To be African is the revolutionary act of our time

One sees movements of re-indigenization occurring all over the world. Herein groups seek to reclaim cultural and historical knowledge lost as a consequence of colonization. These movements rest upon a foundation of clarity about who they are and who their ancestors were. In fact the effectiveness of such movements rely upon both the coherence of their cultural orientations and the institutional capacity (i.e., power) that they can effect to sustain and expand this endeavor.

Due to a variety of factors, internal and external, some of us (African/Black people) are often bereft of such clarity. The resulting cultural mis-orientation does not simply produce a multiplicity of perspectives, but ultimately results in confusion, which denies us the necessary unity that can be marshaled into augmenting our structural capacity (i.e., power).

The historical subjugation of our ancestors and the resulting cultural suppression which was employed as an instrument control has left lasting fissures in our identity. Further, the imposition of an alien worldview, whether through language, religion, social organization, and so forth effectively orients many of us to seek our identity within the strictures of the Eurasian paradigms that surround us, rather than outside of them. Herein, our African ancestry is regarded with shame, ambivalence, and for the truly lost, denial and rejection. As such there are those who would contrive all manner of fantastic tales that would make us everything and anything but African. The denialist propensity for myth-making is reflected in the Swahili proverb which states “Habari ya uwongo ina ncha saba.” This is translated as “A false story has seven endings.” This means that a lie, because of its avoidance of the true, must endlessly morph to sustain itself in the face of the truth. The beauty of historical truth is that it requires no such fabrication. An Akan proverb states “Nokware mu nni abra,” which translates as “There is no fraud in truth.” This is because it rests upon a foundation of surety.

There is little power that can be derived from our forays along contrived paths. These may have an ephemeral effect for some, but the falsehoods and mis-orientation that undergirds them undermines the necessary unity needed for us to transform our condition the world over. To be African is not only an acknowledgement of our ancestral identity, it is also a political assertion of connection to our ancestors and our resolve to restore that which has been taken from us. The embrace re-Africanization enables us to draw upon the vast wisdom and knowledge of our ancestors, wherein their strengths become our own, and become instruments that we can use to heal and empower ourselves in the present.

Mama Marimba Ani says that “To be African is the revolutionary act of our time.” She maintains that such an identity tells us not only who we are, but how we must exist, and what we must do. She recognizes that the foundational clarity of our ancestral identity necessarily orients us towards certain political objectives including the transformation of our minds, our communities, our societies, and–ultimately–the world, because to truly be African in the most expansive sense of social possibility requires the nullification of those forces inimical to Africa and African people. There is no other identity that orients our people, both towards such an expansive vision as well as to our peoplehood as its highest form of expression.

Empire in blackface

People are working overtime to make sure that Black people are the face of empire. After a while, some will realize how myopic a pursuit “representation” is in contrast to institutional capacity (i.e., power). However, given the current and salient neoliberal logics regarding what passes for “activism”, this may be a long-time in coming and will likely result from the continued delegitimization of the Black elite. I do question whether the same mental energies that went into rationalizing acquisitiveness and (gaudy) representation as a pathway towards group power will be easily redirected towards more productive paths.

The decadence of consumer culture on a warming planet

Popular media seeks to focus our attention on an innumerable number of unimportant things. You would hardly think that, as a consequence of resource scarcity and climate change, that the very survival of our species is imperiled.

Consumer capitalism is a maladaptive system. Sadly we will continue to confront this reality as the chasm between real imperatives and manufactured concerns widens.

Will the secular trend withstand crisis?

Whereas religious adherence has seemingly declined in the US, resulting in the nonreligious becoming the fastest growing demographic, I don’t think that such a trend is irreversible. In fact I think that economic hardship and extreme weather events will spur a return to religiosity. In the lacuna between anxiety about the present and uncertainty about the future, the longing for a god to save humanity from hardship will likely grow in tandem to fear and suffering.

In some cases people will be praying for rain and in others they will pray for the rains to stop. Some will likely pray for financial support whilst enriching their religious leaders who profit from their misery.

On the determined pursuit of suffering

Shantideva, an 8th Century Buddhist monastic, in commenting upon the constancy of human suffering stated:

For beings long to free themselves from misery,
But misery itself they follow and pursue.
They long for joy, but in their ignorance
Destroy it, as they would their foe.

