sbAyt ni ptH (The instructions of Ptah): Fashioning the future

In ancient kmt (Kemet or Egypt) the nTr (netcher) ptH (Ptah) was shown at a potter’s wheel sculpting rmT (remetch)–humans. Ptah thus becomes symbolic of the process of crafting reality, molding remetch, and thus shaping the future. Absent an additional determinative, ptH also means create. Ptah reflects the cultural values of Kemet in this respect, that humans are the architects of possibility. Like Ptah, we are endowed with the power to create a world that reflects us. I argue that this charge is not a matter of mere preference, but in fact is vital to our very survival as a people.

In my previous post, Fight or Flight?, I discussed the importance of critically assessing the viability of continued struggle in the U.S. I suggested that, drawing from the insights of Martin R. Delany from a century and a half ago, that flight might offer a more viable solution for the malaise of African people. However I suspect that there is a middle ground between the continued oppression, which is a natural consequence of the paucity of African power, and emigration. That middle ground draws most directly from the legacy of Black Nationalism and offers a path that has been articulated by many of our forebearers.

In his famous speech The Ballot or the Bullet, Malcolm X reaffirms his commitment to Black Nationalism. He states that while his religion is Islam, that “my religious philosophy, my political, economic, and social philosophy is Black Nationalism.” He goes on to explain what each of these commitments means, stating that in each and every sphere African people must exert direct and deliberate control over the institutions that sustain their lives. Malcolm X’s charge is one that we still struggle to actualize today, but it is imperative if we endeavor to secure ourselves and our future. In this essay I offer a brief sketch of how this idea can gain expression within and outside of the United States.

The viability of Black Nationalism as a practical philosophy focused on achieving African community empowerment must first address the question of geographic distribution and the capacity for the generation of power in each of these respective domains. By this I mean to suggest that our efforts should be focused on building zones of self-determination, or liberated zones, and building an infrastructure whereby these zones can be connected to sustain economic, political, and cultural exchanges. That stated, any program for community empowerment must examine the distribution of African communities within the U.S., expanding more broadly throughout North America and the Caribbean, and from there to the African continent in addition to other outposts of the global African community. The plan discussed herein will be centered from the locus of the African American community simply because that community is the central feature of this particular reflection. Moreover it will center on economics, politics, and culture as forms of power, and as such, bases of struggle requisite in the establishment of liberated zones.

Economics, politics, and culture as terrains of struggle

In the early and mid-20th Century African American economic enclaves were a common feature in many African American urban centers. Harlem in New York, the Black Metropolis in Chicago, Black Wall Street in Tulsa, and others were potent examples of our efforts to create economies that served the interests of the community. W.E.B. Du Bois’s essay entitled “The upbuilding of Black Durham” offers a compelling portrait of Durham, N.C. as a community striving for economic self-determination.

While integration is often faulted as contributing to the demise of these communities, integration occurred parallel to an increased engagement of African Americans in electoral politics. While many viewed the election of many Black candidates to various local, state, and federal offices as a progressive development, this alone was not constitutive of political power. If examined from the standpoint of Malcolm X, electoral politics alone was insufficient to bestow upon African Americans total control of our communities.

This period was also characteristic of a surge of interest in African culture, as well as in the politics of Pan-Africanism. The pioneering role of Maulana Karenga and the Organization Us in popularizing a paradigm of re-Africanization via the theory of Kawaida cannot be understated as it provided a cultural impetus and framework that informed the works of other formations such as the Congress of African People and the Council of Independent Black Institutions, which were instrumental in advancing discourse about the role of culture in Black Nationalist struggle.

While this period, the mid-1960s to the beginning of the 1980s was rich in animating the discourse and activism on these varied fronts, the capacity of the movement for Black Nationalism on the whole experienced a peak and decline within this same period. The federal government’s Counter Intelligence Program is in part to blame for this decline. The ultimate tragedy of this movement’s contraction is that we have been denied the opportunity to view the full potential of these initiatives, which I argue are essential to the conceptualization of a renewed path towards social power.

