Religious absolutism

Many of us are beset by a static notion of “tradition“, one that does not effectively account for the exchanges that have occurred between Africa and the world. The most common manifestation of this are the “new holy wars“, but these manifest themselves in other problematic ways.

I recall learning about efforts to purge the Swahili of its Arabic and Farsi loan words. For someone who is driven by a quest for an imagined cultural purity, perhaps this makes sense, but this is only one way to look at things. The development of the language in its present form reveals the complexity, the multiple textures of the East African coast–the centuries of exchanges between there and the broader Indian Ocean world. Mugane’s Story of Swahili discusses this at length wherein he posits that the language reflects the cosmopolitanism of the coast.

I fear that for those of us who are the crusaders for an imagined cultural purity, that there is a deep underestimation of the resiliency of the African way in the face of outside cultures. I do not believe that this is a logical premise. Take for instance Hampâté Bâ’s magnificent work Kaidara. We find in this tale the Fulani tradition, one which reveals a synergy between Islamic & indigenous influences. It is far from the narrative of irreconcilable realities that many have suggested must characterize these two.

Consider also the various Black “radical” traditions that have gained expression through Christianity, Judaism, or Islam. Whether we are speaking of Bishop Henry McNeal Turner, the Hon. Elijah Muhammad, or others–are these not instances of African agency in the US?

I argue that for African people, these religious faiths have been utilized as mediums of our culture and political agency. I do not see them in a deterministic lens, that is that these have inevitably been means of cultural corruption or degradation, but the quite the contrary. I argue that our interaction with these faiths has–in the best of times–evidenced a synergy between our irrepressible striving for self-determination, our rich and varied cultural traditions, and the ideals and traditions of these faiths themselves. Thus I do not consider Malcolm X’s Islam, or Bishop Turner’s Christianity, or Boukman’s Vodun, or even John G. Jackson’s atheism arbitrary. Similarly, I do not see our capacity as being negated via these religious vehicles, but rather providing them a means of expression.

Ultimately, if we are serious about getting free, we have to consider the idiocy of a politics of religious absolutism–that is that all African people must acquiesce to one’s own preferred religious dogma. This is not only improbable, it is corrosive of potential unity.

 

Ukweli

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.”

A War Where Victory Equals Defeat

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 martial 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.

Kawaida and African Spirituality

There continues to be a great deal of fervor among our people as the search for ways to be African in the world renews itself with each generation. Kawaida Theory offers a number of critical insights into these questions.

Particularly, the urgent questions pertaining to African spirituality are taken up in Kawaida, identifying several basic areas of concern: ethical practice, the cultivation of wisdom, and service to one’s community–one’s people.

Kawaida’s approach to African spirituality articulates the important ways that African culture compels us to exist in the world as morally upright, intelligent and reflective, and with a deep sense of responsibility to reshape the world on behalf of our people and our future.

Goodness and nowness

As I was waiting on the Metra train today, a woman was waving her hand, trying to get my attention. She told me that the train wouldn’t stop where I was standing. I moved closer to where she was standing and thanked her. We both acknowledged that it’s only funny to watch people run for the train when it isn’t you doing the running.

I was struck by this. I often observe people engaging in seemingly futile or misguided gestures, but am generally disinclined to dissuade them without actually knowing them. I found her generosity fascinating. I am reminded of the Ewe proverb that translates as, “Your goodness is not for yourself, but for others.”

Afterwards, she mentioned that the sky was beautiful today. I hadn’t even looked up at all today until then. She was right. The sky was beautiful. I was intrigued by her attentiveness to something like this. To have that kind of presence in one’s world is really wonderful.

This is what Chögyam Trungpa referred to as “nowness”, a sense of presence in one’s world. A grounding that connects us to the phenomenal world. We are often so focused elsewhere, that too much of this world goes unnoticed and unappreciated.

The train came a short while later, stopping a few feet from where she stood, but about 40 feet from where I initially was. If not for her, I would have had to run for it.

Tradition or modernity

Many years ago, when at the Sankɔfa Conference, Baba Agyei Akoto observed that one of the primary tensions in the lives of African people is the struggle between tradition and modernity. He argued that many of our people have grown estranged from our traditions as they have progressively embraced the dominant Western paradigm, and with it, its notions of progress and universality.

