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.

American education and the malformation of African minds

Black folks have historically been objects of coercive control in the U.S. Our utility as a source of labor and a market for consumption is only exceeded by the fear and loathing that many White people have for us. In schools, arbitrary disciplinary policies become a veneer via which this history of repression is acted out. Under the guise of maintaining order, Black children are treated as a social malignancy. They are tolerated while silent, scolded when vocal, and expunged when assertive. Assertiveness is, after all, not within the purview of oppressed people. Thus I believe that this process of social control is designed to condition African youth early on to the notion that being self-determining and advocating for themselves are not rights that they are entitled to. Moreover they are taught that deference to White authorities is not only expected, but mandated, beginning with White teachers and extending to White police officers. Carter G. Woodson was right–schools are bastions of mis-education for our youth.

The Kemetic View of Time

The Kemetic view of time differs in some ways from the Bantu-Kongo, but corresponds in a number of respects. Three relevant Kemetic conceptions of time are nHH, sp tpy, and wHm mswt. These describe the Kemetic conception of the pre-conditions of the advent of the universe, the emergence of space time, and the invocation of that occasion as a paradigm of cultural renewal.

nHH, or the Kemetic idea of eternity or infinity is characterized by four basic forces: formless and boundless matter, infinite potential, absolute darkness, and the unknown. Jacob H. Carruthers states that “The idea of infinity as the pre-beginning condition is related to the…notion of boundlessness. Here, time emerges from the Eternal never ending, never beginning, never distinct infinity.” (Carruthers, 1984, 60-61).

sp tpy, literally “first occasion” (Carruthers, 1984, p. 58), represents the emergence of the physical universe and the beginning of space-time. That is to say that sp tpy represents the origin of the universe as a spatial-temporal phenomenon. However in addition to this, sp tpy also represents the initiation of a process resulting in the ultimate manifestation of the constituent elements necessary to establish optimal conditions for living. As Carruthers states, “The conditions, properties and processes that are necessary for existence, the good life and eternity came into being for the first time…. Thus, we may say everything came into being sp tpy.” (1984, p. 58).

Similar to musoni and kala on the Dikenga, nHH and sp tpy represents two distinct phases of cosmogenesis (Obenga, 2004). nHH is a state of infinite possibility, one which precedes actuality. It is the state of formlessness, possessing within it the potentiality of all form, giving rise to the universe at sp tpy. Thus these two stages of the Kemetic concept of time represents the state preceding and subsequent to musoni (the big bang) (Fu-Kiau, 1994), in addition to the continued unfolding of the universe as represented by kala.

wHm mswt, literally the “repetition of the births”, was the hr name of the “Twelfth Dynasty” ruler imn m HAt or Amenemhat, who initiated a period of national restoration and renewal (Carruthers, 2007). As niswt (the title of rulers in kmt) Amenemhat’s hr name explicated his descent from Hr or Hrw, and the attendant charge to restore the unity and greatness of the nation. Amenemhat conceptualized this restorative process of reclaiming the great works of antiquity, and building upon those to restore mAat to the land. This charge is clearly expressed in the text that Carruthers calls the “Good Speech of Neferti” (called the Prophesies of Neferti by the Egyptologists) which states “mAat, with respect to injustice, is in her place. Cast out Isft.”

Given its orientation towards restoration and reclamation, wHm mswt, is similar to the point of luvemba on the Dikenga. It acknowledges a process of decline, and thus articulates a process of renewal and restoration as a social mandate to correct this condition. Thus wHm mswt is situated as a social processes directed towards the restoration of order (mAat) in the land. The juxtaposition of mAat to isft is highly instructive of the potential circumstances that occasion the invocation of wHm mswt as a necessary social corrective. It suggests the ascendence of, or rather the descent into isft as a condition of societal decline, wherein mAat is posed, not only as an opposing ideal, but as the natural order of things.