Revisiting (and updating) the New African National Strategy

Around the year 2000 Dr. Demetri Marshall, then president of the Provisional Government of the Republic of New Africa (PG-RNA), visited Chicago and lectured at the Carruthers Center for Inner City Studies. His lecture centered on his New African National Strategy (NANS), which was a platform for achieving independence and sovereignty based on the historic platform of the Republic of New Africa (RNA), which identified five states as the national territory for an independent African American or New African nation. These states are South Carolina, Georgia, Alabama, Mississippi, and Louisiana. The NANS identified three broad types of areas, and attempted to articulate the form that organizing in each of these domains should take. These three areas were 1) rural areas inside of the national territory, 2) urban areas inside of the national territory, and 3) areas outside of the national territory. One key feature of Dr. Marshall’s strategy was the Kush District, an area comprising the western border of Mississippi, consisting of contiguous counties with over 70% African majorities in the population. It was believed that this large area, if made the epicenter of organizing activity, could become an example of the potential of national independence and serve to invigorate the movement towards a plebiscite–a national vote wherein African people in the U.S. would declare their will to remain citizens of the U.S. or to establish a sovereign nation.

Each type of area identified within the NANS offered unique challenges, opportunities, and priorities with regards to organizing, but in each area within the national territory the acquisition of economic, political, and cultural empowerment were primary concerns. I think that this model offers much insight into a potential path towards social power.

Similar to the NANS, I wish to discuss three distinct area types that currently serve as loci of habitation, or arguably communities for African Americans. I argue that the term loci of habitation is more appropriate than communities because a community is a shared space that reflects the political, economic, and ultimately the cultural interest of those who reside therein; whereas a locus of habitation is simply a place where one lives that may or may not reflect one’s interest. The colonized and compromised nature of African communities within the U.S. do not meet an optimal criteria for community. Nonetheless I will use these terms interchangeably. The three loci of habitation that I will discuss are 1) Black majority neighborhoods, 2) Black majority municipalities, and 3) Black majority regions.

Black majority neighborhoods are spaces within existing municipalities that feature a numeric majority African populations. These communities may exist within municipalities or regions wherein Africans are or are not numeric majorities. Black majority municipalities are localities such as cities or towns with African demographic majorities that are located within larger regional areas that may or may not feature corresponding African demographic majorities. Lastly African majority regions are contiguous geographic areas consisting of municipalities, counties, and states wherein Africans comprise a distinct numeric majority.

One might conceive that each level articulated offers expanding levels of possibility with respect to the imperatives of economic, political, and cultural power. To be sure, each level offers increased possibilities of development and integration within larger African networks.

A scaled and integrated approach to economic power

The examples offered earlier of economically prosperous African American communities offers a potent example of the forms of economic development that should be strove for on the level of Black majority neighborhoods. Central to this analysis is the acknowledgement that an economy is a system for the production and distribution of goods and services that are vital the well-being of a community or society. Herein I argue that a core feature of communal life at every phase of analysis is the imperative that communities both produce and consume the basic resources that they require to survive. Using the model offered by the Council of Independent Black Institutions (CIBI), there are six basic levels of institution building. These are shelter, clothing, food production, health care, education, and defense. If one adds logistics such as transportation and communication to this, you have the seven basic levels of economic development requisite to create self-sufficient communities. I argue that these provide a framework for economic development for neighborhoods.

Succinctly stated, shelter consists of the ability to build and maintain housing requisite to meet the needs of the community. Clothing includes the totality of resources that enable communities to provide clothing for its members. This includes the production of fibers, the processing of textiles, the assembly of garments, and the distribution and recycling of these items throughout the community. Food production entails the growth or procurement of food necessary to sustain human life and well-being. This necessarily includes agriculture and food distribution systems. Health care is the institution focused on ensuring the mental and physical well-being of community members. This includes the range of social processes such as medicine production and distribution, delivery of medical care, and the application of health care knowledge in the development and design of institutions that seek to address health ills and promote optimal functioning. Education is the collective of socialization processes focused on ensuring the intergenerational survival and enhancement of African life. Education entails processes that seek to disseminate essential skills and vital knowledge, in addition to preparing members of the community for the various vocations requisite for its survival. Defense entails the capacity to secure African life, institutions, and territory; the ability to resist threats both internal and external to the community. Lastly, logistics entails the ability to move goods, information, and personnel. This capacity is essential to the functioning of any economic system, and is imperative to the horizontal integration of similar systems.

