Critical theories

One of the implicit points that emerges from Dr. Jacob H. Carruthers’ work The Irritated Genie regarding the Haitian Revolution and the resistance which preceded it, is that Africans were not sitting on their hands waiting for the light of Marxism to show them the way to freedom. They were seizing their freedom and in the process developing modalities of resistance and formulating conceptual frameworks to explain the predation of their adversary. It is a sad commentary on our present state of consciousness that lately arrived critical theories are more resonant with many a Black intellectual, while those forged in the fires of an audacious and truly African liberation struggle lie neglected.
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Theorizing movements: dissipation, co-option, and revolution

During the Occupy Movement, I speculated that the movement would likely move in one of three directions. I based my premise on my observation of social movements in the context of history as well as the synergistic relationship between social conditions, social movements, and political consciousness. I have decided to revisit these reflections in light of recent occurrences.

Succinctly stated, movements for social change can move in three directions. First, they can dissipate due to insufficient momentum and political consciousness on the part of the movements’ actors and the masses. Poor social conditions coupled with certain forms of political consciousness are the fertilizer for movements. Where the movements’ goals fail to gain traction in the consciousness of the masses or where the requisite levels of critical consciousness are lacking, movements may decline with various degrees of rapidity.

Further, in contexts where reforms are sufficient to pacify a masses’ yearning for a better society, movements may cease to seem relevant. It should be noted that the perception of reform may be as effective as the actuality itself, at least in the short term. That is if the masses accept the viability of reform as a signifier of social progression, then the movement itself–given its oppositional nature–may fade into irrelevance. Hence reforms, as a process of signification, may effectively blunt the further progression of a movement. Of course, when such reforms prove illusory, there is always the possibility of new movements of opposition forming–which may be further animated by the conscious awareness of the failed reforms of the past.

Further, insufficient social consciousness, that is limitations in the political education of the masses and a movements’ core actors can also lead to its eventual dissipation.

Second, movements can be co-opted by the establishment. This typically takes the form of them merging with, being absorbed by, or having their core platform adopted by the dominant political parties or other structures of the mainstream political apparatus. This differs from dissipation in that the aims of the movement continue, albeit within the dominant system. Such co-option may be represented by a range of structures such as the appointment of movement leaders to key positions in the government or private foundations, the provisioning of funds to movement actors by the state or civil society, the creation of policy platforms based on movement objectives, as well as the creation of institutes focused on the development of movement aims in some form or another. Often the latter may entail connections to major universities, and with this the provisioning of monetary resources, social status, and–necessarily–a degree of legitimization by the existing system.

Of course, co-option may result in movement fragmentation, as certain movement actors opt to continue on a more independent basis, perhaps due to differing forms of political consciousness or a striving towards different end goals beyond those symbolized in the supposed gains afforded by co-option. In any event, this suggests that the progression of movements themselves may also be characterized by bifurcations.

Third, movements can also become more radical wherein they look beyond reform as the solution to the existing system.

Returning to the above formulation–social conditions and political consciousness, in addition to a rejection of the legitimacy and viability of the existing system is the conceptual basis for revolutionary movements. In fact, the difference between reformist and revolutionary movements is largely based on the latter factor, as those who have rejected the dominant order may be less inclined to hold out hope in its redemption. One additional critical element which serves to concretize revolutionary movements is a vision of a new future possibility–that is the movement is ultimately animated by its pursuance of a new society, one whose birth requires the dissolution of the present one.

The latter stage necessarily entails three sub-stages: proto-revolutionary, revolutionary, and post-revolutionary or counter-revolutionary. However, these will be discussed in another essay.

Of course, these three possibilities are predicated on the movements’ self-conscious evolution. They do not focus on a fourth possibility, destruction by the state–a common fate of many movements, though perhaps less common than the first or second. Also, given that all movements do not form for the sake of achieving revolution, it must be stated that many do form for short-term, limited objectives–thus making dissipation inevitable. Further, others may come into being with the express goal of moving the establishment in one direction or another. Though such reformist movements may engage in various forms of  “militant” performance including, among other things, vociferous rhetoric, such movements must never be confused with revolutionary movements–which posit the necessity of fundamental social change, not reform.

