Why I am not a “person or color”

I used to think that the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People’s name was anachronistic, but now since so many willingly refer to Black people as “colored people” or “people of color” clearly it is reflective of current sensibilities. I do find this quite interesting.

To be sure, I do not use these terms to refer to us (Africans/Black people). Identifiers are, as is all else, political. They can anchor one in a consciousness that is dynamic and compelling with respect to a grander vision of social possibility or they can moor one to visionlessness. I see no grand conception of our peoplehood in terms like “people of color” or “colored people”. They seem both generic and impotent to my thinking.

My rejection of this term is based on the following criticisms:

  1. Many so-called people of color are defined as such within the borders of the US, but may be a part of dominant racial, ethnic, or caste groupings in their home countries. Therein, given the global prevalence of anti-Blackness these groups may be actors in the on-going subjugation of Black people in their homelands. Does one, by simply crossing the US border become filled with an overwhelming sense of solidarity with Black people and their on-going struggle for freedom while regarding the Blacks of one’s homeland with loathing and derision?
  2. The term, by virtue of its generic nature, posits a shared reality among so-called POC, but we know that many groups position themselves in various ways in relation to the hegemony of Whites in US society. Some may identity themselves as White due to the material advantages afforded Whites. Others may attempt to assimilate themselves into Whiteness via the acts of marriage and procreation. Still others may participate in or sanction the subordination and exploitation of other racialized and oppressed groups, such as Africans/Blacks for their own advantage as in the case of many non-Black merchants who operate commercial businesses in Black communities.
  3. The term is used increasingly in contexts where clearly Black/African people are the subject of discussion. It is as if by generalizing the discourse to an amorphous body of racialized and oppressed people (i.e., “POC”), that one’s language may prove more satisfactory or less disconcerting. It does beg the question as to who such sterile language is intended to assuage in the first place. One must also ask whose experience is being erased in the process of such speech acts.
  4. I am reminded that during the Black Power era there was no revolutionary politics that argued vociferously on the basis of such an ambiguous identity. Formations and theories of liberatory struggle drew substantively upon notions of Blackness or Africanness. There was a reason for this, and this is at the heart of my thinking.

For me, much of the problem with terms such as POC is based on the fact that they do not arrive at what one actually is—an African whose ancestors were kidnapped, tortured, and assaulted in an attempt to both forge America and to neutralize one’s determination to resist domination. This question of resistance is ultimately, I believe, at the heart of why an African identity is so powerful in contrast to a more generic one. We find that much of the resistance to enslavement was driven by a very clear consciousness among the enslaved of who they were. This is especially so among the maroons whose very actions rejected the logic of White domination, the structural arrangements of that domination, and posed another paradigm reflective of core elements of an African worldview. This means that the maroons did not only resist enslavement, they sought to establish an African way of life on alien soil and to make their reclaimed sovereignty the basis of their resistance to those forces opposed to African freedom. Herein we find the conjoined components of sovereignty and culture as key bases of African life reasserted in a contested milieu. Hence the maroon struggle was indelibly an act of African resistance.

Some will insist that the conception of Africanness is not by default one of resistance, however given the significance of African culture and the imperative of sovereignty as a necessary condition for the full expression of one’s culture, Africanness becomes, in the milieu of European terror, a site of resistance out of necessity. In fact, Dr. Marimba Ani has declared that “To be Afrikan is the revolutionary act of our times.” The key element of this statement is the use of the verb be. As to be Afrikan—in Dr. Ani’s conception and in the conception of those many ancestors who struggled, fought, and died for African freedom and self-determination—is to be engaged in the work of the restoration of African sovereignty and the reclamation of African culture. To be African is to understand both of these processes as necessarily requiring the elimination of all forces opposed to that sovereignty and the cessation of cultural mis-orientation as an inescapable barrier to the full expression of the African ethos. Thus, to be African on this basis is to embrace the politics of revolutionary struggle and to recognize the distinctiveness and specificity of Black struggle. It is not to be some amorphous “person of color” or a “colored person”. It is not a politics based on an erasure of one’s distinctiveness as an African.

I am an African. I am not a “person of color”.

Culture and Freedom: The imperative of Re-Africanization

I often say that of all our strivings the most consequential are the reclamation of our culture and the restoration of sovereignty. Here I am not presenting these as de-linked or sequential processes, but rather as processes which are inextricably linked and concurrent. As Dr. Jacob H. Carruthers has written, “The process of Africanization and transformation cannot be separated neatly into two stages-they overlap. To transform the world according to an African-centered worldview means establishing a new African culture and a new African world civilization.” In fact, it is our culture that provides the basis for our efforts to actualize sovereignty. Here I will offer a brief summary of its significance.

Before preceding, it is necessary to define culture. Culture consists of the totality of human thought and action. It entails our concepts and behavior. It includes our creations, be they physical or non-physical. As such, culture includes abstract notions such as “freedom”. It also is the process that we execute in its pursuit. In fact, culture, in its totality, determines the very parameters of both concept and process. Below I offer three areas wherein African culture is both valuable and important in our live.

