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.

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