The reclamation of our culture and the restoration of African sovereignty in the world are two of the highest struggles that we can engage in. The first enables a fuller realization of and engagement with our humanity. The second makes us the shapers of our collective destiny.
All of our politics should be evaluated through the lens of how and whether they support these two goals: Does this achieve the restoration of our culture? Does this achieve our actual sovereignty in all spheres of life? If not, then these politics are, at best, insufficient.
Far too many of us have made vacuous investments. We’ve gone down the rabbit hole of alien paradigms that can in no way inform or produce an African reality, but merely a caricature of a European one.
The process of re-Africanization, the need to heal ourselves, and the work of reality transformation are all interrelated. There is no disjuncture or hierarchy therein. They are concomitant endeavors, coterminous in their ends and implications.
What must be remembered is the critical need to draw upon African paradigms in these endeavors. As Jacob. H. Carruthers stated, “We cannot move our people by borrowing our foundations from other people.” This means that definitive movement consistent with our intended restoration of an African worldview, requires a deliberate engagement with African knowledges.
Many of us, like Sinuhe, have created homes for ourselves in foreign lands, but ultimately we must “return to the Black land”, that is reclaim our ancestral paradigms as a means of informing our cultural reclamation, our healing, and the transformation of the world.
A couple of weeks back Dr. Kwame Zulu Shabazz related a conversation that he had with a continental African regarding the question of the ethnic origins of Diasporan Africans. Dr. Shabazz was asked to identify his “tribe”, and his inability to do so produced some bewilderment in his interlocutor. His experience and discussion of it can be found here: http://twitter.com/kzshabazz/status/1004033728094638082. However this raises a number of interesting questions regarding the issue of Diasporan Africans and our identification with extant ethnic groups on the continent. A late comer to the conversation, I stated that folks seek to answer the “What is my ‘tribe’?” query using three means: DNA testing, divination, and simply “laying claim” to a group to whom one has some kind of affinity or attraction. I would like to briefly explore this question, that is “What is my ‘tribe’?” along with its implications.
It should be noted from the outset that “tribe” is problematic nomenclature for African ethnic groups. However, I will anchor my remarks to it for the sake of this discussion, given that this is the context in which this query was framed. Do note that terms such as ethnic group, society, people, or even nation are better descriptors of African peoples who are often discussed under the heading of “tribes”.
The most obvious reality, and this is borne out in the studies of the genomes of Africans in America, is that we are an admixed population, that is we possess genetic ancestry from a variety of African ethnic groups. This same research reveals that some places feature populations who possess a greater proportion of ancestry from specific African regions. Examples of this would include the presence of people with significant proportions of Akan ancestry in Jamaica and parts of the Virgin Islands. Other studies have suggested that the Igbo and Yorùbá (who possess notable genetic similarities) comprise a significant portion of the genetic makeup of many Africans in the United States. However, even in these cases, some degree of admixture is generally still present. As such, Africans today who are descended from enslaved Africans generally possess ancestral linkages to living groups such as the Bakongo, Fulani, Ewe and other Gbe-speaking peoples, Hausa, Akan, Yorùbá, Mandé peoples, and so on.
This admixing is paralleled by the cultural syncretism that emerged among Africans in the Diaspora, that is the intermixing of cultures from various ethnicities resulting in the formation of various “new” African cultures in the Americas. Brazil, Haiti, Cuba, Trinidad, the United States, and other parts of the Americas evidence the contributions of many African ethnicities. Brazil is an interesting case in point where the fighting traditions of Bantu peoples contributed to shaping Capoeira and Yorùbá and Bakongo spiritual traditions gave rise to Candomblé. Haiti also shows this same pattern, featuring Bakongo-influenced iconography, a spiritual tradition with significant influence from the Fon and other Gbe-speaking peoples, as well as the Yorùbá. The point is that preceding the question of “What is my ‘tribe’?” for Diasporan Africans, is the question of “Who are Diasporan Africans?”, a query that reveals various populations of African peoples who are essentially a genetic and cultural composite.
Elsewhere I have written that “The longing for home is most acute among a people dispossessed of one.” Here I was using home to refer to a place of affinity, belonging, one’s foundation in dimensions that are both spatial and cultural. Thus the question of “What is my ‘tribe’?” is most notably a question of home, and this has not been an idle query. In fact there have been several means that Diasporan Africans have utilized in response to it. In my response to Dr. Shabazz’s thread I stated that divination, DNA testing, and a sense of affinity have been bases of ethnic group identification that have been utilized by Africans in the US.
