A folly of amusements: A short reflection on the politics of anti-African rhetoric

If things African are deemed worthy of contempt and ridicule, where does such a political orientation point those ill-equipped to see through such a campaign? That is, if our culture is an object for amusement, then whose do we regard with seriousness, as being worthy of respect?

Recall that African culture and people have been objects of derision since the inception of enslavement. This campaign was not without purpose. The savage exploitation that our ancestors were subjected to was seen as being fit only for non-human things. Thus, our ancestors were depicted as inhuman and were politically constructed as instruments of capital, as chattel.

In a context where some of us have identified our history and culture as sources of renewal and transformation, it is not surprising that such efforts have also been under consistent assault as characterized by coups, assassinations, and on-going anti-African propaganda. Thus, despite the triviality ascribed to African expressions agency in the impoverished discourses of social media, these actions have been regarded as anything but inconsequential in the broader sphere.

Dr. Anderson Thompson referred to “funny wars”, wars where Africans become proxies of European interests. Some of us have failed to learn the lessons of history and it shows. Today the assault on Africa has been “democratized” as the denizens of social media happily play their part. Dr. Carter G. Woodson noted this sad pattern in his day when he wrote, “The very service which this racial toady renders hardens him to the extent that he loses his soul. He becomes equal to any task the oppressor may impose upon him and at the same time he becomes artful enough to press his case convincingly before the thoughtless multitude. What is right is sacrificed because everything that is right is not expedient; and what is expedient soon becomes unnecessary.”Dr. Thompson reminds us that our actions should be focused on a “grand vision of the future”. In this formulation we can ill afford to be short-term in our planning or superficial in our thinking. Sadly, the impoverished discourse of our day predisposes many of us to just this.

I’ll close with Dr. Marimba Ani’s wisdom. She writes, “Sankofa is the healing ritual which transforms the disharmony, fragmentation, dishonesty, discontinuity, disconnectedness, and chaos of the Maafa, into harmony, wholeness, truth, continuity, connectedness, and order of Maat.” She reminds us that Sankɔfa is a means for us to restore ourselves. Moreover, it is a paradigm that animates our resistance. When we truly understand the power of our culture, we will know that it is not an object of amusement, but a matter of our very survival as a people.

 

Abandoning tradition for alienation

In the Epic of Sundiata we find that Sundiata’s conceptions of reality were not based on any set of ideological premises, but rather were the product of his own ancient Malian tradition. This pattern we see throughout the traditional African society, tradition as one’s grounding.
 
This is interesting given that today we are compelled to abandon any notions of tradition, to discard them as encumbrances on our individual freedom in order to embrace Western ideologies that are themselves products of fundamental alienation.
 
Of course tradition is imperfect. This is why it evolves. Our task should not be the wholesale embrace of tradition for tradition’s sake, but a process that synthesizes tradition and reason–that is critical discernment which informs our effective adaptation of traditional practices to present circumstance.
 
We recognize that African culture must be the basis of our regeneration as a people, if not, then we are merely instruments for the propagation of alien paradigms.

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.

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.

Naming and re-Africanization: Being and becoming exemplars of our ancestral traditions

This essay emerges from at least two things. Recently, I watched a rather engaging talk by Dr. Ama Mazama of Temple University, on the importance of Africans rejecting European names. In her talk, she also highlighted the work of her organization, Afrocentricity International, in renaming African people. Dr. Mazama’s talk can be viewed here: Naming Yourself: The First Act of African Agency.

Also, a while back I read an article advocating that Africans in the U.S. should, en masse, abandon the names of their slave owners. Though the article failed to clarify this, this is an old notion. The Black Power era saw a flowering of this kind of thinking and is evident in the cultural nationalist formations like Us, the Congress of African People, and the Council of Independent Black Institutions. This sentiment was also visible among various parties within the New African Independence Movement and the Black Panther Party, particularly the New York chapter.