Horizontal integration refers a process of combining comparable economic systems within a cooperative, and thus mutually beneficial network. While each of the above forms of institutions are necessary on any communal level, they most clearly demarcate the thrust of economic development within any neighborhood. As multiple neighborhoods engage in processes of horizontal integration, these communal clusters are able to establish interdependent economies with implications for scales of production, markets of consumption, and levels of autonomy. Thus even on the first level, consisting of African majority neighborhoods, a modicum of self-sufficiency is possible that is only augmented as multiple communities coalesce. Thus the secondary level is essentially the replication of this level of development across neighborhoods within a municipality.

This principle of horizontal integration applies to the third level—African majority regions—as municipalities and communities across a broad geographic area seek to combine their economic structures. This principle of regional integration can operate on the scale of local regions, as in a collection of contiguous areas, or more dispersed regions which are non-contiguous but where integration becomes a feasible and beneficial endeavor.

In short, economic development is, just as it has always been, absolutely vital to our survival as a people. Our failure to move forthrightly to build and horizontally integrate our economic systems imperils our collective capacity, and with it, our ability to bring a desired future into being.

Governance and the restoration of communal authority

One of the failings of the last several decades has been the over-emphasis of electoral politics. While effecting our will through the political apparatus is necessary and beneficial, this period has also been characterized by an alarming degree of social disorganization in African communities. By social disorganization I am referring to the loss of collective capacity in the community via the erosion of social structures which serve to transmit and reinforce social norms. Traditional structures such as the extended family, African American education personnel, the clergy, and a broad array of community members were empowered to act collectively as stewards of the community via the assent of the community. This mechanism of internal regulation has largely eroded as African American family units have become less stable, as the African American teaching force declines and are replaced by outsiders, as Black religious institutions have turned from issues of social justice to material aggrandizement, and as concerned community members have secluded themselves behind closed doors having been driven away out of fears for their safety.

The point here is that political power is essentially the ability of a community to exert its will over the processes of governance that shape society. With respect to communities, political power occurs on multiple levels, in forms which are both vertical and horizontal.

Vertical forms of political power are best reflected in hierarchical institutional contexts where there is a governing body and a mass that is essentially governed. Vertical forms are the normal forms of political relations within the U.S., and the forms that naturally occur within a representative political system. While these systems are touted for their supposed efficiency (i.e., the ability for the interests of hundreds or thousands to be represented by a single individual) these systems are prone to corruption. Horizontal forms of political power relate to the processes of governance wherein the subjects of governance are simultaneously the source of governance, that is, these are collective systems that require the active engagement of every member to participate in determining the will of the collective, and then to carryout and enforce that will in social intercourse.

Key to the viability of horizontal systems of governance is scale. With respect to the three area types discussed in this work, the first level, neighborhoods, provide an ideal context for the implementation and practice of this form of governance. On the scale of level two, municipalities, horizontal governance becomes increasingly difficult across very large populations. This is a point where vertical forms of governance become a matter of practicality, particularly if sufficient safeguards are established to ensure alignment between the actions of political representatives and their communities. It should be noted that the role of community members acting in a representative capacity diverges markedly from them viewing themselves as political leaders, which suggests a hierarchy of power which is antithetical to the liberatory paradigm of governance described herein. Finally, on the level of regions, the third level, representative forms of governance are a necessity, particularly across far-flung regional contexts. However, regional governing bodies should utilize collective forms of decision making as a way of ensuring fairness.

Such a paradigm of governance as discussed here is inextricably linked to the development of a comprehensive economic system, as the work of managing the economy will in part fall under the purview of the institution of governance. Additionally, the conceptualization and implementation of such a form of governance will absolutely necessitate a cultural system which enshrines the requisite unity, cooperation, and trust that will sustain such an endeavor.

Re-Africanization, culture, and engine of liberatory of struggle

Culture is always linked to social power, as culture provides the ideational frameworks wherein power is acknowledged as a vital necessity for life. All economic activity is in fact cultural activity, as culture entails the totality of material and non-material objects that exist within any society, this includes the goods, information, or skills that become vital in any economic system. Similarly, political activity is also fundamentally cultural, as culture determines forms of governance, levels of participation, and articulates the ends of such endeavors. Thus governance by Africans in the interest of Africans, or as Dr. Anderson Thompson says of the African Principle, governance that seeks to establish “the greatest good for the greatest number” is a function of culture. Thus, with respect to both the conceptualization and actualization of a bases for African liberation we are dealing with culture and its role in shaping our notions of reality.

