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.


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.

Thoughts on constructed languages, interlanguages, and sankɔfa

My interest in constructed languages has been related to two queries. 1) Might we utilize a constructed language based off of African-languages to optimize language learning? 2) Can we use a mutually intelligible constructed language for intercommunication within the African world?

With respect to the first query, Afrihili or Guosa may be an examples of this. Though you have a great deal of advocacy for learning African languages in the US, few actually attain a high level of fluency. Part of the reason for this is the complexity of living languages.

My primary African language, Swahili, is a beautiful language, but none could claim that it is a grammatically simple language with its noun class system, affixes, and nature of agreement between nouns, verbs, and adjectives. In contrast, my third African language (of which I am still a rudimentary speaker), Twi, is one where I feel somewhat comfortable with grammar, but do have some difficulty with vowels, particularly tonal variation–a feature absent in the colonial language that I speak primarily.

If we look at the research pertaining to other constructed languages, particularly Esperanto, the time frames for acquisition are comparatively short. Attobrah’s creation of Afrihili, though imperfect, is an interesting model, one that could be augmented to optimize learnability.

However Dr. Edward Powe has stated that constructed languages have no natural base from which to spread. These languages spread from a speech community whose activities–economic, political, migratory–impact its diffusion. Consider the diffusion of Swahili, Twi, Hausa, or Wolof.

There is also the problem of constructed languages not fulfilling the desire present within many African Diasporan language learnings, that is connecting to specific African cultural communities–often to whom one has ancestry.

My interest in Swahili was informed by its role in Pan-African & Black Nationalist movements. My study of mdw nTr was related to it being a repository of ancient African deep thought. I learned Twi because I wanted to learn a language from West Africa, one to which I may have had an ancestral connection. This desire has also pertained to other languages of groups to which, based on my studies, I possess genetic ancestry. Thus for all of the reasons stated, I consider the prospect of constructed languages satisfying the desire for sankɔfa among African people to be exceedingly limited.

Therefore, I consider the second query to be fundamentally different. That is, “Can we use a mutually intelligible constructed language for intercommunication within the African world?” This question was quite interesting to me for a while, particularly with respect to the possibility of such a language facilitating communication among Africans who speak the colonial languages: Dutch, English, French, Portuguese, and Spanish.

To this end, I was intrigued by both Interlingua and Lingua Franca Nova. However of late I have become much more interested in Papiamentu, given that it has many of the things that I like about the latter, with some degree of intelligibility for Spanish and Portuguese speakers. I wondered if, such a language could be used as a textual medium, one enabling us to communicate in literary form with other segments of the African world.

I am reminded of Ama Mazama’s translations of some African-centered works into French as being demonstrative of a need for deeper and broader engagement with communities fluent in French, Spanish, and Portuguese. The idea is that by using some interlanguage, one might find a much simplified means of communication short of learning what would otherwise be a complex language. Again, this was a consideration born of practicality, whereas ideally we would be centered in using African languages, most logically Swahili for such a task. But again, the issue of learnability must be addressed.

I do not consider learnability to be an insurmountable challenge. I look at what Native Hawaiians have done to revive their language. They have created a network of schools to create primary speakers of their ancestral tongue. Similarly, I think that we have to consider building supplementary schools focused explicitly on this problem–after-school programs, Saturday schools, rites-of-passage programs, study/conversation groups, and so forth including independent African-centered schools. My point is that if we are serious about solving the language problem, the solution will have to be institutionally-based.

Being on the path: Meditations on Living and Re-Africanization

I am convinced that when we are on the path, when we are doing the things that we are supposed to be doing, we are consistently presented with reminders of the correctness of the direction in which we are moving. I received three such reminders in the last two days.

Reminder one: Today while working at my wife’s community training farm, a six year old boy asked me, “How do Africans fight?” I found his question intriguing, not only that he asked it of me, but that he posed this question at all. I am not entirely sure why he posed this question to me. Maybe he overheard me talking to his mother about teaching Capoeira at his school years ago, and understood what I was talking about. Maybe he presumed that as an African man I should know something about this. I did start to build on his existing knowledge base of Kiswahili, so maybe he figured that I might know something about fighting too. In any event, I deeply appreciated his question, a question that I did not think to pose until I was a young adult.

I told him that there are different ways that Africans have approached fighting and that I could show him some. I asked him if he wanted to know something related to kicking, punching, or stick-fighting. He said punching, so I showed him something. If he’s serious, I may teach him some basic elements of the arts whenever we see one another in-between farm work.

Reminder two: Similarly, a brother who attends my Capoeira class with his daughter told me that he intends for her to be a fighting arts practitioner, and wants for her focus to be specifically on Capoeira, given that it is an African art. I was intrigued by this. He has studied multiple arts, and sees Capoeira as not merely a matter of technical application, that is the process of fending off violent attackers, but also as a matter of affirming one’s cultural identity. In this way, Capoeira can be understood as a combat art that also embodies the kinesthetic dynamics of several African cultures, thus it is the embodiment of a distinctly African philosophy of movement. It also represents the sprit and tactics of African resistance in the Americas.

