Africans in the US are compelled to embrace everyone’s nationalism and liberatory struggle but our own. We are routinely presented with “radical” politics that seek to elevate some group of social actors, while within such configurations we are often fodder or our destiny an enigma.
On this day, January 1, 1804, Africans in Haiti declared their independence from French rule. This day served as one of the most significant historical developments of the 19th Century, not only because it served as a beacon of hope for Africans elsewhere to continue their struggle against European tyranny, not only because it demonstrated the African principle of complementarity–in that African women and men took up arms and marched side-by-side into battle, but also because the Haitian struggle was just as significant philosophically as it was militarily.
In his work The Irritated Genie, Jacob H. Carruthers discusses the philosophical implications of the liberation struggle. He recalls Bookman’s prayer, where Bookman Dutty concludes with the remark, “Throw away the likeness of the white man’s god who has so often brought us to tears and listen to liberty which speaks in all our hearts” (Carruthers 1985, 22). Regarding Bookman’s invocation Carruthers writes, “This evocation on the night of the celebration of the Voodun Spirit, Ogun, the ‘God’ of war, was more than a call to arms; it was even more a summation of the historical experience of the Blacks on the Island of Santo Domingo and indeed the diaspora in general. At the same time, this prayer was not a mere ‘Ideological’ statement, it was all of these, but more importantly it was the expression of an Afrocentric Worldview” (Carruthers 1985, 22-23).
Carruthers thus reminds us that the Haitian struggle was not merely to throw off the yoke of European dominance, but also to create conditions wherein the African way could flourish unperturbed by the military, economic, or epistemological tyranny of Europeans. This is significant because the European campaign to reorder the world has been totalizing in its effects.
The Europeans, since 1440, have been reorganizing the world. The world we now live in was organized by them. They conquered the lands of all continents and unilaterally redesigned the social and biological modes of existence. They changed the course of rivers, removed mountains, and built deserts. They created scarcity in the land of abundance. They moved populations from one continent to another. They created new races. They established themselves as the master race and all others as their servants. They made what they like good and everything else bad. In order to liberate ourselves we must take the world and then reorganize it according to our worldview. Only then will mankind be allowed to live in harmony with the universe. Only then will we be truly free. (Carruthers 1999, 261)
Those daring Africans who took part in the Haitian Revolution were driven by a belief in the possibility that if they acted to seize their freedom, then such actions might bear fruit in the world. Even as they continued to toil under the lash of the French on sugar plantations, they saw their yet unrealized goal of freedom as possible, if only they dared struggle to be free. Their actions were driven by a truth, one which was apparent to them, but not to Europeans. “The truth is that the African people will never permanently be enslaved or oppressed” (Carruther 1985, 111).
This is Imani in its clearest form. What we are struggling for is not for a place within the established order. We are seeking to bring into being a world in our image and interest. It is a struggle to make Maat, the Kemetic (ancient Egyptian) principle of order, harmony, and balance the fundamental truth of our reality. We are therefore working to concretize a vision of the world articulated in Haiti’s monumental accomplishment, a world wherein we as African people are able to determine our own destiny. This is our struggle, and we believe with all our hearts in its ultimate success.
Carruthers, Jacob H. 1985. The Irritated Genie: An Essay on the Haitian Revolution. Chicago: The Kemetic Institute.
Carruthers, Jacob H. 1999. Intellectual Warfare. Chicago: Third World Press.
Part of the genius of the Nguzo Saba is the necessity of each of its principles to the attainment of African liberation. From a foundational point of view, liberation in any meaningful sense is unattainable without umoja, unity. Furthermore, any people striving for freedom must, on every level, practice kujichagula, self-determination.
Kujichagula is a practice evident throughout our history. When Nubians under the leadership of Piankhi pushed into Kemet, expelling the Assyrians and initiating the so-called 25th Dynasty, they restored Kemetic sovereignty and affirmed the spirit of umoja between the two nations—Kemet and Nubia. Their actions evidence a spirit of kujichagulia.
When Nzingha rejected Portuguese hegemony and raised the people to resist their rule, she committed herself to a decades-long struggle for African sovereignty. Her actions provide a potent example of a people engaged in a deep practice of kujichagulia.
When Africans stole away from the plantations of Brazil, and fled into the hinterland, creating the quilombo (maroon society) of Palmares, a community that stood for a century, they resolved that their freedom was insufficient so long as other African people remained oppressed. As a result, they fought tirelessly against that system, and in their struggle immortalized Zumbi—one of their leaders—as an icon of African kujichagula.
And when the ancestors of our movement in this country—in formations as diverse as the Shule ya Watoto, The East, The Republic of New Africa, the Congress of African People, the Institute of Positive Education, NationHouse, the Organization Us, and others—declared that we were an African people, and began to struggle towards the reclamation of our culture and the restoration of our sovereignty, they were engaged in the practice of Kujichagulia.
We stand on the shoulders of all of these ancestors. Their practice of Kujichagulia continues to inform ours, because no people can fully express their humanity when it is defined by their oppressors. No people can choose and fulfill their destiny under the tyranny of alien ideas.
