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.

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.


Kujichagulia and the liberation struggle

Part of the genius of the Nguzo Saba is the necessity of each of its principles to the attainment of African liberation. From a foundational point of view, liberation in any meaningful sense is unattainable without umoja, unity. Furthermore, any people striving for freedom must, on every level, practice kujichagula, self-determination.

Kujichagula is a practice evident throughout our history. When Nubians under the leadership of Piankhi pushed into Kemet, expelling the Assyrians and initiating the so-called 25th Dynasty, they restored Kemetic sovereignty and affirmed the spirit of umoja between the two nations—Kemet and Nubia. Their actions evidence a spirit of kujichagulia.

When Nzingha rejected Portuguese hegemony and raised the people to resist their rule, she committed herself to a decades-long struggle for African sovereignty. Her actions provide a potent example of a people engaged in a deep practice of kujichagulia.

When Africans stole away from the plantations of Brazil, and fled into the hinterland, creating the quilombo (maroon society) of Palmares, a community that stood for a century, they resolved that their freedom was insufficient so long as other African people remained oppressed. As a result, they fought tirelessly against that system, and in their struggle immortalized Zumbi—one of their leaders—as an icon of African kujichagula.

And when the ancestors of our movement in this country—in formations as diverse as the Shule ya Watoto, The East, The Republic of New Africa, the Congress of African People, the Institute of Positive Education, NationHouse, the Organization Us, and others—declared that we were an African people, and began to struggle towards the reclamation of our culture and the restoration of our sovereignty, they were engaged in the practice of Kujichagulia.

We stand on the shoulders of all of these ancestors. Their practice of Kujichagulia continues to inform ours, because no people can fully express their humanity when it is defined by their oppressors. No people can choose and fulfill their destiny under the tyranny of alien ideas.

Culture and sovereignty: An evaluative criteria

The reclamation of our culture and the restoration of African sovereignty in the world are two of the highest struggles that we can engage in. The first enables a fuller realization of and engagement with our humanity. The second makes us the shapers of our collective destiny.

All of our politics should be evaluated through the lens of how and whether they support these two goals: Does this achieve the restoration of our culture? Does this achieve our actual sovereignty in all spheres of life? If not, then these politics are, at best, insufficient.

Far too many of us have made vacuous investments. We’ve gone down the rabbit hole of alien paradigms that can in no way inform or produce an African reality, but merely a caricature of a European one.

The mtu (human being) and African spirituality

Within the African worldview we see a conception of the mtu (human) as existing in body, mind, and spirit. At the foundation of this scheme and within the framework of traditional society was a comprehensive orientation towards developing the self and each of its facets holistically.
Hence, the warrior arts are but one small part of the cultivation of the body. Whether we are referring to boxing, wrestling, or weapons training, these not only sharpened the body, but also the mind. It is this orientation which continues to inform the work of many enlightened practitioners.
The mind is a major concern within African cultures, as the cultivation of intelligence, wisdom, discernment, propriety, and ethics are major ends of the process of socialization. This is why intelligence and wisdom are common themes in sayings, proverbs, and stories from throughout the continent and the diaspora. Many of the most scathing critiques relate, not only to behavior which is regarded as unethical or improper, but also to behavior which demonstrates a lack of intelligence. Further, the former is linked to the latter, as people who seem to be incapable of proper action are often regarded as being intellectually deficient–hence expressions such as someone being “messed up in the head”, “touched”, needing to “get their mind right”, or “special” are meant to convey such deviance.
Lastly, “spirit” is a major concern within African cultures. “Spirit” is variously conceived as the non-physical aspect of the being–the source of one’s vitality, often a higher or more elevated self, a self that has transcended time and space (as in an ancestral self), as well as one’s destiny. Much of the nurturing of the mtu in the traditional context was related to the notion that each human being arrives with a purpose, a veritable message from the ancestors to bring forth into the world. Apart from literal interpretations, this can also be seen as indicating that each mtu represents a purposeful existence, a set of dynamic and finite capacities that gain expression through the permutations of their journey through life, and the degree to which these facilitate a higher level of realization as to their inclinations, capacities, potential, and their ultimate decision (either conscious or unconscious) of a path in life–and that these are, inescapably–linked to their ancestral inheritance.
It should be noted that these concerns are the core of much of what is articulated or presented as African “spirituality”, and that this obviously entails a range of social structures whose work is focused on the development of the mtu and the independence of the taifa (nation). Ultimately there was no separation in terms of the path towards “spiritual enlightenment” and the means which enabled the society to minister to its needs on a day-to-day basis. Thus those concerned both about the practice and institutionalization of African spirituality should be mindful of this.