I am reminded of the continued applicability of his insights by the myriad contradictions around us. Consider the nations that are beset by climate catastrophes, while presently doubling their efforts to extract coal and oil from the Earth. Further, there are societies where democratic institutions are upheld as the bedrock of human freedom, whilst policy makers busy themselves eroding their foundations in order to usher in authoritarianism.

Sadly, such contradictions do not only exist on the level of the state, but also manifest themselves in our personal lives where many people act in a manner contrary to professed ideals and dismiss the apparent contradictions. In each of these instances, as Shantideva said people pursue misery with predictable results.

Polyculturalism

Polyculturalism-a conceptualization of culture that, rather than examine cultures as discrete social historical phenomena, instead focuses on the extent of their imbrication, that is the varying ways in which cultures and histories are inextricable, interweaved. It contrasts with multiculturalism, which often regards cultures as discrete entities.

This theory is elaborated upon at length in Vijay Prashad’s book Everybody Was Kung Fu Fighting.

Extremist violence in the US: A brief discussion of its cultural bases

Some people have myopically suggested that right-wing violence extremism in the US are consequences of Donald Trump’s rhetoric. In truth, the former has been born of many cultural forces. Below I note some of these, along with some brief remarks.

White supremacist ideologies are a part of the US’s cultural heritage
It is important to recall that the United States is a settler colony that established its territorial basis via warfare and the subjugation of Native American populations. It also established its economy via the exploitation of enslaved Africans. Both of these processes necessitated the formulation of cultural instruments wherein these processes could be achieved with maximum effect. Such instruments consisted of laws, economic institutions, technologies, and processes of socialization focused on both sustaining and optimizing oppression. What is most important here is that the inception of these processes—colonization and slavery—has only been counterbalanced by their maintenance by ongoing acts of violence and oppression. Hence, as John Henrik Clarke has told us, “History is a current event.”

The normalization of violence as a political instrument
While the above entails this, it is important to remember that political violence is not alien to the United States. Not only did this country fight a Civil War that resulted in close to a million deaths, but that state and private entities have also used violence against labor activism, civil rights activism, anti-war activism, police reform activism, and so on are testament to political violence’s recurring place in American public life. Hence, violence is an indelible part of the US’s social fabric. Acts of political violence are therefore not aberrant, but germane to the expression of power in the American political system. Do recall that the US is one of the most violent countries on Earth, so much so that it exports violence abroad in the forms war, military coups, and assassinations.

The dislocations of deindustrialization and globalization
The processes of economic transformation of the late 20th Century have produced profound contradictions in American life that have contributed towards the exacerbation of pre-existing challenges. Consider that the Civil Rights Movement sought to achieve the structural assimilation of African Americans and other racialized and oppressed groups within the dominant political economy of US society. In a context of economic expansion and prosperity, such demands might appear feasible. How do such demands appear in contexts of economic contraction or dislocation, as has been the case for much of the last fifty years? Hence, the processes of deindustrialization and globalization have not only destabilized the US’s working classes, but have also contributed greatly to a cultural malaise which pervades this society best described by Jacob H. Carruthers as “fundamental alienation”. The resulting dislocations have created or expanded interstices wherein a variety of ideologies—some atomistic, some reactionary, but all based on alienation to varying degrees—might thrive and flourish.

A willingness of politicians to capitalize upon these social tensions for short-term gains
The American political system, much like its economic system, is driven by the inescapable myopia of short-term thinking. Just as corporations act on the basis of achieving profits in the short-term. American politicians strive towards the goal of electoral victories, which also are short-term aspirations. Such actions necessarily wed them to the political currents of the day. Whether these currents are corrosive to the society is secondary to their utilitarian expediency. Hence, the courting of reactionary movements and ideologies is seen as a necessary end, which also serves to facilitate the increased normalization of extremist rhetoric in American political life.

It should be noted that this “extremist rhetoric” is not anathema to the political ethos of the US, as again, we are speaking of a settler-colony born of enslavement which has institutionalized the application of coercive control as a means of sustaining its social order. Thus, we are already dealing with an extreme reality, one however that in other moments, the rhetoric of politicians might seek to conceal rather than acknowledge or champion.