We would also do well to remember that certain African naming traditions survived for a time in the diaspora. It is not uncommon to discover 18th and 19th Century Africans with names that are derivatives of Kofi (such as Paul Cuffee) or Kwadwo (as in Kojo or Cudjoe), each of which emerged out of the tradition of the Akan peoples, who would name children based on the day of the week that they were born. In some instances, other African names from other cultures were retained, such as Mingo, Juba, and so forth (Stewart 1996).

The Black Power Movement represented the emergence an explicit discourse around re-Africanization, that is the paradigm and practice of African Americans seeking to reclaim aspects of their ancestral traditions that had been lost under the savage duress of enslavement. It also entailed, the exploration of African American cultural productivity as distinctly expressive of various Africanisms.

Early on, these naming practices drew upon the cultures of various groups such as the Swahili, Akan, Yoruba, and various West African ethnicities. Arabic names were often adopted as well, given both the extensive presence of Islam in Africa, in addition to the fact that Islam was a potent ideological force for those seeking to break with Western culture, including Christianity in the U.S. In the 1980s and 1990s, other cultures became prominently represented in these naming practices including Kemet, or ancient Egypt.

One particular tradition which emerged within the Black Power movement and its various formations, was the practice of names being given to members of organizations by elders to youth or other members of the community. For instance, in Chicago’s Shule ya Watoto and related formations founded or co-founded by Baba Hannibal Afrik, names would be bestowed upon youths and other community members who had demonstrated their commitment to African self-determination. This was a practice that persisted from the early 1970s until the 2000s. In fact, the author of this post was named by Baba Hannibal in the year 2000.

Baba Hannibal’s process consisted of consulting with family members and friends who were familiar with the would-be recipient, reflecting upon his own observations of the individual, and then searching for names that were both descriptive of the person’s character and nature, in addition to names that articulated aspirations that would both distinguish their character and express their potential impact on the family and community. He would draw upon names from throughout the continent, employing the type of Pan-African approach to naming that was typical from the Black Power era.

Baba Hannibal’s method demonstrated a core concern expressed by many people within this community of those engaged in re-emergent practice of African culture, what some have simply called a New African culture, which is that names should be bestowed within community by elders or persons of authority who can speak to the integrity and character of those named. The name was not meant to merely replace a European (or other non-African) name, but to express as clearly as possible the true nature of the person named, and to illuminate as best as possible the path to which they should aspire. In this way, these advocates of re-Africanization reflected the Swahili proverb which states, “Mpe mwana jina akue”, which translates to “Give the child a name to grow up to.”

I agree with this position. The process of re-Africanization emerged in the context of communities, more specifically within the context of formations committed to African self-determination. More than just a theoretical orientation, this was also conceived as a body of practice, one that cannot be fully actualized by isolated, atomized individuals, unmoored from collective values and obligations.

However, while I would consider the above necessary in the adoption of most names, there is at least one tradition that has relevance for those seeking to adopt a name and are not presently within the context of a community where such a desire might be supported.

 

Names as Moral Obligations

As stated, various peoples in West Africa have naming traditions wherein individuals are named, in part, based on the day or other circumstances of their birth. This is present among the Akan, Ewe (which has been borrowed from the Akan), and others. The Akan tradition is, however, most well-known. Other traditions, such as that among the Bambara, Hausa, or Swahili are quite notable.

In many respects, I have considered these names, especially the Akan names, given their popularity among African Americans, as names to which one is already entitled to utilize. Each of us was born on a day of the week, and in that way, each of us already has a kradin (literally “soul name”), should we choose to embrace it.

However, while I think that these names exist as resources that African people in the Americas can draw upon in their quest for re-Africanization, I maintain that these names carry with them moral obligations. That is, the name is not merely a signifier of the individual, it also represents a connection to a particular cultural tradition. This connection is not a one-way conduit, where one receives that which one desires without any reciprocal commitment. I maintain that this reciprocal commitment necessitates that one aspires to exemplify the highest ideals of culture. In the simplest terms possible, this means that one should not engage in behavior which is injurious to the community, reflective of bad character, or otherwise reflective of a lack of intellectual maturity. This is not to suggest that traditional African societies were moral utopias, places where no wrong was ever committed. We know that this was not true. However, we are also aware that the moral discourse of traditional African societies is one of the most compelling, rigorous, and communally-focused available to us. These attributes are especially notable given that these are also our ancestral traditions.

