Institutions and Identity: Reflecting on Decolonizing Methodologies

I listened to a lecture by Linda Tuhiwai Smith on Decolonizing Methodologies while cleaning the refrigerator. It was rather stimulating. She addressed the ways in which other peoples are grappling with the same issues of identity, political power, cultural reclamation, and survival as are Africans globally. Two points resonated with me most: the imperative of independent institutions and the utility of sub-group identities (so-called “tribes) as units of social organization.

With respect to number one, we have sought to address this since the 17th Century, though I suspect that most of us have greater affinity with and knowledge of how this has played out since the 1960s. This imperative remains. There is no cultural institution (which is any all institutions, since culture is the totality of everything that humans produce) that exists outside of our purview that seeks to restore us as Africans to who and what we were prior to our encounter with Europeans. No matter how well-meaning or “charitable” the stewards of these alien institutions may be, we are culturally colonized. What’s more, most of the institutions under our purview do not see the necessity of our cultural restoration. We (and by “we” I mean those of us who are engaged with this “culture work” or perhaps more appropriately this Sankɔfa process of re-Africanization) are mining for fragments among the ruins and foraging for food in barren lands, while simultaneously seeking to reconstruct ourselves from the best of our collective past. The only effective vehicles for the expansion and intergenerational sustainability of this work however are our own cultural institutions, those institutions that are unambiguously committed to the reclamation of our culture and the restoration of our sovereignty in the world.

With respect to the second point, we spend far too much time seeking to explain ourselves to people who are hostile to our work. While I am all for educating and building bridges to members of the African community who are like-minded or sympathetic, we need not expend precious time or energy trying to convince people who are what Baba Mwalimu Baruti calls “lost souls” of the merit of our project. To use Ayi Kwei Armah’s analogy, no amount of water diverted to the desert will make it a wetland. Such changes are often illusory and short-lived. Our work should be to maximize our structural capacity, building those systems which have the greatest potential to both establish and expand our freedom, but also to educate our people and ourselves in the actual work of nationbuilding. We need a smaller unit of analysis than the approximately 38 million Africans that exist in the U.S. We need to create viable models of what our vision for our people looks like on the scale of dozens, hundreds, thousands, tens of thousands, and so on. We need to cheapen talk by demonstrating in word and deed our execution of our collective charge. We should anticipate an ever-widening circle of affinity, but make no mistake about it, at the center of that circle is the arduous toil of liberatory struggle. No amount of impassioned rhetoric, whether it is delivered oratorically or textually will suffice as a substitute. Those of us who consider ourselves nationalists, Pan-Africanists, socialists, and the like can ill-afford to believe that our works can only manifest themselves once they have gained the assent of the masses. Maroons freed themselves, fought the enemy, and created sovereign communities whilst the masses were in chains. We need to embrace maroonage as a living modality of struggle in situations where we constitute a numeric minority within a larger body. We need to embrace the cunning, work ethic, resolve, and objectives of the maroons–accepting nothing less than unfettered self-determination.