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.

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.

Ten reasons to learn Kiswahili

Many Africans in America express an interest in learning a language from their ancestors. In some cases this may be a daunting challenge, however Kiswahili remains one of the most accessible African languages.

  1. It is the most widely spoken African language in the world (based on both primary and secondary speakers). Thus it is the best example of a Pan-African language.
  2. It has enjoyed a rich history of writing for centuries, from an Arabic based script (Ajami) to Latin script. As such, Kiswahili has a broad body of literature.
  3. It reflects the cosmopolitanism of the Swahili Coast with its loan words from Gujarati, Farsi, Arabic, other Bantu languages, and so on.
  4. Its diffusion as a commercial language, and later as an administrative language of the colonial powers also enabled it to function as a common language for those struggling for independence. Thus, Kiswahili has been a language of liberatory struggle.
  5. It became the default African language of the Black Power Movement in the United States as numerous institutions, organizations, individuals, and slogans were derived from Swahili. Thus Kiswahili words and phrases such as imani, nia, uhuru sasa, and simba may already be familiar to you.
  6. It forms the basis of the Pan-African holiday of Kwanzaa, created by Dr. Maulana Karenga in 1966.
  7. Unlike most African languages, it is non-tonal with a simple five vowel system, making it less difficult for some learners to vocalize.
  8. There are numerous free resources available to learn the language.
  9. There are many beautiful and profound proverbs that have been developed in the Swahili culture.
  10. It is a conceptually or philosophically rich language, containing complex and important ideas such as ujamaa (socialism or cooperative economics), kujitegemea (self-reliance), umoja (unity), ukweli (truth), utu (humanity), and so on.

This list was adapted from a list created by @SemaKiswahili

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.

The warrior’s path

Shaha Mfundishi Maasi emphasizes the implications of the fighting arts as tools of transformation. He states, “When one attempts to understand martial culture strictly from the confining standpoint of technical practice, they will one day learn and find themselves in a blind alley. Principle is the mother of technique.” Here he argues that understanding the underlying principles of the combat arts enables one to see these as wholistic tools or methods focused on the refinement of not only the shujaa’s (warrior’s) skills, but also his/her character. He also states that “The purpose of warriorship is to develop and enlightened being who is a human vortex of positive energy.” These insights have weighty implications for the conceptualization of practice, as many fail to employ their teaching to such critical ends.

Here I’ll offer two such examples. Mestre Preto Velho argues that Capoeira is not merely a means of self-defense, but also a vehicle for cultural transformation. He states “We can use things from our own culture to heal ourselves.” This includes Capoeira as a tool of empowerment, of cultural reorientation and revitalization. He adds, “We’ve been damaged. We have assimilated other people’s cultural norms. Gangsters are not part of African culture. There were no pimps and prostitutes on the slave ships. Culture defines the parameters of a people’s behavior.” Thus Capoeira (and other African fighting traditions) is not just a means of self-preservation, but also one of cultural transformation, that is social transformation.

Further, in his work to build the Federacao Autónoma da Capoeira Africana, Dr. Edward Powe has articulated the potential role of Capoeira as a tool of political education for Black people. He has noted his use of Umlabalaba (or “Zulu Chess”) as a means of mental training and Capoeira as one of politicization. This is a compelling end, one that seeks to elevate one’s concept of the art beyond its superficial aspects (that is it’s movements and the game), to the transformation of consciousness. And while some scholars (such as Downey) elaborate on the role of the art in re-patterning the practitioner kinesthetically, considerably more is at play–such as a burgeoning identification with Africa as the cradle for all Black culture, an appreciation for the resistance traditions of African peoples–that is our fight for self-determination, and the cultivation of a community of practitioners who represent the nucleus for the regeneration of the Black community–people who see and understand their practice as informing our transformation.