The pervasive alienation of American culture
Alienation in this milieu acts as a cultural foundation of violence and is expressed in many facets of American culture. The culture of mass-consumption, which promises eternal happiness if only we would spend, tune-in, or act to satiate the insatiable stream of artificial desires constantly foisted upon us is not the source of pervasive alienation in this country, but it is an expression of it. We live within a society that works laboriously to deny people’s consciousness of who they are and of the nature of reality. We are told by entertainers to be happy while climate change imperils our survival as a species, to watch the latest sporting event while African people’s lives continue to be destroyed by the US’s criminal justice system, to binge watch our favorite television shows while women and children are sexually assaulted and families destroyed in detention centers for undocumented immigrants, and to camp out for Black Friday sales while tens of millions lack health care, millions are unemployed, and hundreds of thousands are homeless.

Further, we are told that our idiosyncratic identities are the highest expressions of ourselves and thus should form the basis of personal and political existence. Yet we live in a society wherein systems of oppression cannot be critically analyzed or dismembered on such a conceptual basis. Malcolm X was clear that his personal identity as a Muslim, though spiritually meaningful, was not sufficient to inform either African people’s struggle for sovereignty or the destruction of imperialist/white supremacist systems. He acknowledge that his spirituality provided a social ethic for the transformation of the humanity of African people, but that it was not expressive of the totality of the political and economic transformation that African people or the world needed.

Herein, we confront the inevitable finitude or limitations of personal identity and the politicization of such identities in a world where systems of power have been forged on the basis of capitalism and white supremacy. In such a context, the fetishization of personal identities, the obsessive and incessant mining of signifiers of idiosyncratic novelty are too bases of alienation, as they cannot “cure what ails us,” which in this case are the bases of fundamental alienation.

In closing, though the current American president has been seen as the epicenter of America’s extremism of late, we would do well to remember that he has merely re-articulated and re-presented such tendencies. He has been an important signifier of our times and the more pervasive social unraveling characteristic of it. The cultural vectors of such disintegration will not dissipate with a change in the presidency, nor will the alienation that is at the heart of US society be undone by any actions of the electorate. These challenges, along with their specific manifestations born of capitalism and white supremacy, will not be satisfied by a retreat into ideologies that enshrine the idiosyncratic or the ever-fashionable politics of atomization which seek to divide African people against themselves on the flimsy bases of nationality, ethnicity, gender, or social class. A more expansive vision is needed accompanied by a set of commitments to the transformation of reality, but most importantly, one must apprehend as clearly as possible the present reality and its inescapable moorings to the past.

Traversing “cultural worlds”

I just made my third visit to an Afro-Asian fusion class at the University of Wisconsin-Madison via Zoom. Today I participated on a panel of absolutely wonderful folks who were discussing a range of things including healing, movement, transformation, and so on. It was a very rich and empowering discussion.
 
For my part I discussed our family’s farm work, Vijay Prashad’s thesis of “polyculturalism”, the synergies of African and Asian philosophies and movement practices in my own life, and the implications of Afro-Asian knowledges in how we understand social transformation. To the latter point, I offered examples from the Tao Te Ching and the Odù Ifá which explicates the power of our personal striving for good character as a means to transform both society and the world.
 
One of the questions that was posed queried our relationship to the kind of Afro-Asian synergies which are a central topic in the course. I shared that in my youth there were two books that I read that had a transformative impact on my consciousness–The Art of War by Sun Tzu and The Autobiography of Malcolm X. The former gave me a framework to engage the world. The latter helped me to understand the state of our people and compelled me to think about my role in changing it. Such synergies continue to the present day, in ways that are conscious and unconscious.
 
Three final points. A day or so ago I wrote that “People will get lost in Asia on their way to Africa.” To be sure, I am troubled by the efforts of some to present many Asian knowledges as African. Resonance and affinity are not necessarily reliant upon heredity. This means that simply because we feel a connection to a particular cultural tradition does not mean that it necessarily derives from our own ancestral tradition. Furthermore, one can participate in the cultures of others without needing to lay claim to them and to justify such claims through fabricated tales of origins.
 
Secondly, while I am critical of the fact that many of us have a profound paucity of knowledge with regards to our history and culture as Africans, I also know that this is not due to our own actions. We live in a world where Africanness has been devalued and Africans dehumanized. I see such a finitude of knowledge and the racialization of African people as contributing to the aforementioned quandary. Clearly we enrich and empower ourselves when we more fully understand ourselves as Africans.
 
Thirdly, as Prashad has argued, we live in a polycultural milieu. Given this, we are increasingly impacted by seemingly disparate cultural traditions that reflect rich commonalities across “cultural worlds”, practices which may also appear to be our own due to our proximity to them. Such forms of entangled cultural practice are also at play in terms of what I have been observing and critiquing.