Cultural logics and the “universal”

I could be mistaken, but it seems that the Western appeals to the universal, while relevant in informing a discourse on equality within the civic arena, have also served as a medium for the colonization of the ontologies and epistemologies of racialized and oppressed peoples. In this way, one might argue (and indeed, Imari Obadele did) that appeals to reform of the existing state apparatus and its default posture of coercive control towards African people, is also a ceding to that state a degree of unwarranted legitimacy.

The alternative to reform, sovereignty, that is Black nationalism, is generally regarded as both illegitimate and unrealistic. However notions of its legitimacy reside with one’s view on the basic question of whether African Americans have a right to self-determination. And history has demonstrated up until this point, and without a shadow of a doubt, that reforming America in such a way as to eradicate the vestiges of anti-Black racism within the society, its vast institutions, and its practices and beliefs continues to be an unrealistic end.

Therefore I maintain that the appeal to the universal obfuscates more than it clarifies. African people have a unique quandary, requiring a unique set of solutions. Solutions that are predicated upon cultural logics issuing forth from an African-centered orientation to reality.

Above the cacophony of noise

I gave a short (5 min) lecture at a Kwanzaa program on Kujichagulia on the importance of symbols and celebrations. One thing that I said, that I was prompted to revisit after seeing the numerous posts about…well, I’ll simply say nonsense unworthy of further attention or discussion, is that we live in a society where we are compelled to operate at a superficial level of understanding of all things. Thus we are often encouraged to focus on individuals, things, and events that can only distract us from deepening our knowledge about ourselves and the world, as well as our practice of the values and behaviors that have the potential to make it one that is truly livable.

I like to remind myself that our minds are somewhat akin to an input-output system. The quality of my consciousness (meaning awareness) is proportional to the degree to which I invest in cultivating said awareness. Thus if I engage in activities that stimulate my ability to critically interrogate reality, then I naturally habituate and strengthen those abilities. The same is true regarding our ethical practices. If I engage in activities that reinforce my ethical reasoning and practice, then I further the internalization and augmentation of those abilities. This is why I try to pay relatively little attention to foolishness. I do pay some attention to it, enough to know where it is, where it is coming from, what it looks like, how it seduces the mind and degrades the spirit, and so forth. But to go beyond this, I fear, would give too much power to things that, in the final analysis, will fail to help me to manifest as the person that I choose to be in the world.

I consider this degree of discernment to be the foundation of what it means to live purposefully. To be ensnared by false notions is perhaps the greatest form of enslavement.


Our movement has been defined by constant and incessant acts of self-determination. Whether we are referring to the maroon tradition among enslaved Africans in the Western hemisphere, the Stono Rebellion of 1739, the declaration of Haitian independence in 1804, Denmark Vessey’s planned insurrection of 1822, Harriet Tubman’s defiant quest to free enslaved Africans, Martin R. Delany’s work in support of emigration and nationalism in the mid-1800s, Benjamin “Pap” Singleton’s support of the Black Exodusters in the 1870s and Black emigration abroad in the 1880s, Marcus Garvey’s work to empower the global African community, Drusilla Dunjee Houston’s contribution to the reclamation of African history, Carter G. Woodson’t declaration that mis-education is the dominant institutionalized form of socialization afforded to Africans in America, Kwame Ture’s 1966 call for Black Power, Black people in the U.S. recognizing themselves as an African people, the movement for Re-Africanization that ensued with great ernest in the 1960s in the context of the Black Power Movement, the Republic of New Afrika’s declaration of independence on March 31, 1968, the Black independent schools movement of the 1960s and 1970s, the creation of the Association for the Study of Classical African Civilizations in the 1980s, and so on. We continue to engage in acts of Kujichagulia (self-determination). Declaring our commitment to reclaim our culture and restore our sovereignty are acts of self-determination.