Re-Africanization: Two perspectives

Re-Africanization can be thought of as a process of decolonization, wherein people of African descent seek to reconstruct their cultural practice in ways that augments the core elements of traditional culture, deconstructs the vestiges of cultural disruption, and adapts these reconceptualized cultural forms to the modern exigencies of the African world. Discourses of Re-Africanization, whether from continental Africans as Amilcar Cabral, or from diasporan thinkers such as Dr. Maulana Karenga, are focused on the conceptualization of culture as an engine of social transformation. Herein culture is understood as a deterministic structure instrumental in shaping human cognition, actions, and modes of organization. Culture then is conceived as a terrain of struggle, wherein the capacity of the people to extricate themselves from systems of oppression is not only contingent upon victory over structural forms of oppression, but also relies upon the dismantling of those cultural patterns that have been derived from processes of foreign domination, and thus focused on reinforcing the domination of the oppressor. There are generally two perspectives on the process of Re-Africanization: one approach which emphasizes the importance of cultural specificity, and another that advocates the utility of devising a cultural composite.

Advocates of cultural specificity emphasize the importance of our immersing ourselves in the culture of a specific ethnic group (often Ashanti or Yoruba). Emphasis is typically placed on the value of adopting the cultural practices of extant ethnic groups given the relative accessibility of living practitioners. Other advocates of cultural specificity also include Kemet (the ancient Egyptian civilization) as a viable cultural model. Contrary to the notion that Kemet is a dead civilization, proponents for the reconstruction of Kemetic culture argue that the abundance of textual, iconographic, architectural, and other data make Kemet highly accessible for those seeking to fully understand its culture. Moreover, many argue that Kemet’s culture legacy is evident in the language, cosmologies, and other practices of modern African ethnic groups.

Generally, advocates of cultural specificity will adopt the names, spiritual practices, language, dress, family/social structure and other elements of this particular culture. Baba Agyei and Mama Akua Nson Akoto discuss this approach extensively in Sankofa Movement: ReAfrkanization and the Reality of War.

The cultural composite approach emphasizes the importance of us developing a new African culture (though some might say a Pan-culture) that embraces the best elements of traditional and classical African culture, in both its continental and diasporic forms. Thus it advocates that we seek to be critically engaged with African cultural production in its totality, and from this seek to analyze, critique, interpret, and adopt those elements that best informs our attempts to liberate ourselves and to transform the world.

Generally, advocates of the cultural composite approach will draw from a variety of traditions for names, spiritual practices, languages, dress, family/social structure, and other elements. Dr. Maulana Karenga elaborates on this philosophy in his writings on Kawaida Theory, the most comprehensive treatment being his 1980 outline from the Kawaida Institute of Pan-African Studies.

Though these paradigms are presented as binaries, much of the actualization of processes of Re-Africanization reflect varying degrees of both. It should be noted that no culture can be adopted by any group without some degree of transformation and adaption from its original to its new form. Therefore even in contexts of cultural specificity there are composite elements that are inextricable. Furthermore, many proponents of a cultural composite may draw more heavily from one particular cultural context than others, this may even be more salient in specific domains of cultural knowledge and practice, thus producing areas of specificity within a larger composite framework.

What is America’s promise to Black people?

It is strange to gaze upon America’s pathological racism from Ghana. It is no less disturbing to behold, but it also makes me feel that we, Africans in America suffer a profound disadvantage in that, unlike our counterparts here or in other majority Black countries, we do not have our own society free from the idiocy and machinations of others who historically and presently have succeeded in maximizing our subordination. I am not suggesting that these ostensibly Black countries are panaceas, but they are places where in many respects we are (or believe ourselves to be) the stewards of our local destinies, which is different from the malaise of African Americans and other Diasporan Africans who are the subjects of often indifferent and frequently hostile states and institutions.

The hyper exploitation of enslavement was compounded by the evisceration of African humanity, and as such, provided a pretext for the legal mandates which enshrined Black oppression for the next century. And while that legal mandate was revised, wherein explicit acknowledgement of racial subordination as a state mandate was omitted, the damage had been done. The racialization of poverty and opportunity, the social psychology of white supremacy, the massive cultural apparatus designed to achieve what Carter G. Woodson called mis-education and Jacob H. Carruthers called de-education were sufficient to ensure that Blacks in the U.S. would remain on the margins of society–their hopes buoyed by the select few whose success became the stuff of “pulling one’s self up by the bootstraps” legends–an implicit condemnation of all those unable to overcome the weight of history and the burden of structural racism. Those others who refused to dream, the denizens of America’s declining urban centers in the late 20th Century, were ushered into the burgeoning prison industry, itself the heir to the fallen legacy of America’s great industrial economy. This was America’s assurance that it had a special place for Black people, the same place that it held in reserve for us in 1619: the dungeons of captivity, the expanding frontier of an ever-evolving hyper-exploitation, and life behind the veil of racialized contempt.