One of the key challenges of Africans who have sought to throw off the fetters of the Maafa–the interrelated processes of slavery, colonialism, and their legacies—has been the difficulty of concretizing an African worldview and seamlessly transmitting and sustaining this worldview for subsequent generations. The difficulty of this process derives essentially from the inability of African people to effectively control the socialization process of African people, which in this case requires the capacity to neutralize alien cultural influences. This inability is merely a reflection of the captive state of African communities in the west, most notably our weak economic and political structures. Thus any liberatory effort that does not conceive of culture’s centrality as an impetus of revolutionary transformation is insufficient. Therefore I maintain that culture, as a terrain of struggle, is characterized by a process of re-Africanization, wherein African people engage in a deliberate process of creating a culture that justifies and sustains revolutionary struggle, as well as offering, as Dr. Anderson Thompson states, “a grand vision for the future”.

On the level of neighborhoods, this culture work is absolutely vital to inculcating the value systems needed to effect other transformations in the domain of economics and politics. This work, by necessity, gives rise to the communal structures that makes work in these other domains possible. It also provides a medium of healing, transforming the lingering manifestations of isft, chaos and disorder, through the restoration of mAat, a transcendent and just social order.

On the municipal level this culture work takes on possibilities that are particularly compelling, as local institutions can then be aligned to these paradigms. Whether we are referring to systems of governance, public health, education, or environmental stewardship, African cultures offer rich and varied models that can appreciably enhance human life. Moreover the increased resource capacity present on a municipal level can both aid and augment the efforts of those in communities directed towards re-Africanization.

On the regional level, emancipatory culture work has the potential to catalyze greater changes, both with respect to the scale of resources, but also in terms of shared cultural knowledge. The regional level offers the greatest potential for building and sustaining systems whose alignment with the loftiest ideas and values of African culture offers a range of dynamic possibilities in terms of media production and dissemination, energy production, resource management, logistics, and defense.

A pause, not a conclusion

Each of these three levels expresses the bounds of possibility. From the communal to the regional scales there is an increased capacity that argues quite vociferously for the potentiality inherent in the regional scale. Moreover, the prospect of inter-regional networks has the capacity to include African majority regions within the U.S., the Caribbean, Central America, South America, and Africa in coherent economic, political, and cultural networks. This greatly augmented capacity lays the basis for social power on a scale far greater than that presently exercised by these entities in a non-integrated fashion. Thus here I am advocating not simply for the primary three levels: neighborhood/communal, municipal, and regional; but also inter-regional, which is ultimately continental, hemispheric, and global.

If we remind ourselves, that we are engaged in a struggle for survival, and we are collectively engaged in attempting to ensure victory in that struggle, then we must assiduously search for ways to effect that end. This essay has been a contribution to that endeavor. Herein I have attempted to briefly sketch how this process can play out within the geographic confines of the United States while drawing on the insight of my Black Nationalist forebears. This is not an attempt to negate either the viability of exit (i.e. emigration and repatriation) or territorial sovereignty as envisioned by the RNA, but rather to offer a framework that occupies a more liminal space, one that both leads to territorial sovereignty and possibly creates systems which aids the efforts of African American repatriates, as well as African states and societies on the continent and in the diaspora. Ultimately this document is submitted not merely for reflection, but to inform intelligent action towards the achievement of two vital ends: the reclamation of African culture and the restoration of African sovereignty in the world.

Anx wAs snb (Ankh Was Seneb) – Life Power Health

Sanaa ya mapigano (the art of fighting)

Sometimes when I flow into the energy of the moment, when I do what feels natural–that which organically arises in that confluence of time and space–style disappears, systems blur, art is born.

Fight or flight?

Much of the work that we have engaged in since the 19th Century has been based on the idea that we can win in this country. The exodusters of the 19th Century migrated and built independent communities because they believed that we could create viable spaces for our selves in the midst of our enemies. The northern migrations of the late 19th to mid-20th Centuries were also based on the idea that the grip of White Supremacy would be a bit less constricting in the north and west. Even groups like the the Black Panthers, Us, the Congress of African People, and the Council of Independent Black Institutions engaged in their work with the idea that we could position ourselves to effect our will over our collective lives here.

