African spirituality eschews abstraction

I came across a post on a social media site which featured a video of what appeared to be an African American woman thanking God for slavery, which supposedly saved her from being somewhere in Africa worshiping a tree. A commentator who re-shared this post indicated that he would rather worship a tree since trees are, after all, real.

His was a good commentary on the logic of African spirituality, that is that it eschews abstraction and elevates that which gives life to the status of the divine. After all, why shouldn’t humans worship the trees, the sun, the earth, and those other things upon which life depends?

Below I list a few examples of how Africans recognized nature as divine from the Akan, Igbo, and Yorùbá traditions.

DivinityAspect of natureCulture/tradition
AnyanwuSunIgbo
Asase YaaEarthAkan
AlaEarthIgbo
Ṣàngó (Changó, Shango, Xangô)LighteningYorùbá
AmadiohaLightening and thunderIgbo
Nana Adade KofiLightening and ironAkan
Ògún (Ogun, Ogum)IronYorùbá
Ọ̀ṣun (Oshun, Ochún, Oxúm)River, fertilityYorùbá

Maat or Isft

Black/African people have a deep ethical tradition that is not only ancient, but is one that has largely survived our experiences of slavery and colonialism. Despite this, there are many who wish to assert that decadence is our way, that degeneracy is the essence of who we are as a people. These people have not only unmoored themselves from history, they have accepted a falsified consciousness of who we are.

Spirituality and revolution

There is an imperative for social change that is articulated in the spiritual systems of many African cultures. The demands for honesty, righteous character, service to one’s community, frugality and restraint, reciprocity, discernment, and sacrifice are not merely matters of personal, spiritual cultivation. Nor are they born of a lack of concern for the physical world that we inhabit. These are commitments that require a parallel commitment to self-transformation and the revisioning of the world.

For instance, to be mAa xrw (true of voice) in a world awash in the currency of lies can be costly. But this is a necessary disposition if isft (wrong-doing) is to be appropriately understood and corrected. To strive towards the practice of mdw nTr (divine speech) is not only a matter of seeking to build bridges between the kmtwy (African/Black people) of the present world and the deep thought of their ancestors. mdw nTr, as a body of living practice, requires that the world be refashioned wherein alienation is not an inevitable outcome of the human condition.

There are other, innumerable examples, but I submit to you that only WE can save us, and that our culture is one of the most underutilized assets in this struggle.

Nature, humanity, and the divine

A few days ago I posted something about the implications of the desacralization of nature and the erosion of humans’ relationship with it. I was happy to see that this topic was recently addressed on the Medicine Shell. The reality is that not only was Africa historically wealthy in terms of our ancestors’ knowledge of nature, but also their ability to apply such wisdom in ways which were sustainable. The loss or suppression of this knowledge vis-á-vis enslavement, colonization, globalization, and modernization–all processes of westernization–have not only attenuated our connection to the natural world as a people, but have limited our consciousness to a paradigm of life where nature is seen only for its extractive, instrumental value–a form of relation that has and will continue to be disastrous for humanity.

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.