This puts before us a troubling malaise, one whose analysis is easier by far than its resolution. Some have argued that we should abscond to distant shores, that a more fulfilling life awaits us in Ghana or elsewhere on the African continent. I do not doubt that this may be true for a small minority, but this is not scalable as a solution to the structural racism faced by the masses of Africans in the U.S., to say nothing of the impact of global capitalism on the Black masses the world over, where the avarice of a few is afforded by the marginalization of the many. Thus one arrives on that distant shore beyond the horizon, only to find the flag of greed and corruption waving resplendent.

Others have advocated that our redemption lies in the voting booth, that a new era of Black electoral participation will lead the path to our redemption. This may be an efficacious strategy in some respects, but it ignores the lingering challenges that we face in cities and states where we are a numeric minority, and it does not capture the reality that the effectiveness of any form of governance in communities that have been wracked by economic decline will require degrees of remediation beyond simply electing a preferred candidate. As we are finding with the election of left-leaning candidates in countries in the throws of neoliberalism, governing in the midst of economic crisis can easily result in a political establishment which both teeters on the brink of illegitimacy and whose policy prescriptions reifies that which we see in many global cities—that local economic development is reliant on capital flows from international banks and multinational corporations–thus even progressive, grassroots leadership will remain tethered and thus constrained by the global economy, likely resulting in diminished hopes for the masses and the inverse—profitability–for the centers of economic power.

I think that the solution to these challenges begins with us working backwards from the present reality in all of its starkness and devising paths which are logical based on these undeniable features.

  1. The United States is a society where racial inequality is a historic reality. There is no evidence which refutes Derrick Bell’s thesis that “racism is permanent and indestructible”, therefor any vision of the future of Africans in America must take into account the ever-present specter of racism and its irrepressible need to visit misery upon our lives. This means that racism is not within the exclusive purview of some historic white community, an inheritance which will be shed by some new generation. Rather that American racism is inextricable, echoing KRS One’s contention that “You can’t have justice on stolen land.”, a truth that has not and will not be invalidated via the passage of time.
  2. The United States is a society whose processes of governance reveal one of the fatal imperfections of modern democracy. In the balance of power between the will of its citizens and the desires of its major economic institutions, capital rules. This is why many years ago W.E.B. Du Bois called for Industrial Democracy, that in a truly democratic society no process should exist beyond the assent of the people, that the rule of the people should be absolute both with regards to policy and the economy. In the U.S. we have seen the reduction of the power of the people and the enlargement of the force of capital on the political apparatus. This trend has only intensified rather than lessened with time.
  3. The economic system of the U.S., the vaunted prosperity that became the beacon of hope for people around the world is hobbled by its basic unsustainability—that is, America’s economy is based on a level of resource consumption that is both unsustainable and dangerous with regards to its impact on global warming, its despoiling of ecosystems, its depletion of water resources, and its energy consumption. The America that Black people and others have been clamoring to be included in is a ghost, a promise that can never be kept due to the finitude the Earth’s resources.

These three issues create a fundamentally different starting point for us to imagine our collective future as African people in the U.S. Moreover, they engender a conversation that requires that we fundamentally rethink our notions of economic development, our faith in certain institutions, or our belief in a redemptive future for the U.S. that finally and utterly eschews the transgressions of its past and present. This starting point compels us to ask a number of questions. What are we prepared to do for ourselves to insure our collective survival and success wherever we find ourselves? What form of economic development will offer, as Dr. Anderson Thompson says, the greatest good for the greatest number” of our people? Where should we cast our lot and how will we forge community there? What are we willing to do to mitigate the corrosive impact that many of America’s dominant institutions has had on our lives—the criminal justice system, mass-media, schools which excel at mis-education and de-education, the profit-driven health care industry, and so forth? What does our history in the U.S. reveal to us about the breadth of possibility when faced with a recalcitrant and violent system? How, for instance, did Africans in the late 19th or early 20th Centuries respond to the malaise before them? How might we learn from their successes and ameliorate their shortcomings? Ultimately, what do we want for the future of Black people, and what are we willing to do to achieve it?

If we fail to grapple with these questions, we consign ourselves to America’s designs for us, which is far far less than what we deserve.

