I have noticed a number of African thinkers who present themselves as African-centered, as advocates of re-Africanization, who emphasize the imperative of us reclaiming our culture and restoring our sovereignty, while also positing Western science as the path to our redemption. I am puzzled as to how an appreciation of the former does not generate a more critical view of the latter position. Dr. Jacob H. Carruthers’s essay, Science and Oppression offers a very concise, yet incisive critique of this. Given that state of the world–the loss of species, global warming, ecological degradation, and the like–clearly the “master’s tools”, the products of Western culture, are they themselves reflective of a broader cultural ethos of alienation. Hence, the need to move beyond the tepid ground of “decolonization” to the imperative of Africanization and the revitalization of African “sciences” as tools of knowledge construction, cultural reorientation, and ecological restoration.
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.
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.
The African-centered critique of capitalism: Some basic considerations
It is true that capitalism must be critiqued. It is also true that it must be replaced. For African-centered scholars neither the critique of this system or the conceptualization of alternatives to it can logically draw from the culture which created capitalism in the first place.
For African-centered scholars, capitalism is merely an expression of the European worldview. The alienation, materialism, and misery that it produces are not de-linked from pre-existing traditions that produced the same–albeit with less precision.
For us, ultimately, African traditions must inform both our critique and proposals for alternatives. Whether we consider Mbongi, Ubuntu, Maat, et cetera. we have various cultural paradigms sufficient to inform our efforts to reclaim our culture and to create a more just world.
The synergy between these two goals cannot be understated. We must reclaim our culture as a matter of restoring and healing ourselves. Such knowledge enables us to transform reality up to and including that which should be our core preoccupation–the restoration of our sovereignty. Hence we are not advocating the cessation of capitalism in order to enter into a fantasy of a “more humane” Western hegemony. This is absurd. Nor are we advocating a perpetuation of our subjugation or alienation–consequences of slavery and colonialism–under either the existing or some proposed future system administered by forces opposed to African humanity. Our striving should be the solve the problem facing us fully–not only its economic or political dimensions, but the oppressive worldview that undergirds such a condition.
Dr. Jacob H. Carruthers captures this succinctly where he writes concerning the African worldview and its imperatives: “If then we accept this as a valid worldview, it is apparent that our goal for reorganizing the world must include the restoration of a harmony among the Creator, Nature and man. This is the only world that produces happiness and the fulfillment of man. This means that the negative forces opposing this way of life must be made to not exist (to phrase it in Kemite fashion). In other words, to have peace one must nullify the destroyers without corrupting ourselves.” The key to fulfilling this lies in our capacity to remember who we are and to operationalize such knowledge in both word and deed, for in order to overcome the forces of alienation it is critical that we draw fully and substantively from the deep well of African thought, and to let such wisdom as that of our ancestors to guide us into the future.
Universalist assumptions and social theory
Reflecting on the 2019 conference of ASCAC’s Midwest Region
Mama Ife Carruthers’s libation reminded us of our connection to our ancestors and reiterated the charge of our association.
Dr. Conrad Worrill presented an insightful presentation on Jacob H. Carruthers and Anderson Thompson as the “twin engines” of the African-centered idea. He captured the intellectual synergy between these two African thinkers.
Afterwards, he was joined by myself and the young men of Akoben Rites-of-Passage Society as we engaged with one another on a panel titled “Beginning an Intergenerational Conversation”.
At one point, Dr. Harold Pates asked about the importance of “African” as a basis of identity. I, Akoben, and Dr. Worrill offered responses. I began by asking the brothers of Akoben to perform their opening ritual, wherein they recite their pledge. This is a pledge that they wrote about six years ago when we began the program. They end their pledge by saying, “We will struggle to recover our traditions and create a new world in an African worldview.” They were around the ages of 11 and 12 when they wrote this. I then addressed Dr. Pates’ question with the following: “When we reject an African identity we impoverish our imaginations by failing to plant our ideas, our work in the fertile soil of African history and tradition.” Dr. Worrill concluded by offering the rich insights of our ancestor Dr. John Henrik Clarke about identity confusion among African people. He remarked on how our confusion about who we are confounds our efforts to find our way to liberation.
We began with Baba Larry Crowe discussing the current focus on 1619. One insight that he shared was the remark by Henry Clay, that “The free negro is a menace.” It would seem that this notion still informs social conceptions of African people in US society.
Dr. Josef Ben Levi discussed the tradition of “Black scrappers”. I learned of a number of 19th Century Black intellectuals whom I knew little or nothing about. His presentation was a reminder that African American history is too a deep well.
Heru Aquil discussed the saga of Thornton and Lucy Blackburn, a couple that fled enslavement in Kentucky to Michigan and finally to Michigan. Later on they moved to Canada where Thornton became a very successful businessman. Later he returned to Kentucky for his mother.
Baba Abdul-Musawwir Aquil provided some critical insights about the role of the study group process to the redemption of African consciousness, particularly to achieve that task that Dr. Conrad Worrill noted in his presentation–the training of intellectual warriors.