This tension is dramatized in wonderful fashion in Julie Dash’s film, The Daughters of the Dust. In the film a Gullah family prepares to move to the mainland. The struggles surrounding the move were not merely logistical, but also epistemological and ontological as the relevance and perseverance of the African way was an indelible issue to be confronted. Thus, the Gullah Islands represented the spatial locus of tradition, while the mainland represented modernity’s locus—and their potential estrangement or alienation from tradition.

I fear that this drama has not only played itself out in the lives of African people, but that it continually plays itself out the world over at least for the past three or more centuries. We are confronted by a social and political order, ultimately a cultural order that decries tradition, our tradition as anachronistic—that it is outmoded, dated and irrelevant. And while we have not universally ventured towards the setting sun (that is the Western horizon) as the presumed apex of human possibility, it possible that most of us have been fundamentally decentered due to the disruption and destabilization of African life as a result of the Maafa. Thus, much of what has survived as our tradition, is often fragmentary, or worse corrupted.

It should be noted that this malaise has not only been visited upon us, but upon much of humanity, who have also witnessed an intergenerational weakening of their cultural moorings, thus leading to calls for various forms of re-indigenization, of which our own struggle for re-Africanization may also be understood.

Before proceeding, I should elaborate on an operative definition of tradition. Elsewhere I have attempted to problematize notions of tradition that ascribe to it a static quality. As such, “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.” Tradition, can be considered as the collective cultural productivity of a people as it unfolds through time and across space that is reflective of their asili, that is their core cultural values, beliefs, practices, and so on. Marimba Ani employed the term asili in this manner in her work Yurugu. Here I am arguing that tradition is not merely what people were doing “back then”, but rather that tradition entails past, present, and future practices that that are consanguine with the asili of a culture.

Consanguinity is, I argue, is critical in discerning the continuity of tradition, as it, like all else in reality, is subject to incessant change. Thus, if we are to consider African people’s movement through time and space, “tradition” has been variable in form, yet I argue constant in essence. Jacob H. Carruthers’s discussion of the significance and symbolism of speech in African cultures from antiquity to the present captures this. Such an analysis can be applied to a range of bodies of cultural activity including food production and preservation practices, theology and ritual, language, kinesthetic practices, and so on.

Cultural transmission and its adaptation and adjustment is one of the principal means whereby tradition is sustained and adapted over time. Fu-Kiau offers a wonderful portrait of this in his work Kindezi: The Kongo Art of Babysitting. He captures the ways in which such processes animated the texture of daily life. Thus, in the traditional society, cultural transmission was embedded in the day-to-day practices that sustained the community. Its disruption, as in the case of our Maafa1, has been achieved via both the dismantling of many of these communal structures and also subjecting various community members—especially children—to a form of mis-education2 designed to facilitate European dominance. European dominance requires, not merely the eradication of communal infrastructure, but also the appropriation of the process of socialization. Absent this, those tendencies within the traditional culture which might compel the revitalization and renewal of the culture and the restoration of sovereignty could provoke sustained resistance to European dominance. As such, tradition—which represents a kind of societal trajectory towards one’s ancestral traditions is supplanted by modernity—a societal trajectory towards the Western model of society, one which necessarily devalues the former, while idealizing the latter. All of this occurs while ignoring that modernity has been achieved, in large part, due to the disruption and decimation of the aforementioned tradition, in addition to negating a deep engagement with tradition as a repository of wisdom and solutions for many of the challenges confronting us.

Ultimately, while it is important to note the possibilities within tradition of supporting processes of re-Africanization, it is also necessary to acknowledge that this process is not without difficulty. At that same gathering, Baba Agyei Akoto said that “Everything is broken.” Thus, many of our systems have been dismembered, making our fragmented memories of our past a mirror for the state of our cultural infrastructure. What protocols have we devised which enable us to reach across the chasm of disruption in order to restore the African way? Are we resolved to make a home for ourselves within the promise and possibility of the African way? Or have we been seduced by the myopia which suggests that nothing is either possible or desirable outside of modernity?

Our answers to these questions inevitably animate actions, vectors towards the future.

 

1. Maafa is a Swahili that translates as disaster or calamity. It is a term that Dr. Marimba Ani offered to describe and identify the interrelated processes of slavery and colonialism, and their legacies.
2. Mis-education is a term coined by Dr. Carter G. Woodson to describe a formal process of socialization focused on perpetuating the dominance of Europeans via the utilization of African accomplices whose socialization via schools has prepared them for little else.