Tradition is a moving target. We seize upon one of its transitive states, claiming to have captured the essence of a thing, only to glimpse a temporally and spatially contingent phenomenon.

Thoughts on culture and authenticity

The mouse pointer hovered over the purchase button. I couldn’t click. The desire to click was drowned out by a lingering sense of doubt, a cacophony of questions, and a small but no less commanding summons to explore a path not-yet-traversed. Along that path I imagined the apparitions of three men whose words suggested an alternative to the beckoning purchase button. Their simple insights, along with my discomfort with a rather frightening terms of use agreement gave me the strength to click instead the close tab button. I had, for the moment turned away, but would I be back?

My visit to (and eventual exit from) the site of a renown DNA testing company was borne of an on-going quest. I have been engaged in genealogical research off and on since the mid-2000s. The first phase of this was inspired by my reading of The Sankofa Movement: ReAfrikanization and the Reality of War, which encouraged Africans to 1) study their familial histories to note critical themes evident throughout one’s clan line, 2) to identify one’s ancestral ethnicity/nation in Africa, and 3) to adopt the cultural practice of that group (or another group) as a pathway toward re-Africanization. In this initial research phase I was able to trace my paternal line back to the end of the legalized enslavement (the 1860s), and my maternal line to the late 19th Century and a pair of emigrants from the Virgin Islands. These insights were not due to any particularly masterful investigative research on my part, but to two uncles who have captured and preserved these histories.

A year ago I decided to to make genealogical research focus of my children’s homeschool work. Via this project we would address history, geography, narrative analysis, biology, language, and so forth. Regrettably I was unable to sustain the momentum that this work required. The project was to have four phases. Phase one was to collect oral narratives from family members. Phase two was engage in archival research to extend this historical journey further back in time. Phase three was to use DNA testing to further extend our understanding of our familial journey by identifying regions or ethnic groups in Africa from which we descend. Phase four was to consult with a traditional teacher/priest regarding this familial journey, since in the traditional cosmologies of many west African groups (i.e., the Akan, Yoruba, etc.) it is believed that the individual descends from a specific group. This is especially so among groups that believe in what is called “reincarnation” in English. Armed with this knowledge, we would dedicate ourselves to the study of the histories, languages, and cultures of the identified groups—a process that would augment our existing work and practice related to African culture.

One of the things that drove this project was a desire to have a complete view of our familial history, an understanding of the path that our families have traversed over the centuries, if not the last millennia. That stated, I recognized the issues associated with phases three and four. For one, DNA testing is expensive, and its limited accuracy may not provide a satisfactory resolution to these queries. Secondly, even if we were able to identify a one or more particular cultural groups, there is no guarantee that we will be able to meaningfully act upon this information. There is an abundance of information about the very large groups (such as the Igbo for example) or groups that have imperial histories (such as the Yoruba, Ashanti). Learning the histories, languages, cosmologies of these groups would not be insurmountable tasks. However I have wondered how I would go about learning about much smaller, more seemingly “obscure” groups, groups that are not the common referents when Africans in the U.S. talk about, study, and practice traditional African culture.

In addition to these issues, I have begun to fear that these latter two phases, that while offering information that may provide a degree of gratification, are also moored to a desire to have what some might describe as a “tangible connection” to one’s ancestors. For me these feelings were present. I also feared that I might look at my desire to acquire some affinity with the cultural practices of this ancestral ethnic group as a quest for some form of “African authenticity”. Like Chimamanda Adichie said in her wonderful TED Talk on the “Dangers of the single story” I don’t know what “African authenticity” is, nor how it could be achieved. And while I was unsure about this latter issue, I was certain of the former. As the seconds, minutes, and days passed after having closed that tab I resolved to get underneath these feeling and to conceptualize a possible alternative approach to these quandaries.

On a certain level, these challenges suggest a need for a different way of conceptualizing identity. I do not mean “identity” in the individual sense, but rather identity as it relates to a sense of “peoplehood”, one that emanates from a shared history and tradition. Here I’m suggesting that a Pan-African identity is essentially inclusive of a diversity of expressions of African cultures and tradition, ancient and modern, continental and diasporic. A Pan-African identity does not necessarily rely on cultural specificity as a basis of determining authenticity. I’m reminded of two points that are discussed within Kawaida Theory. First is the contention that our job should be to reconstruct our culture, in the wake of the Maafa (the interrelated processes of enslavement, colonialism, and their legacies), using the best of African and human culture. The second point is that our process of cultural engagement should be informed by a synthesis of tradition and reason, that is a critical process of evaluation based on our need for a culture that not only affirms our humanity, but the necessity of our victory in struggle. I think that these have implications for not only how we engage in culture work, but also for how we think about ourselves, our own identities as African people, and how and what we teach our children and community.