While I find all of these examples and the many others not mentioned inspiring, I think that we need to consider the possibility that winning here may not be possible, or may not be worth the potential cost. What if Martin Delany was correct when he stated “Because even were it possible, with the present hate and jealousy that the whites have towards us in this country, for us to gain equality of rights with them; we never could have an equality of the exercise and enjoyment of those rights—because, the great odds of numbers are against us.”? Delany also queried when discussing the Fugitive Slave Law, “What can we do? What shall we do? This is the great and important question:—Shall we submit to be dragged like brutes before heartless men, and sent into degradation and bondage?—Shall we fly, or shall we resist? Ponder well and reflect.”

I think that many of us have taken the path of resistance. Fewer have chosen flight. What would a rigorous exploration of the present and potential efficacy of these paths reveal? If the intelligence of resistance is most reflected in the prospects for victory, does that remain possible here in the U.S.? Victory herein is not simply a matter of overcoming external oppositions, what Delany refers to as the forces allied against us, but also the psychologically debilitating malaise of oppression.

A child born under oppression, has all the elements of servility in its constitution; who when born under favorable circumstances, has to the contrary, all the elements of freedom and independence of feeling. Our children then, may not be expected, to maintain that position and manly bearing; born under the unfavorable circumstances with which we are surrounded in this country; that we so much desire. To use the language of the talented Mr. Whipper, “they cannot be raised in this country, without being stoop shouldered.”

Stated another way by Jacob H. Carruthers, “Our people are subjected to an educational process and content that, either by design or as an unavoidable byproduct, deforms most African minds”. This suggests that our present situatedness, even where it is characterized by resistance to oppression, occurs in an environment where the conditions which would enable victory are under constant assault.

This is not to suggest that flight, or emigration alone offers a panacea, rather to pose the need for a critical deliberation upon the problems and prospects associated with departure, not simply on the scale of individuals and families, but on the scale of a mass of people similar to the late 19th Century emigrationists. Herein a number of pertinent questions loom, many of the questions were anticipated by Delany over one hundred and fifty years ago.

Delany states “We love our country, dearly love her, but she don’t love us—she despises us, and bids us begone, driving us from her embraces; but we shall not go where she desires us; but when we do go, whatever love we have for her, we shall love the country none the less that receives us as her adopted children.” Thus we must ask the following queries: What destination offers optimal conditions for both the holistic development of African American emigrants, in addition to providing viable paths for them to contribute to the development of their new home?

In recognizing the seeming novelty of emigration as a political solution, Delany states

This may be acknowledged; but to advocate the emigration of the colored people of the United States from their native homes, is a new feature in our history, and at first view, may be considered objectionable, as pernicious to our interests. This objection is at once removed, when reflecting on our condition as incontrovertibly shown in a foregoing part of this work. And we shall proceed at once to give the advantages to be derived from emigration, to us as a people, in preference to any other policy that we may adopt.

Does the prospect of emigration contribute to enriching the discourse of African American empowerment, a discourse that is frequently impoverished by a lack of imagination and a failure to consider our embeddedness within a global African community?

Finally, to what may be the most pressing query–tutakwendapi?–where will we go? Reflecting on this, and prior to offering his own analysis of Africa, Canada, and the Americas south of the U.S. respectively Delany states, “This granted, the question will then be, Where shall we go? This we conceive to be all important—of paramount consideration, and shall endeavor to show the most advantageous locality; and premise the recommendation, with the strictest advice against any countenance whatever, to the emigration scheme of the so called Republic of Liberia.” The resolution of this query must be satisfied via rigorous assessment that is constrained within an overarching timeframe focused on achieving action, not incessant deliberation. To this end, the engagement of a community will be necessary who are capable of considering the myriad factors at play in such an endeavor.

In closing, I am not arguing that emigration is the singular path available to us. To the contrary, there may yet be domestic prospects available to us which I hope to outline in a future essay. Nonetheless, this is a path that is often not considered as a viable political strategy, an insufficiency that may constrain the totality of our vision.

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.


In an oppressive society, thinking is a potential act of resistance

If you accept the legitimacy of America, then you will argue vociferously in defense of it. If you accept that this is a settler colony that has been enriched by slavery and conquest, then you may entertain the thought that the rampant abuses of police officers, the chronic failure of schools that serve people of color, the use of African people in heinous medical experiments, or any of the other indices of despair that characterize our condition are not aberrations, but are in fact the necessary and logical outcomes of this system. Critical thinking is the most basic and fundamental right of the oppressed. It is the first act which makes all other acts aimed at ending oppression possible.