Reminder three: A brother who attended the mdw nTr conference in October told me that he had been so inspired, that he intended to teach his then unborn daughter mdw nTr. Today I saw him and his young daughter. He told me, consistent with his earlier statement, that he speaks to her in mdw nTr and proceeded to speak do so. I also spoke to her in mdw nTr. My wife claims that she perked up when she heard the mdw nTr, but I can’t confirm this.

That this would happen the day after African Languages Day was most inspiring for me. While I do study African languages regularly, I have struggled to find time to study of late. However, yesterday my studies were inspired. While riding the train I read about and practiced (silently) two African languages. African Languages Day gave me the opportunity to affirm something that I know I am capable of, using our languages on a regular basis to communicate complex ideas. To my understanding, the greatest challenge that we face is one of transmission, that is of creating new speakers of these languages in our communities in the African Diaspora. Solving this problem is one to which I will continue to devote my time and energy, as we cannot truly communicate about an African worldview if such a discourse is mediated in an alien language and from a culture characterized by fundamental alienation.

Our people once they know that they are an African people, they subsequently want and desire to ground themselves in African things, to understand their reality from the paradigms of their ancestors, to reclaim our languages, to practice our fighting arts, and to—in all areas of life—be African. This is more than just a matter of identity, but is one of solving the paradigmatic problem implicit in liberatory struggles—that is one of decolonzing the minds of the people as a means of enabling them to win the physical struggle which is for land, their lives, and the future.

Re-Africanization: Two perspectives

Re-Africanization can be thought of as a process of decolonization, wherein people of African descent seek to reconstruct their cultural practice in ways that augments the core elements of traditional culture, deconstructs the vestiges of cultural disruption, and adapts these reconceptualized cultural forms to the modern exigencies of the African world. Discourses of Re-Africanization, whether from continental Africans as Amilcar Cabral, or from diasporan thinkers such as Dr. Maulana Karenga, are focused on the conceptualization of culture as an engine of social transformation. Herein culture is understood as a deterministic structure instrumental in shaping human cognition, actions, and modes of organization. Culture then is conceived as a terrain of struggle, wherein the capacity of the people to extricate themselves from systems of oppression is not only contingent upon victory over structural forms of oppression, but also relies upon the dismantling of those cultural patterns that have been derived from processes of foreign domination, and thus focused on reinforcing the domination of the oppressor. There are generally two perspectives on the process of Re-Africanization: one approach which emphasizes the importance of cultural specificity, and another that advocates the utility of devising a cultural composite.

Advocates of cultural specificity emphasize the importance of our immersing ourselves in the culture of a specific ethnic group (often Ashanti or Yoruba). Emphasis is typically placed on the value of adopting the cultural practices of extant ethnic groups given the relative accessibility of living practitioners. Other advocates of cultural specificity also include Kemet (the ancient Egyptian civilization) as a viable cultural model. Contrary to the notion that Kemet is a dead civilization, proponents for the reconstruction of Kemetic culture argue that the abundance of textual, iconographic, architectural, and other data make Kemet highly accessible for those seeking to fully understand its culture. Moreover, many argue that Kemet’s culture legacy is evident in the language, cosmologies, and other practices of modern African ethnic groups.

Generally, advocates of cultural specificity will adopt the names, spiritual practices, language, dress, family/social structure and other elements of this particular culture. Baba Agyei and Mama Akua Nson Akoto discuss this approach extensively in Sankofa Movement: ReAfrkanization and the Reality of War.

The cultural composite approach emphasizes the importance of us developing a new African culture (though some might say a Pan-culture) that embraces the best elements of traditional and classical African culture, in both its continental and diasporic forms. Thus it advocates that we seek to be critically engaged with African cultural production in its totality, and from this seek to analyze, critique, interpret, and adopt those elements that best informs our attempts to liberate ourselves and to transform the world.

Generally, advocates of the cultural composite approach will draw from a variety of traditions for names, spiritual practices, languages, dress, family/social structure, and other elements. Dr. Maulana Karenga elaborates on this philosophy in his writings on Kawaida Theory, the most comprehensive treatment being his 1980 outline from the Kawaida Institute of Pan-African Studies.

Though these paradigms are presented as binaries, much of the actualization of processes of Re-Africanization reflect varying degrees of both. It should be noted that no culture can be adopted by any group without some degree of transformation and adaption from its original to its new form. Therefore even in contexts of cultural specificity there are composite elements that are inextricable. Furthermore, many proponents of a cultural composite may draw more heavily from one particular cultural context than others, this may even be more salient in specific domains of cultural knowledge and practice, thus producing areas of specificity within a larger composite framework.