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.