Some of us are making deep ideological investments in paradigms that cannot cure what ails us.
We are in the midst of what I call the “New Holy Wars”. Whereas the old “Holy Wars” pertained to the conflicts between Jews, Christians, and Muslims; the “New Holy Wars” includes African Traditionalists and African American religious skeptics, such as atheists and agnostics, embroiled in withering battles with fellow African Americans who are Christians, Muslims, and (to a lesser extent) Hebrews. These debates often center around questions of legitimacy, that is the idea that only indigenous African spiritual practices can cure the cultural ills of our community and set us down a path of redemption; or they may focus on rationality, that is the idea that religion is an instrument of oppression, and that it is only by breaking with religion, or by embracing a more enlightened spirituality that we will be able to free ourselves. Given the partisan nature of these debates what is legitimate or rational diverge significantly depending on the point of view in question. Moreover, these discourses are often insulated and reinforced within their own respective echo-chambers, thus diminishing the degree of dialog that occurs, and heightening the level of criticism among those who are situated on these disparate (but typically digital) battlefields.
While I think that debate can be intellectually stimulating, our obsession with religion is confounding our ability to effectively organize across our differences, and around our shared interests. Focusing on what divides us does not necessarily make us stronger, it may actually weaken us. This is especially urgent given the myriad of crises that we face, none of which will be easily resolved by the triumph of any of the above partisans over the others. If the African traditionalists are able to vanquish the Black Muslims in these debates, will we then have a solution to the problems of food insecurity in our communities? If the Black Atheists marshal their collective intelligence and crush the Black Christians in this discourse, will the problems of violence within the community be resolved? My point is that any perceived victories in this domain are hollow, making the war itself rather pointless.
I am struck by the fact that many of the would-be-champions of this “war” have taken the position that this conflict can only be resolved by a collective embrace of their particular system of beliefs. This amounts to a form of ideological uniformity which is both impossible to achieve and impractical to sustain. If we organize from the standpoint that we cannot collaborate absent ideological uniformity, then we severely undermine our collective capacity, and we demonstrate a fatal under-appreciation for the importance of devising and adhering to principles of “operational unity.” A Pan-African orientation necessitates this, it requires that we forge alliances across our supposedly vast differences for the sake of achieving a larger objective—liberation. A Pan-African orientation would also challenge us to seek the value or potential value in our cultural diversity.
The Haitian Revolution demonstrates the potency of Traditional African spirituality as a force for radical change, as it provided an ideological impetus for struggle and the attempt to concretize an African worldview both during and after the victory. The vanguard role of the African American church during the 19th Century, and leaders such as Bishop Henry McNeal Turner who exhorted Africans to take up arms in their struggle for liberation, are fine examples of the ways in which African Americans have sought to adapt Christianity to the political exigencies of the Maafa—the interrelated processes of enslavement, colonialism, and racial subordination. The legacy of the Honorable Elijah Muhammad, Malcolm X, and the Nation of Islam in sustaining the spirit of Black Nationalism in the mid-20th Century, and creating a context which problematized America and the supposed promises of integration, were classic examples of how Black Muslims played and continue to play a role in the liberation discourse of the community. Finally, the impact of Black religious skeptics, people who were often atheists or agnostics is best exemplified by the work of scholar John G. Jackson, who sought to repair the shattered historical memory of Africans in America, and in doing so, offered a vision of history that could help us to better understand our present and extend ourselves into the future.
To be sure, I have been a participant in these debates at different points in my adult life. However I have come to believe that if we cannot unite around our common interests, then we consign ourselves to oblivion. My point here is simple. We are surrounded by a cacophony of ideas, a myriad of voices. I maintain that chief among all these is one singular objective—liberation. If our ideological positions precludes us from working in concert with our brothers and sisters, particularly those who think differently than we do, then we are not working in the interest of freedom, and are quite likely betraying our future.
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.
My intellectual genealogy is not traceable to Europe or any European thinker. Similarly, my position on the politics of most things can be summed up as the “maroon” position, that is the position of those Africans who, so determined to escape chattel slavery, that they fled the plantations and established free and independent communities in the swamps, hills, caves, and so on of the so-called “New World”.
Not content to be free while others suffered, many of the maroons would often wage war against the system of slavery. The maroons were advocates of African self-determination. They were advocates for the preservation and adaptation of African cultures and traditions. They realized that institution building was vital to their survival, thus they sustained families, grew food, defended their territories and so on. Their logic could be summed up as follows: The only means whereby we can fully actualize optimal living conditions for our people, is to live free of foreign domination.
Again, as stated, my position on most things is the maroon position. I see no separation between the imperatives of our ancestors and ourselves.
Vapid concepts are often accompanied by nebulous articulations of necessary actions de-linked from the tradition of Black struggle that has sought to restore the African way (cultural reclamation) and reestablish our sovereignty (nationhood and independence).
I believe that there is a great desolation in our souls that results from our failure to create a sovereign expression of our peoplehood. Absent territorial sovereignty, we are and will remain subject to the caprice of more powerful groups. Nationhood is no guarantee of happiness or security, but it reflects a more determined pursuit of these things.