The first, divination or the revealing of one’s “ethnic root” occurs in consultation with mwaguzi (diviner) of the traditional African spiritual traditions. This special type of “reading” is intended to identify the particular ethnic group from whom one’s mzimu (“soul”) descends. Central to this process is the idea found in various West African cultures that the mzimu reincarnates further down the clan line, creating and maintaining continuity between the living mtu (person) and their wakale (ancestors).
The second, DNA testing has grown in popularity in tandem with advances with genetic genealogical research. The most advanced service, the one that has been customized specifically for Africans in the Americas, is African Ancestry, whose database contains 33,000 samples of mitochondrial (mtDNA) and Y-DNA from various African and non-African groups. Their service essentially identifies extant populations who share DNA with their customers. According to African Ancestry, the top five groups that they match test-takers with are Mende, Tikar, Fulani, Yorùbá, and Temne and the top five countries are Sierra Leone, Cameroon, Nigeria, Guinea-Bissau and Senegal. It should be noted that there is a great deal of overlap between these top five groups and countries as shown in the table below.
|Sierra Leone||Mende, Temne|
For those who receive one match, this may indeed satisfy the “What is my ‘tribe’?” question. However, research on the African American genome and its matches to African haplogroups (specific clusters of mtDNA and Y-DNA) often reveal matches to multiple groups, thus possibly complicating such a question. Also, it should be noted that while these types of DNA may be useful for obtaining some degree of specificity in terms of one’s genetic ancestry, they also represent a very minute portion of one’s DNA, thus basing one’s conception of one’s “tribe” on such a small sample of one’s larger genetic profile may or may not be problematic.
The third, affinity or attraction, appears to be based on a sense of connection to some extant African ethnic group and is not necessarily based on the two above instruments of investigation. Some people express feeling a strong connection to specific groups. This feeling may be based on a number of tangible and intangible things, but nonetheless provides a type of attraction.
Years ago, in my own quest to answer this question I availed myself of the services of a mwaguzi, who told me that my mzimu descended from the Ewe people. At some point this knowledge became the basis of further study and investigation into this group’s utamaduni (culture) and kale (history). Three features of the Ewe experience that struck me was the centrality of migration to their history, the absence of the formation of a centralized Ewe state along with the kind of political relations that existed between these, and the open-texturedness of Ewe culture with respect to their absorption of influences from other peoples—especially the Yorùbá and Akan. My occasional use of “day name” was also partially informed by this knowledge given that the Ewe has adopted this naming convention from the Akan.
More recently, I turned to DNA testing to revisit this question in the hopes of gaining a fuller understanding of my family’s history. My mtDNA matched the Tikar, Hausa, and Fulani of Cameroon and the Bubi people of Equatorial Guinea (my Y-DNA is non-African in origin). In my studies, I have focused on the language of the Hausa and the philosophy and history, particularly the intellectual history of the Fulani. The Hausa language is one of the most widely spoken languages in Africa. Like the Swahili language, it possesses many Arabic loanwords, which has also been useful for me in terms of informing my word recognition. Also, the Fulani’s contributions to the intellectual tradition in West Africa has been notable and inspiring. The Fulani were prominent among the scholars at Timbuktu, which is inspiring given my current profession, and that I am carrying forward this intellectual tradition.
Further, while I cannot say that I have felt a connection to any particular African group, I have been inspired and attracted to the cultures of various groups—the Igbo, Akan, Yorùbá, Bakongo, as well as the ancient Nile Valley. Thus, I have been and continue to be drawn to the wisdom and history of our people in ways that are both general and specific.
In closing, I think that the question “What is my ‘tribe’?” will be a recurring one due to our people’s continued estrangement from our land of origins, and with this, our history and ancestral traditions. I maintain that our response to this query must ultimately be reconciled alongside a conception of a Pan-African identity, that is an identity that recognizes the diverse African heritage of Diasporan Africans, while also seeking substantive connections to extant African cultures that enrich our culture and also provide the healing inherent in regaining a sense of historical continuity. Furthermore, I think that our efforts to answer this question can be enriched by each of the above methods as both the first (the “roots reading”) and third (affinity and attraction) align with the epistemologies of traditional Africa, while the second provides a useful tool in the reconstruction of African Diasporan genealogies. Thus I am not proposing one over the other, but rather elaborating upon what each potentially provides in both answering this question, but also transcending it.