Capoeira and mdw nTr (Medew Netcher)

My first Capoeira teacher, Tebogo Schultz,​ once said to me that when practicing and seeking to understand Capoeira, that “You have do Capoeira for its own sake.” I think about this from time to time as learning Capoeira is a lot like learning a language, particularly one that has its own indigenous script. You must learn the script, you must learn vocabulary, you must learn grammar, you must find contexts to apply this knowledge, and you must understand the ontological dynamics of this linguistic system.

This is a lot like Capoiera which consists of a technical repertoire of physical movements, a kinesthetic philosophy which underlie all of this, various contexts of application, songs and instrumentation, a historical narrative, in addition to a rich body of epistemic and ontological knowledge which seek to explicate the “magic” of the art. The art conveys all of this knowledge, in many instances multiple things concurrently. These layers become fuller once decoupled, unpacked, reflected upon, or revisited much in the same way that learning mdw nTr (Medew Netcher), the language of ancient kmt (Kemet) or Egypt illuminates deeper insights upon further reflection and with deeper study.

I first began learning mdw nTr thirteen years ago and continue to study this language. My continued study has been rewarded in kind with richer insights and a deeper appreciation for this language and the cultural and historical contexts out of which it emerges. Much like my study of Capoeira, it has made everything richer via its contribution to my intellectual growth. Admittedly my focus has vacillated between the general and the specific. Some times I have focused on personal pronouns (mdw nTr has three classes of pronouns). At other times I have sought to memorize the many bi-literals (these are symbols that represent two consonant sounds). On other occasions I have worked on transliterating and translating texts, rich exercise whose frustration inevitably enables growth. One of the most exciting realms of study has been my efforts to integrate the language into my life. The point is that mdw nTr is, in its totality, too vast to approach for the sake of achieving narrow ends. One must simply plunge into its depths, buoyed by the intellectual rewards that it promises.

My Capoeira journey began a decade ago with the goal of learning Capoeria as a combat art. This was and remans necessary, but Capoeria is many things at once. Like Xing Yi Capoeira can serve as a gateway to a more fully integrated self. Like Muay Thai, Capoeira is a tool for physical conditioning. Like Choy Lay Fut Capoeira can be a highly effective fighting art. Like Yoga, Capoeira can build the suppleness of the body. Capoeira is not one thing. It is many things. And like studying mdw nTr, one must plunge fully into its depths, swimming through the waters of renewal, becoming water oneself.

When my daughters go to bed and wake up in the morning we speak mdw nTr to each other. These acts, though short in duration are complex in their layers. When my children and I train Capoeria together, or when I teach a class, these occasions are also multilayered. These knowledges become a part of an integrative toolset, a collection of resources firmly embedded in one’s being. They augment you. I say the mdw nTr and see the words in my mind. I stumble, but never fall because Capoeria teaches you to find balance in the midst of adversity. I find myself translating my thoughts into Kiswahili and mdw nTr as an exercise in multilingualism. I juxtapose defensive tactics for specific attacks between Wing Chun, Choy Lay Fut, and Capoeira. I find innovative ways to use the languages that I study. Capoeira has become central to the curriculum of a rites-of-passage program that I help coordinate, and thus a tool that we are using to build men.

Again these tools, once fully integrated, augment one’s humanity, enabling us to become, day-by-day, a greater expression of our highest selves. This is what it means to “…do Capoeira for its own sake.”

Kawaida and Pan-Africanism

A compelling proposal from Kawaida: An Introductory Outline by Maulana Karenga. Sadly, much of this remains in the realm of the conceptual rather than the actual.

D. Build Pan-Africanism – As Pan-Africanists, we must build Pan-Africanism as a global project, not just a continental one. Any serious and successful Pan-Africanism must be rooted in and reflective of the following basic principles and practice:

1. unity and struggle of Africans wherever they are;

2. acceptance of the principle that the greatest contribution to the liberation of African peoples is the liberation struggle each people wages to liberate itself, and thus;

3. acquire the effective capacity to aid others still struggling. In a word, the overall struggle for African liberation is one, but a people must begin the struggle wherever they are.

4. development of mutually beneficial cooperative efforts between Continental and Diasporan African.

Kawaida proposals at FESTAC: a. permanent Afro-American observer status at OAU; b. All African People’s Convention-international as distinct from continental (OAU) – Continental and Diasporan; c. Pan-African University-Continental and Diasporan; d. Diasporan Studies in all African universities as African Studies in West; e. Continental and Diasporan common language – Swahili; f. developmental capital – for all Africans; g. African people’s lobby-for all Africans; h. African people’s skills bank-for all Africans; i. support in the UN-and other international bodies by African countries for Afro-Americans and other Diasporan Africans and other concrete support (political pressure, capital, information, asylum, etc. where possible).

5. recognition and response to the fact that in the final analysis, each people is its own liberator. A people that cannot save itself is lost forever.