I work in teacher education

I work in teacher education. Every year I meet new batches of students endowed with old notions of what needs to be done in order for Black children to learn. Typically it consists of things like being “culturally relevant” (though I have never been able to locate the coursework that provides extensive training in African American history or culture where I work), encouraging resilience or “grit” (as if we don’t already have that from surviving centuries in this nightmare called America), or being demanding yet compassionate educators (as if this is some kind of modern innovation), by militarizing the schooling experience (which effectively prepares Black children for prison, the military, or the low-wage service sector), or by incessantly measuring every single facet of the learning process so as to glean some kernel that might improve future processes of measurement (if that sounded circular, it was intended to).

While I strive to be understanding of where my students are in terms of their perspectives, it should be noted that most of these notions begin from the standpoint of locating deficiencies in Black children, rather than the society in which they exist. Black children are either culturally incongruent from the American schooling apparatus (a profound revelation that Carter G. Woodson would be surprised to hear), too lethargic to try to succeed (which raises interesting questions about why they should given the diminishing gains that accrue from being successful in this system), they are the on-going victims of jettisoning of Black teachers in the mid-20th Century under desegregation/integration (as demanding-warm educators were the cultural norm among many Black teachers in that era), only suited for martial discipline (because they are really viewed as a social malignancy), or are equally unsuited for any form of education that engages the imagination (because why should serfs dream).

All of these premises listed in paragraph one rest upon a superstructure of belief that presumes that (1) the American social order is basically legitimate, (2) schools are institutions that serve as conduits to opportunity and that (3) Black folk’s social (economic, political, and cultural) interests are essentially identical to everyone else’s–not requiring any distinct remedy.

I differ with each of these assumptions. I offer the following arguments: (1) the American social order has always been and will remain illegitimate. It was born of colonialism and slavery, sustained by neo-colonial practices, and the hyper-exploitation of its own working classes. (2) Schools are institutions whose primary role is the maintenance of the status quo. They are not revolutionary or proto-revolutionary institutions. Radical social change or even any modicum of social change that requires a significant reconfiguration of the social order is considered both unfeasible and unpalatable to the political and economic interests that schools protect and project. (3) Africans in America have a unique set of problems, requiring a very specific set of solutions. These problems generally emerge from the legacy of the Maafa–the interrelated processes of slavery, colonialism, and their aftermath. Thus, one of the primary remedies required by us is the reconstitution of our humanity and social systems, which have been shattered. This is a mandate that only we can carry forward for ourselves. This is why revolutionary educators came together in the 1970s to found the Council of Independent Black Institutions. They were driven by a clear understanding that the future of Africans in this country would be born on the collective backs of Africans in America. Absent our own efforts, we would be subject to the capricious whims and abuses of more powerful groups.

It is 2016 and I think that their reasoning has stood the test of time. I think that Malcolm X was correct when he critiqued the folly inherent in how we allow most of our children to be (mis)educated. I think that Dead Prez was also correct when they called these institutions “they schools”. Moreover, I think, or rather know that the problems of Black education will never be solved in this country. There’s too much profit to be made off of disaster. There are whole industries built to capitalize on the outcomes of the American nightmare made real in our lives. But ultimately, these problems won’t be solved by anyone but ourselves driven by a vision of what our future as African people can and should be. Until we accept this and act accordingly we’ll continue to be a “problem” for other people to solve. And when this happens, do we have the right to complain about their “solutions”?

Africans in America and the decolonization of language

I watched the PBS documentary Language Matters last night and was particularly struck by the efforts of native Hawaiians to preserve their language. They believed that without their languages, they would cease to exist as a distinct people.

While we have been stripped of our ancestral tongues, we, like any other people require a language that affirms our culture and our humanity. A language reinforces a sense of identity, a sense of tradition, even a sense of political destiny–this is why languages are such a prominent part of many nationalist movements around the world. Language revitalization has been a prominent feature of the efforts of many groups engaged in campaigns of self-determination such as the Basque (France and Spain), Maori (New Zealand), Welsh (UK), and so on. Language becomes a way of not only marking group identity, but of reinforcing the notion that a people has a shared history and destiny distinct from other cultural groups.

While Africa is home to more language diversity than any other place on Earth, and our ancestors doubtlessly spoke a myriad of languages, most African languages are more or less ethnic languages–that is the language of a single group. The exception to this are languages that have become diffused as the second language of a wider population. Some languages have become “lingua francas” within a single territory. Asante Twi and Wolof are examples of ethnic languages that have become diffused in their respective territories, Ghana and Senegal respectively.

Kiswahili and Hausa on the other hand have become diffused internationally, as each is spoken across territories and ethnic groups. Hausa speakers can be found in Nigeria, Niger, Ghana, Cote d’Ivoire, Cameroon, Chad, and Burkina Faso. According to Ethnologue, approximately fifteen million of Hausa’s over forty million speakers speak it as a second language

As the official language of Tanzania and Kenya, and as a second language in parts of Uganda, Mozambique, Congo, and elsewhere Kiswahili is perhaps the most effective example of an African language that has become more or less ethnically neutral as the vast majority of its speakers use it as a second language (approximately eighty million of its estimated ninety eight million speakers according to Ethnologue). Moreover, its adoption by many speakers (or aspiring speakers) in the African diaspora, and its common association with  Pan-Africanism adds a degree of conceptual or ideological import to Kiswahili that is absent in the broader perceptions of other African tongues. For instance, its association with various African liberation movements as reflected in common slogans such as “Uhuru sasa” (Freedom now), “Tutashinda bila shaka” (We will conquer without a doubt), “Elimu kwa kujitegemea” (Education for self-reliance), and terms such as kujichagulia (self-determination), imani (faith), ujamaa (familyhood), umoja (one-ness or unity) and so forth all capture the degree to which Kiswahili has been embraced as a language of liberation.