Ipuwer, crisis, and the maafa

The text that Theophile Obenga calls The Lamentations of Ipuwer is a lamentation of social decline. Set during the period that the Egyptologists call the First Intermediate Period after the end of the Old Kingdom, this text depicts a society that has descended into isfet. Foreign occupiers, marauding gangs, bandits, and usurpers—Ipuwer looks out upon a world that is characteristic of maximal chaos and disorder (isfet).

In many respects, Ipuwer’s narrative captures a world much like our own, both domestically and globally. Kwame Ture and Charles V. Hamilton described African communities as internal colonies of the United States. As such, African American communities are positioned as sites of capital accumulation for groups external to the community. The effects of this external occupation of African American financial markets is compounded by the absence, marginality, or contraction of African American owned enterprises. Additionally, African American communities are often replete with institutions that exist outside of the purview of the community. Whether the unresponsiveness of these institutions is due to their external control, or characteristic of ineptitude, they represent fetters on the structural capacity of the community to conceptualize and effect its collective will and thus represents the salience of isfet within African communities.

Furthermore, whether or not crime rates in major American cities have declined, there is for many people a palpable sense danger. In many respects this corresponds to the previous condition of internal colonialism, as communities bereft of a locus of internal control are characteristic of what the social scientists call social disorganization. This perspective was expressed most succinctly by Nana Agyei Akoto at the Sankofa Conference in Washington, D.C. in 2006 when he said that “Everything is broken.” His contention was that the social systems of Africans had been shattered by the Maafa, hence our families, economic institutions, political institutions, and so forth have been decimated by this process. Just as Ipuwer observed the dispossessed around him, we have experienced a profound and traumatic experience of dislocation.

Cultural Conquest

When I see people going to creative lengths to retain their use of the n-word I am reminded of how mentally enfeebled some of us have become as a result of the cultural oppression of the Maafa–the interrelated processes of enslavement, colonialism, and their lingering effects. This has not been incidental to Europeans’ domination of Africans, it has been central to it, for it is not enough to conquer any people militarily, they must be conquered culturally as well. This conquest has taken place over the course of centuries. Cultural conquest saps the will to resist, seeks to argue that the oppressive reality is the natural state of a people, and ultimately attempts to impose the oppressor’s definitions of reality onto the oppressed. It is the centrality of this cultural domain to the political and economic forms of struggle that have so energized the work of many Africans in the U.S. over the last half century. The struggle for cultural sovereignty is not simply about wearing African clothing, adopting African names, speaking African languages, or embracing African spirituality. It certainly includes these things, but is ultimately focused on the conceptualization, actualization, and assertion of African sovereignty in the world. In this essay I will attempt to differentiate these two forms of conquest, explicating the ways in which they have adversely affected Africans in the past, in addition to their continued impacts in the present.

Military conquest occurred during the initial stage of what would be our ancestors’ ultimate enslavement in the west. The insufficiency of these campaigns necessitated further military actions by Europeans, as Africans continued to assert their right to freedom. The Stono Rebellion, the Haitian revolution, the Maroon campaigns in Jamaica and Cuba; the insurrections or planned insurrections of Denmark Vessey, Gabriel Prosser, Nat Turner, and others; in addition to the militarized assaults on the Republic of New Africa, the Black Panther Party, the Black Liberation Army, and other formations; to say nothing of the repression and generalized destabilization of organizations that have sought to actualize African freedom and self-determination throughout the Twentieth Century all illustrate the nature of the on-going maintenance of military conquest against our people. This continuation of war is evident from the repression of these movements to the racialized containment or urban African communities by law enforcement and the resultantly frequent murder of unarmed Africans.

