movement-based practices, and so on. This is what I have referred to as a pattern whereby one will encounter Africans in the US whose cultural praxis spans a range of domains from the African Diaspora to Africa (ancient and “modern”) to India to China and so on.
Tomorrow there is a Odwirafo festival on the South Side of Chicago. This is a traditional festival from the Akan people of West Africa. The subject is healing and the keynote speaker is a long-time Tai Chi practitioner. Tai Chi is a traditional Chinese fighting art. This is a case in point of this tendency towards hybridity.
To use the tools available to you is intelligent. Thus, I think that our people’s embrace of various healing, combative, and other modalities has been intelligent, especially given that our access to traditional African knowledge of these kind remains limited. However, it is incumbent upon us to both maximally use those African knowledges available to us, in addition to seeking and constructing additional knowledge. There are many areas where such a process can be applied.
Naming is one such area. There are no discernible barriers preventing us from using and promoting African names.
Languages is another. There are many African languages that are quite accessible to us. The Swahili language is, by far, the most accessible for Africans in the US, but there are abundant resources for those seeking to learn the languages of Kemet (ancient Egypt), the Akan, and the Yorùbá as well. There is also a growing body of resources pertaining to the Igbo, Kikongo, and Wolof languages. What is required is our resolve to learn, use, and transmit these languages. I would argue that these are more of a problem.
Various movement disciplines are another area open to us. Capoeira and African and African Diasporic dance traditions are readily accessible to us. Fu-Kiau stated that dance is a modality of healing. Therefore, these practices have utility beyond the performative, utility that remains untapped amongst us.
Perhaps the areas of greatest importance however, are those which have been the preoccupations of African intellectuals for over a century–history and critical theory. History is, obviously, an area of culture and is indispensable to our regeneration as a people. By critical theory I am simply referring to the efforts of our people to formulate critical analyses of our condition and solutions to this malaise. Martin Delany, Ida B. Wells, Marcus Garvey, Kwme Nkrumah, Cheikh Anta Diop, Malcolm X, Marimba Ani, Frances Cress Welsing, Jacob H. Carruthers and others have offered us rich insights to build upon. In fact I would argue that the study of history and critical thought is necessarily a means to effectively inform our discernment of what non-African ideas and practices may be congruent or non-congruent with the broader and necessary process of Sankɔfa or re-Africanization.
Ultimately, I think that what must be remembered is that we bring an African essence to all that we do. That African essence, when we have studied our history and critical thought and have internalized them, enables us to transform whatever we touch, making it serve our interests.
The orientation towards hyperrelativism (that is, “truth” is whatever I as an individual determine it to be) is deeply embedded within this culture. It is something that classical or traditional African societies would regard as dangerous, corrosive to the social order.
In the context of kmt, truth, or Maat, was exceedingly important. In fact, Maat was seen as order itself. The so-called “Prophecies of Neferti” states: iw mAat r iyt r st.s isft dr.ti r rwty, which I translated as “Maat is in her place, above injustice. Cast out Isft.” isft, or “wrongdoing, disorder” was antithetical to truth. The negation of truth was in fact isft.
The Fulani also address the notion of truth in their deep thought when they state: Ko doole waawi goonga kono ko goonga sakitotoo; which translates as, “Power can overcome truth but it is the truth that lasts.” For the Fulani, like the kmtyw, truth is not ephemeral, not subject to the relativistic nature of fashion. In fact, they posited truth as that which endured, that upon which one should rely and build. On a certain level therefore, one must consider that African notions of truth are predicated on a certain valuing of tradition, and a valuation of tradition as that which truth has established, as we see this in the deep thought of other African people as well.
The Wolof address it this way: Lu bant yàgg-yàgg ci ndox, du tax mu soppaliku mukk jasig; or “Even if a log soaks a long time in water, it will never become a crocodile.” Here they posit that things possess an essential nature, one which is not susceptible to arbitrary change. Of course, things change, but in African cultures, changing circumstances did not necessarily result in the delegitimation of the entire edifice of tradition or traditional knowledge. The Swahili put it this way: Kila kitu chageuka isipoku wa kitu kimoja tu; or “Everything is subject to change except one thing. The leopard cannot change its spots.”
To me this raises pertinent questions about the nature of “truth” and the dangers in failing to apprehend it in African terms. Dr. Mario Beatty says, “In explaining Maat, this means going beyond the definition of it as truth, justice, righteousness, & universal order to provide some sense of what African people meant by these notions because they do not even remotely parallel the Western sense of these terms.” Thus we should be cautious in positing equivalency between African and Western conceptions of truth.
I argue that seeking to grapple with the Western notion of truth may be an exercise of limited utility. Whether we are speaking of hyperrelativism or specious scientism or some other construct, the imperative remains to see the world through African eyes. As Jacob H. Carruthers has stated, “We have been dealing with the alligators, we must now face the possibility that the solution to our problems may require that the swamp be drained. Too few of us have prepared ourselves to deal with this possibility.”