A month ago I was the keynote speaker at a gala for Phi Rho Eta Fraternity Incorporated (I’ve been a member since 1999). One of the points that I made in my talk was the importance of establishing brotherhoods of affinity, that is groupings that are based on shared values and commitments. I was speaking in the context of ΦPE, so obviously brotherhood was the appropriate descriptor, however more generally I maintain that we should strive to build collectives centered on various bases of affinity. I think that affinity is also a criteria to evaluate our own constructive cultural practice. There are at least two meanings that are important here.

First, if I am thinking about ways to engage in conflict resolution, I would seek cultural values and practices that align with this paradigm. While such paradigms may be ubiquitous in Africa, I am most familiar with how this has been framed in ancient Kemet and Oyo. The Instructions of Ptah Hotep are highly instructive of ways to avoid and address conflict. Additionally, the Yoruba concept of iwa pele (or gentle character) offers a mode of social praxis that seeks to minimize the difficulties that arise when we fail to be appropriately sensitive to the feelings of those around us. This is an example of affinity in cultural practice–seeking to inform one’s cultural practice by the traditional African knowledges, paradigms, and rituals that can potentially guide this work. Thus this approach, though informed by seemingly distinct cultures, provides a thematic core which is integrative of this diversity.

Second, I think that affinity has implications for how we address issues of identity in the sense of traditional African cultures. I think that African Brazilian culture offers some notable examples. What we see in Brazil is a cultural composite which includes Candomble, a derivative of Yoruba culture; Capoeira, a derivative of Kunene and related Bantu-groups’ martial culture; in addition to other traditional and local innovations. There are similar structural features in other African diasporic communities such as Trinidad, Haiti, Venezuela, Cuba, and so forth. Focusing on the context of Brazil, what we see is an African-Brazilian cultural complex that shows and African identity that exists comfortably within the context of traditional continental and diasporic cultural forms. I think that this is instructive for how these questions of culture and identity can be addressed with respect African communities in the U.S. I raise this because often the discussion of African identity in the U.S. centers on U.S. Africans adopting the cultural identities of particular continental groups. While this may be beneficial, I question its necessity given that we do not see the same emphasis on cultural specificity elsewhere in the diaspora. Many of these groups exist within their own respective complex of traditional African and diasporic practices. I maintain that there are lessons in this yet to be gleaned.

One example of how a similar complex of practices, say an African American cultural composite, has taken form is the prevalence of African musical forms from Senegal and the Gambia; the frequent use of Swahili (a language prominently spoken in East Africa), Twi (the Akan language), and Medew Netcher (the ancient Egyptian or Kemetic language) in many settings; the practice of traditional and non-traditional African martial cultures such as Capoeria, and others in various communities; the formations committed to the traditional cultural/spiritual practices of groups such as the Yoruba, Akan, Ewe, Fon, as well as their diasporic counterparts in Puerto Rico, Cuba, Brazil, Jamaica, and Haiti, to say nothing of the practitioners of the culture of ancient Kemet; and a host of other local and traditional practices that evidence a wide range of African cultural retentions (i.e., spiritual orientations, familial structures, language, and so on) and innovations (i.e., music, dance, aesthetics, and so forth). The point is that distinct modalities of African cultural praxis have always existed among Africans in the U.S., and others are newly (re)emerged. These are practices that I maintain represent a highly unique and valuable contribution to the historical legacy of African history and culture. Thus one might argue that African Americans have laid the basis for a unique African identity, one that is, as are all identities, in a state of constant unfolding.

From time to time, my mind returns to phases three and four of my genealogy project. Will I abandon them? I am unsure. What I am sure of is that this information is not determinative of my existing path, nor has it ever been. As Baba Hannibal Afrik would say as he would begin his libation ritual, “We are an African people.” For now, this is sufficient, a continent and its myriad peoples, a global community and its collective cultural genius. They belong to us, and we to them. Joined in a struggle to right ourselves in the wake of our enemies’ onslaught.