The idea that we should approach African traditions as ways of being capable of transforming the consciousness of our people is a critical imperative. However re-Africanization is not merely a project of psychological reorientation, but is also an effort to re-pattern the world.
I could be mistaken, but it seems that the Western appeals to the universal, while relevant in informing a discourse on equality within the civic arena, have also served as a medium for the colonization of the ontologies and epistemologies of racialized and oppressed peoples. In this way, one might argue (and indeed, Imari Obadele did) that appeals to reform of the existing state apparatus and its default posture of coercive control towards African people, is also a ceding to that state a degree of unwarranted legitimacy.
The alternative to reform, sovereignty, that is Black nationalism, is generally regarded as both illegitimate and unrealistic. However notions of its legitimacy reside with one’s view on the basic question of whether African Americans have a right to self-determination. And history has demonstrated up until this point, and without a shadow of a doubt, that reforming America in such a way as to eradicate the vestiges of anti-Black racism within the society, its vast institutions, and its practices and beliefs continues to be an unrealistic end.
Therefore I maintain that the appeal to the universal obfuscates more than it clarifies. African people have a unique quandary, requiring a unique set of solutions. Solutions that are predicated upon cultural logics issuing forth from an African-centered orientation to reality.
I am convinced that when we are on the path, when we are doing the things that we are supposed to be doing, we are consistently presented with reminders of the correctness of the direction in which we are moving. I received three such reminders in the last two days.
Reminder one: Today while working at my wife’s community training farm, a six year old boy asked me, “How do Africans fight?” I found his question intriguing, not only that he asked it of me, but that he posed this question at all. I am not entirely sure why he posed this question to me. Maybe he overheard me talking to his mother about teaching Capoeira at his school years ago, and understood what I was talking about. Maybe he presumed that as an African man I should know something about this. I did start to build on his existing knowledge base of Kiswahili, so maybe he figured that I might know something about fighting too. In any event, I deeply appreciated his question, a question that I did not think to pose until I was a young adult.
I told him that there are different ways that Africans have approached fighting and that I could show him some. I asked him if he wanted to know something related to kicking, punching, or stick-fighting. He said punching, so I showed him something. If he’s serious, I may teach him some basic elements of the arts whenever we see one another in-between farm work.
Reminder two: Similarly, a brother who attends my Capoeira class with his daughter told me that he intends for her to be a fighting arts practitioner, and wants for her focus to be specifically on Capoeira, given that it is an African art. I was intrigued by this. He has studied multiple arts, and sees Capoeira as not merely a matter of technical application, that is the process of fending off violent attackers, but also as a matter of affirming one’s cultural identity. In this way, Capoeira can be understood as a combat art that also embodies the kinesthetic dynamics of several African cultures, thus it is the embodiment of a distinctly African philosophy of movement. It also represents the sprit and tactics of African resistance in the Americas.
Reminder three: A brother who attended the mdw nTr conference in October told me that he had been so inspired, that he intended to teach his then unborn daughter mdw nTr. Today I saw him and his young daughter. He told me, consistent with his earlier statement, that he speaks to her in mdw nTr and proceeded to speak do so. I also spoke to her in mdw nTr. My wife claims that she perked up when she heard the mdw nTr, but I can’t confirm this.
That this would happen the day after African Languages Day was most inspiring for me. While I do study African languages regularly, I have struggled to find time to study of late. However, yesterday my studies were inspired. While riding the train I read about and practiced (silently) two African languages. African Languages Day gave me the opportunity to affirm something that I know I am capable of, using our languages on a regular basis to communicate complex ideas. To my understanding, the greatest challenge that we face is one of transmission, that is of creating new speakers of these languages in our communities in the African Diaspora. Solving this problem is one to which I will continue to devote my time and energy, as we cannot truly communicate about an African worldview if such a discourse is mediated in an alien language and from a culture characterized by fundamental alienation.
Our people once they know that they are an African people, they subsequently want and desire to ground themselves in African things, to understand their reality from the paradigms of their ancestors, to reclaim our languages, to practice our fighting arts, and to—in all areas of life—be African. This is more than just a matter of identity, but is one of solving the paradigmatic problem implicit in liberatory struggles—that is one of decolonzing the minds of the people as a means of enabling them to win the physical struggle which is for land, their lives, and the future.