While the military assault upon Africans has often manifest itself in fairly direct ways–the decimation of African lives and infrastructure at the hands of Europeans and their proxies, the cultural assault has been more insidious.  Also, just as military conquest has been sustained over this period, so too has the cultural assault. The suppression of African cultural traditions in North America during the period of enslavement was not sufficient to eradicate our knowledge of who we were as Africans. From our continued use of the term African to identify ourselves well into the 19th Century, to our creation of organizations and institutions designed to sustain our struggle for liberation, to our affinity with the broader global African community as evidenced the numerous exchanges between 19th Century Africans in the U.S. and Haiti, to our support of African liberation struggles in the late 20th Century, many of us have been clear that we are an African people. However, European domination and African sovereignty are not compatible survival paradigms, thus Europeans have spared no expense to suppress us culturally. The renaming of enslaved Africans was one potent example of this initiative, for a name is tethered to history, cultural traditions, worldview constructs, and societies. In many African cultures the name is expressive of one’s destiny and one’s obligations to the community. In forcing European names upon Africans, Europeans in effect sough to de-link Africans from their histories, traditions, and worldview; instead making them beholden to European histories, traditions, and worldview constructs. Therefore if the enslaved African is ontologically constructed as being culturally, psychologically, biologically, and spiritually inferior to Europeans, the forced acceptance of this identity–via the ritual act of re-naming–seeks to internalize these deficit notions within the mind of the oppressed as a barrier to the conceptualization and realization of self-determination. Thus the imposition of European names was an initial, though not final act in the cultural dimension of this war.

The imposition of European cultural traditions upon Africans are further evidence of this assault. Christianity was used as a tool to dissuade resistance to European dominance, in addition to imposing the European worldview on Africans as a means of displacing their indigenous notions. Thus the deficit conceptualization of the human soul within Christianity was deeply antithetical to indigenous African philosophies about the nature and purpose of the human being. However these European paradigms were useful in creating the enfeebling belief that absent Europeans’ imposition of Christianity upon them, Africans would be damned to some imagined hell. The effect of this process was the de-linking of Africans from their traditions and the delegitimization of African culture vis-a-vis the super-ordination of European culture. I use the cultural dislocations of Christianity as one form of cultural assault, that while having occurred over a century in the past, continues to reverberate today among Africans in the U.S. One of the interesting benefits that this ontology has afforded Europeans is that many Africans who are adherents of Christianity, eschew the need for liberatory struggle, resigning themselves to wait for the return of the Christian messiah in moment of sweeping change called the rapture. The prospect of a rapture notwithstanding, we are forced to face the existential nature of European oppression, for which no immediate avenue of escape (on either the metaphysical or Earthly planes) has revealed itself. Additionally, I am not denying that many Africans in the U.S. have used Christianity as a framework for liberatory struggle from the 19th Century to the present. These expressions of African agency run counter to the intended impact of Christianity upon the African psyche. Thus they reflect the retention of a cultural drive for self-determination among Africans. As such these efforts must be lauded, supported, and expanded.

Presently, we face an educational system which indoctrinates many African children into a belief that they are objects to be contained and controlled, wherein they learn nothing of their ancestors, thus reinforcing the false belief that our dominance by Europeans is the natural order of things. We face a global media industry that champions images of Africans as agents of community destabilization in the form of criminals and wayward stewards of community development. We are witnessing the latest phase in displacement of Africans from urban communities, a destabilizing process which confounds efforts to restore the bonds of community so fragile in the wake of economic collapse, family disruption, and mass-incarceration. These are not isolated or disconnected acts. These are tactics in the on-going cultural war against African agency.

Finally, the on-going cultural assault on Africans are challenges that must be answered lest we perish. Victory in this stage of war requires that we do as Baba Jedi Shemsu Jehewty instructed. He states that “African champions must break the chain that links African ideas to European ideas and listen to the voice of the ancestors without European interpreters.” This requires us to de-link ourselves from the legacies of oppression as we commit to the reclamation of African culture and the restoration of African sovereignty in the world. Much of the socialization that we have been subject to has ill-prepared us for this challenge, for such an endeavor will require us to divest ourselves of longing to redeem those practices which are harbingers of oppression. One example would be the n-word, replacing it with a term that articulates our shared history before the maafa, and the collective destiny that we share. Compare this to a term from the ancient Nile Valley such as kmtyw (pronounced Kem-et-ee-oo), which means Black people, or simply kmty (pronounced Kem-et-ee), which means Black person. This term was the indigenous word for the populace of ancient kmt (Kemet) or ancient Egypt. Our embrace of this term would reinforce the identification of Africans in the U.S. with kmt that began in the 19th Century, in addition to the ancestral connection to the Nile Vally shared by many of the West African groups (i.e., the Akan, Yoruba, etc.) from which many Africans in the U.S. are descended. To be sure, there are other viable candidates for a dignity-affirming referent for African people. Whatever we embrace, it should be intelligently connected to our drive for cultural sovereignty, not something that reinforces the dehumanization of the Maafa.