For these reasons and perhaps others, Kiswahili is perhaps best positioned to serve as a primary African language in the diaspora. It is not to say that other languages should not be studied. They should. The growing proliferation of Yoruba and Akan among diasporan Africans is both encouraging and interesting, so too the study of mdw nTr (Medew Netcher), the language of ancient kmt (Kemet) or Egypt. Yet despite this, Kiswahili’s broad diffusion, diversity of learning resources, development as a suitable tool for technical communication, ability to express ideas that are philosophically and conceptually germane to African cultures and communities, and relative neutrality make it a very attractive and viable candidate as the primary African language of the diaspora, in addition to being an auxiliary language for the African continent itself.

One feature of the film Language Matters was the strategy adopted by native Hawaiians to diffuse their language in the 1960s and 70s. They focused on educating small children to speak native Hawaiian. Linda Tuhiwai Smith has discussed a similar initiative among the Maori that centered on children as language learners given their facility for language acquisition. I believe that such a strategy is highly instructive for Africans in America that are desirous of seeing an African language such as Kiswahili becoming more widespread. While the Black Power era saw the diffusion of Kiswahili among Africans in America, the depth of this diffusion has been mostly limited to single terms and phrases. Thus it is not uncommon for someone to have knowledge of greetings such as “Habari gani?” (What’s the news?) or “Hujambo?” (How are you?), or to use statements of affirmation or negation such “ndiyo” (yes), “hapana” or “la” (no), or even “sijui” (I don’t know), to refer to familial roles such as baba (father), mama (mother), kaka (brother), or dada (sister), or to refer to concepts using the language such as the “Nguzo Saba” (the “Seven Principles”, as created by Dr. Maulana Karenga), “asili” (“essence” or “seed” as popularized by Dr. Marimba Ani’s book Yurugu), and so forth. What has been lacking has been an effective diffusion of knowledge sufficient to promote greater fluency in the language.

The movement from rudimentary linguistic knowledge to greater fluency begins with the requisite will and desire, and continues with the formation of a suitable institute devised to carry forth this charge on as broad a scale as possible. Such an institute can then coordinate the development of a body of highly-trained individuals who have attained a high degree of fluency in the language, the development of curricula for different age groups in the community, and the creation of an educational infrastructure in the form of classes and institutes. From this nucleus can also spring forth literature and other media designed to aid language learning. While the first item requires a substantial investment of time and effort, the second requires an understanding of effective language learning strategies for children and adults. The third necessitates a range of resources, both technical and spatial enabling knowledge to be diffused. For instance, the use of the internet as a vehicle of language learning cannot be understated. Dr. Obadele Kambon’s Abibitumikasa has become the premier African language learning institute with courses in Asante Twi, mdw nTr, Wolof, Yoruba, Kiswahili, and other languages. This resource and others should be effectively utilized. In the Chicago-area groups such as The Swahili Institute of Chicago , the Kemetic Institute of Chicago, and the Association for the Study of Classical African Civilizations Midwest Region are fine examples of what grassroots language institutes can aspire to accomplish (the latter two promote the learning of mdw nTr). Each of these organizations has also developed teaching and learning materials.

In closing, the diffusion of African languages in the Americas in fact is an act of cultural reclamation, a decolonization of the language of those whose estrangement from their ancestral homeland has made the quest for linguistic empowerment all the more fervent. The last fifty years illustrate the degree to which African languages have served the ends of spiritual enlightenment, scholarly inquiry, political education, and casual discourse. This process, despite its uneven outcomes to date, has been one that remains pregnant with possibility as it offers a path towards a potential decolonization of the African mind, a simpler means towards international communication within the global African community, and a mechanism to engage more fully with the deep thought of African culture as these are conveyed by language. As such language is a vital component in the process of Re-Africanization, but its effective utilization towards such an end can only be maximized via a greater degree of organization than what has yet transpired.

To this end, the creation of a Taasisi ya Kiswahili kwa Waafrika Merikani or a Swahili Institute for Africans in America will be a necessary step in this process. This must be followed by the creation of a scholarship fund and institutional connections to facilitate the training of a first generation of instructors. The third stage will be the creation of a body of instructional resources followed by the establishment of a network of instructional vehicles in the form of Saturday schools, after-school programs, rites-of-passage programs, and other mechanisms to teach primarily children, in addition to adults. This fourth stage should occur parallel to the fifth, which is the diffusion of literature (i.e., comics, fashion magazines, political education materials, scientific articles, art publications, news organs, and so on in the language so as to utilize it as a conduit of information. These steps are, I maintain, a process that can lead to both the institutionalization of Kiswahili (or any other African language) in the African diasporan community and its diffusion over the span of time.


I believe that there is a great desolation in our souls that results from our failure to create a sovereign expression of our peoplehood. Absent territorial sovereignty, we are and will remain subject to the caprice of more powerful groups. Nationhood is no guarantee of happiness or security, but it reflects a more determined pursuit of these things.