The Akan culture, like all other African culture, holds certain core values to be sacred. What I will offer below is a very succinct treatment of these concerns. For those wanting further guidance, consult Gyekye’s African Philosophical Thought.

One value of the Akan culture, which is perhaps most significant as a basic moral framework, is their ideal suban, which translates as character. Like many others, character is a central cultural element. The significance of this lies in that character and its refinement is firmly situated in the realm of the social, that is that one is ultimately judged or assessed by one’s community. Moreover, it is understood that one’s community would require that one exemplify the moral obligations considered necessary to the collective welfare, which can be easily synthesized by what Dr. Anderson Thompson calls the African principle, which is “The greatest good for the greatest number” (Thompson 1999). Therefore, one must query if one’s actions represents that which is best or optimal for the health and functioning of the community as a whole? Does it engender that which contributes to the community’s maintenance and advancement? Does it provide the proper template whereby others might emulate in the creation of a truly enlightened condition?

We can see the expression of the Akan people’s concern with character in two places—their didactic literature and their iconography. With regards to the former, there are two notable proverbs that juxtaposes suban (character) to beauty. One proverb states, “Ahoɔfɛ ntua ka, suban na ɛhia”, which translates as, “Beauty does not pay debts, good character is what is necessary.” Another states, “W’ahoɔfɛ de wo bɛkɔ, na wo suban de wo bɛba”, which translates as, “It is your beauty that takes you there, but your character that brings you back.” What both of these proverbs expresses is that while beauty is not without some merit, it is not the ultimate signifier of one’s value to the community. Beauty here refers to that which makes us appealing and attractive to others. Thus, beauty is something which often attracts others to us, and in this way, its value can be said to be external to the human being, that is something that is projected by society upon the individual. This contrasts with the nature of suban, as this is what the individual projects outwardly, it is the manifestation of their true nature, that which reveals who they truly are. Whereas superficial beauty may mask one’s inner nature, suban (character) is always revealing. This is why what matters most, according to the Akan tradition was character.

sesa_lgAnother example of this is the Adinkra symbol sesa wo suban, which literally translates as transform your character. This symbol reminds us of our capacity to perfect our character, to change it, and in so doing, to truly change ourselves. Sesa wo suban reminds us that we are, as ever, unfinished, still becoming. It compels us to strive to be that which we desire to be, knowing that the will to transform ourselves is potentially limitless.

I maintain that to take on an African name, is to also embrace the personal challenge to exemplify the loftiest ideals of African cultures. Here I have offered a brief treatment of one such culture, the Akan and their concept of suban, however Africa is replete with moral insight and knowledges which hold the promise and potential to inform our ways of being in the world if only they are applied.

 

Day Names

Next, I offer a brief list of African naming traditions based on days of the week. These are detailed in the tables below. The first lists female and male Akan day names, along with the attributes associated with the person born on each of these days. The second lists other female day names. The third lists other male names. All of these names come from the Akan, Ewe, Swahili, and Hausa peoples. Also, there are variations with the spelling of the names listed below. The spellings and pronunciations of all of the Akan and Ewe, and some of the Hausa names can be found in Julia Stewart’s 1,001 African Names. Other Hausa names were obtained from Ibro Chekaraou’s Mù Zântā Dà Harshèn Hausa.