First, culture is the basis of identity. It tells us who we are and who we must be. Given that culture is the product of peoples, that is a culturally distinct collective, it is the sum of their traditions, and expresses their worldview. Our culture, African culture, grounds us in an understanding of who we are as African individuals and orients us towards our people, their past and future. Thus, it must be noted that identity within the traditional context was not solely an individual matter, but rather found its basis within the group’s consciousness and experience. Naming traditions, rites-of-passage, and other processes served as anchors of such a collectively-oriented identity. Often the individual would be given a name (or names) that would serve as anchors of this identity. Divinatory rituals might be used to reveal their unique destiny, which was never solely concerned with them as singular entities, but rather their purpose within the larger community.

Herein, only one’s own culture is capable of fulfilling such a role, as only one’s own culture can anchor one’s identity within the collective experience of their people, thus providing the framework wherein their own individual expression emerges. To base one’s identity on alien paradigms is to be culturally mis-oriented, which in the African worldview represents one’s estrangement from the ancestors, the community, and ultimately oneself.

Second, as Dr. Marimba Ani has noted “culture carries rules for thinking”, thus culture is the basis of consciousness. This means that all modes of thinking, all modes of conceiving reality are essentially based in culture. To be African and to be estranged from your culture is to navigate the world with an alien worldview. This means that not only do we perceive the world through a lens that is ultimately alien to us, this framework constrains what we see and what we do. Thus no people can truly free themselves on the basis of an alien worldview. They can create political and economic changes, but those changes merely serve to concretize systems based on the conceptual and social traditions of other peoples, rather than their own. The fruits of such labor is impoverished as it never allows them to draw fully and deeply from the “deep well” of African thought and to create a world based on the wisdom of our ancestors.

Third, culture is the foundation upon which all social organization exists. Thus when we look at the social systems that have been devised to maximize the misery of African people, whether it is the system of de-education and mis-education which serves to nullify our capacity to attain a critical consciousness, or the system of coercive control which surveils, represses, detains, and executes African people, or the system of capitalism which has enshrined avarice as  the highest expression of human striving and has based its accumulation on incessant violence for centuries we must recognize that all of these are reflections of a worldview, one which is both alien and antithetical to African life–and in truth to all life.

When we embrace our culture we are then able to draw upon our traditions for models of excellence. Such knowledge enables us to glean the insights of African people regarding such challenges as the socialization of African youth into healthy standards of adulthood, or to understand the dynamics of social life in the traditional society that strove to negate alienation and to implement these knowledges as the basis for a restored sense of community, or to draw upon African models of economic development–models that at their best prioritized human flourishing above profit.

Therefore, when we are advocating for re-Africanization or sankɔfa, that is the reclamation of our culture, we are insisting on the reconceptualization of identity from the atomistic individual and the coercive hyperrelativism associated with it, to a more expansive sense of the self, one that finds its basis within the best of one’s traditions, one that derives its purpose from such communal concerns. We are also seeking to free our minds from the “conceptual incarceration” of oppressive and alien paradigms. Just as the maroons provided an audacious example of struggle during the era of enslavement, it should be noted that their resistance was grounded upon a rejection of the European worldview and any notions of legitimacy wherein they could only exist as chattel.  In seeking to actualize their sovereignty, and in ensuring the survival of their culture they demonstrate of power of minds decoupled from the locus of European control. Finally, when we cease to gaze upon European (and other) institutions as universal or optimal models for African people, we are able to draw upon and apply the wisdom of our ancestors to our efforts to actualize a future based on the best of who we are, upon our image and interests as a people.

Ultimately we must recognize that freedom on the basis of an alien culture is unattainable. At best it represents a slight adjustment of the locus or methods of control. African freedom must be conceived upon, strove for, and actualized on the basis of an African worldview if we are to be sovereign in all domains.

Averting extinction and being true to tradition

Every African combat art is a critical reflection of the dynamic mosaic that comprises our history and culture. Sadly, many of our combat arts have passed into oblivion and others teeter on the brink of doing so. However, in Trinidad and Martinique determined efforts were made to institutionalize and propagate Kalinda and Danmyé respectively. There is much that can be learned from this.

One of the things that is critically important in the work that I and others are doing is that we sustain these fighting traditions. This means taking the time to learn these arts and to teach them to others. This is the only means whereby they can survive. For my part I practice about a half a dozen African arts. Some of these arts I am actively learning, some I teach publicly, others I teach privately. Each one is a piece in larger puzzle that is the African warrior tradition. Each one connects me to a lineage of practitioners through which these knowledges have been transmitted. For some I can name this lineage going back six generations. In every instance, I see myself as an inheritor of this knowledge and recognize the obligation that such an inheritance represents–that is the perpetuation of the lineage going forward.

I recognize that every African martial artist will not commit themselves to this work, many having situated themselves in the domain of Asian combat traditions. Others will embrace the African arts, but not necessarily the propagation of a lineage. To each his own. However, for those of us concerned about the survival of African culture, a different set of commitments is required. Herein, fidelity in the transmission of these arts does necessitate commitments to the legacy of the traditions that we have inherited.