Professor Yvonne Jones discussed the sbAyt (sebayet) of Dr. Anderson Thompson. She noted that Dr. Thompson made any setting any occasion a classroom, that he was a consummate teacher whose good works lives on in his many, many students.
Baba Kwadwo Oppong-Wadie provided a powerful discussion of the role of symbols as repositories of cultural memory. His presentation examined Adinkra and their presence among African Americans. He highlighted their ubiquity in Chicago’s Black communities.
Professor Arthur Amaker presented on the maroon tradition in the US and Brazil. His presentation highlighted the centrality of the tradition of maroonage to the retention of African cultural patterns. This is a very compelling historical connection.
The young men of Akoben Rites-of-Passage Society returned to discuss their efforts to create an timeline of African history using a wiki platform. They (along with Heru Aquil) demonstrated the ways in which our youth can not only learn our history, but become its purveyors.
Mama Muriel Balla discussed the benefits membership in ASCAC. She noted that the greatest benefits have been the opportunity to work on behalf of African liberation while also being in a community of scholars, artists, and educators united in purpose.
My presentation sought to explore Nubia, given Dr. Thompson’s interest in this area. Among other things, I highlighted the efforts to revitalize the Nubian language and to recovery Nubia’s ancient history. This presentation is the basis for a number of my current and future efforts.
Our commissions had critical conversations and began hatching bountiful plans. African people are on the move in determined ways.
Finally, we concluded with a spiritual service from The Temple of the African Community of Chicago. hm nTr (Priest) iri pianxi xprw provided a discussion Piankhi’s victory stela relating it to the personal and social challenges of African people.
On spirituality and alienation
Q: How does the issue of alienation apply to spirituality? There is a noted dialectic between the harmful effects of alien religions and the corresponding rejection of African spiritual systems.
A: I’ve tried to follow in Jacob H. Carruthers’s footsteps by (A) acknowledging the importance of indigenous African spirituality as a necessary component in our re-Africanization and (B) acknowledging the need for a posture of “non-aggression” pertaining to this, lest we descend into the idiocy of Holy Wars. However, I think that we have to consider what is lost when we ground ourselves in alien paradigms, as religion is so central for many African people, who see it as a way of living. The question becomes what ways of living, being, and knowing do these systems propagate and if these are detrimental or advantageous to our community.
There are many aspects of indigenous African spirituality that are valuable on the conceptual, social, and even structural levels. I’ll discuss these in turn. First, is the emphasis on inner “divinity”, that is the mtu (human being) as divine as an alternative to the idea of one being born in sin, which is really just another example of fundamental alienation.
Second, are the ethical values of African cultures, which compel for us to act ethically towards ourselves, community, and nature. There is no African belief that I am aware of wherein watu (humans) have been given dominion over nature. This is a worldview born of a fundamental misunderstanding of the consubstantial nature of life on this planet. In fact, in the African paradigm, one has a moral obligation to safeguard nature for the denizens of the future.
Third, is the value of ancestral veneration, which in reality is a means for keeping people connected to the lineage. This provides a connection that compels the mtu to study, honor, and ground themselves in their traditions–as opposed to eschewing them in preference for venerating someone else’s ancestors.
Fourth, is that African traditions offers a basis of critique for many of the conceptual assumptions of other religions–pacifism and detachment versus the need to act deliberately to actualize one’s destiny, intolerance and forced conversion rather than a perspective that emphasizes commonality across related traditions, resignation to an oppressive and alienating order in contrast to a mandate to actualize Maat or what the Akan call Onyame Nhye-Hyɛe–a conception of divine order, and so on.
Finally is the rejection of the cultural primacy and conceptual hegemony of non-Africans. When we embrace our own traditions, we demonstrate not only their suitability, but the value and relevance of our ancestors and what they bequeathed to us.
Abandoning tradition for alienation
Many of us in our search for healing, understanding, and purpose have unwittingly taken on ideologies which cultivate aversion and hopelessness. These state that we are alienated from a broader African world community or that African men and women are stark rivals or worse, fetters on our collective welfare. These are poisonous ways of thinking.
One of the most striking challenges of living in a society with “fundamental alienation” as its asili (foundation, essence) is that it infects us on every level. Many of us, in our quest for wholeness & meaning have taken on more of this poison via the ideologies that we imbibe.
We are beset by the fact that the most accessible solutions or answers also happen to be those which are most divergent from an African worldview. As such, we should never be surprised that the most popular or progressive discourses amount to little more than celebrations of alienation. This is why Mama Marimba Ani says that “To be Afrikan is the revolutionary act of our times.” She recognizes being African as an imperative for both personal and social transformation. An African worldview not only informs how we live as individuals, but directs us to reshape the world.
Thus, if we truly understand re-Africanization then, it is not a means for conformity to or within the dominant order. It is an imperative to dismantle a social order that creates and sustains conditions of alienation and to replace it with one that creates and sustains life, power, and health. True re-Africanization then, is nothing short of revolutionary thought and practice.