 

Akan day names

Day Female names Male names Attributes
Sunday Akosua, Akosia Kwasi, Kwesi The born leader
Monday Adwowa, Ajua Kwadwo, Kojo The peacemaker
Tuesday Abena, Abla Kwabena, Kobina The risk taker
Wednesday Akua, Aku Kweku, Kwaku The sweet messenger
Thursday Yaa, Yawa, Aba Yao, Kwao The pathfinder
Friday Afua, Afia Kofi The dreamer, the wanderer
Saturday Ama, Amma Kwame The sage, the wise one

The attributes of the Akan day names affirm the basic goodness and essentiality of each of us to the community. Whether this is in the leadership of the Sunday born, the boldness of the Tuesday born, the wisdom of the Saturday born, and so forth–each of us are valued and valuable in terms of the good that we potentially represent to those around us. Thus, Akan kradin (as with African names in a very general sense) evidences a complex web of social obligations, which seek to maximize the growth, development, and capacity of both the individual and the society.

 

Other female names

Day Ewe Hausa
Sunday Akosiba Ladi, Ladidi, Ladiyyo
Monday Adzowa Tine, Tine, Tani, Atine, Altine
Tuesday Abra Talata, Tatu, Talatu, Tanno, Talle, Talai
Wednesday Akuwa Larai
Thursday Yawa Lami
Friday Afiba Jummai, Jumma, Juma, Yar Juma
Saturday Ama Asabe

 

Other male names

Day Ewe Hausa Swahili
Sunday Kosi Danladi, Ladiyyo, Lahadi Jumapili
Monday Kodzo Tanimu, Danliti, Altine, Dantani Jumatatu
Tuesday Komla Dantala, Tatu, Talata, Dantalle Jumanne
Wednesday Aku, Koku, Kowu Danbala, Bala Jumatano
Thursday Yawo Danlami Khamisi
Friday Kofi Danjuma Juma
Saturday Komla Danasabe Jumamosi

 

Names for Times of the Day

Finally, I offer several names that are based on the circumstances of one’s birth, such as the time of day that one is born. These names were derived from Chekaraou (2008) and Kiswahili Lugha Yetu: Mwanzo Mpya from the Simba Tayari and the Swahili Institute of Chicago.

 

Hausa names

Female Male Explanation
Hantsilo Nahantsi/Hantsilo Born during late morning
Tarana/Ranau Narana Born at midday
Tadare/Dare Nadare/Maidare Born at night

 

Swahili names

Name Male or Female Explanation
Layla Female Born at night
Nuru Female/Male Born at daylight

In closing, while it is commendable for Africans in America to want to divest themselves of the culture of their oppressors, it should also be recognized that such a process is on-going. Decolonzing one’s consciousness means more than simply adopting an African name or wearing African attire. It also means seeking and operating from an African worldview—a way of seeing and being in the world consanguine with the values, norms, ethics, and knowledge of African societies as they existed from classical antiquity and prior to their cultural penetration by the emissaries of Eurasian empires. Moreover, such a mission is not something that can be separate from reality transformation. We must accept that our minds cannot be free, as long as our bodies remain oppressed. Jacob H. Carruthers has addressed this quite clearly:

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. We have to restore the African value system. Rather than continually struggling to make European-centered value systems more humane, we have to replace those value systems with one that is African-centered. We have been dealing with the alligators, we must now face the possibility that the solution to our problems may require that the swamp be drained. Too few of us have prepared ourselves to deal with this possibility. (Carruthers 1994)

References

Carruthers, Jacob H. 1994. “Black Intellectuals and the Crisis in Black Education.” In Too Much Schooling, Too Little Education: A Paradox of Black Life In White Societies, edited by Mwalimu J. Shujaa, 37-55. Trenton, NJ: Africa World Press.

Chekaraou, Ibro. 2008. Mù Zântā Dà Harshèn Hausa. Madison, WI: NALRC Press.

Gyekye, Kwame. 1995. African Philosophical Thought. Philadelphia, PA: Temple University Press.

Stewart, Julia. 1996. 1,001 African Names. New York, NY: Citadel Press.

Thompson, Anderson. 1999. The African Principle Essay Series. Chicago: African World Community Press.

Tayari, Simba. 1994. Lugha Yetu: Mwanzo Mpya. Chicago: Swahili Institute of Chicago.

 

This essay was updated on June 9, 2018.