Again, as Shaha Mfundishi states, kicking and punching are necessary, but not sufficient. The shujaa must be emblematic of the type of personal transformation necessary for the reorientation of the community as a whole. S/he must be a model of the “new” African man or woman in whose image we seek to refashion the world.


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.

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.

Africans in America and the decolonization of language

I watched the PBS documentary Language Matters last night and was particularly struck by the efforts of native Hawaiians to preserve their language. They believed that without their languages, they would cease to exist as a distinct people.

While we have been stripped of our ancestral tongues, we, like any other people require a language that affirms our culture and our humanity. A language reinforces a sense of identity, a sense of tradition, even a sense of political destiny–this is why languages are such a prominent part of many nationalist movements around the world. Language revitalization has been a prominent feature of the efforts of many groups engaged in campaigns of self-determination such as the Basque (France and Spain), Maori (New Zealand), Welsh (UK), and so on. Language becomes a way of not only marking group identity, but of reinforcing the notion that a people has a shared history and destiny distinct from other cultural groups.

While Africa is home to more language diversity than any other place on Earth, and our ancestors doubtlessly spoke a myriad of languages, most African languages are more or less ethnic languages–that is the language of a single group. The exception to this are languages that have become diffused as the second language of a wider population. Some languages have become “lingua francas” within a single territory. Asante Twi and Wolof are examples of ethnic languages that have become diffused in their respective territories, Ghana and Senegal respectively.

Kiswahili and Hausa on the other hand have become diffused internationally, as each is spoken across territories and ethnic groups. Hausa speakers can be found in Nigeria, Niger, Ghana, Cote d’Ivoire, Cameroon, Chad, and Burkina Faso. According to Ethnologue, approximately fifteen million of Hausa’s over forty million speakers speak it as a second language

As the official language of Tanzania and Kenya, and as a second language in parts of Uganda, Mozambique, Congo, and elsewhere Kiswahili is perhaps the most effective example of an African language that has become more or less ethnically neutral as the vast majority of its speakers use it as a second language (approximately eighty million of its estimated ninety eight million speakers according to Ethnologue). Moreover, its adoption by many speakers (or aspiring speakers) in the African diaspora, and its common association with  Pan-Africanism adds a degree of conceptual or ideological import to Kiswahili that is absent in the broader perceptions of other African tongues. For instance, its association with various African liberation movements as reflected in common slogans such as “Uhuru sasa” (Freedom now), “Tutashinda bila shaka” (We will conquer without a doubt), “Elimu kwa kujitegemea” (Education for self-reliance), and terms such as kujichagulia (self-determination), imani (faith), ujamaa (familyhood), umoja (one-ness or unity) and so forth all capture the degree to which Kiswahili has been embraced as a language of liberation.

For these reasons and perhaps others, Kiswahili is perhaps best positioned to serve as a primary African language in the diaspora. It is not to say that other languages should not be studied. They should. The growing proliferation of Yoruba and Akan among diasporan Africans is both encouraging and interesting, so too the study of mdw nTr (Medew Netcher), the language of ancient kmt (Kemet) or Egypt. Yet despite this, Kiswahili’s broad diffusion, diversity of learning resources, development as a suitable tool for technical communication, ability to express ideas that are philosophically and conceptually germane to African cultures and communities, and relative neutrality make it a very attractive and viable candidate as the primary African language of the diaspora, in addition to being an auxiliary language for the African continent itself.

One feature of the film Language Matters was the strategy adopted by native Hawaiians to diffuse their language in the 1960s and 70s. They focused on educating small children to speak native Hawaiian. Linda Tuhiwai Smith has discussed a similar initiative among the Maori that centered on children as language learners given their facility for language acquisition. I believe that such a strategy is highly instructive for Africans in America that are desirous of seeing an African language such as Kiswahili becoming more widespread. While the Black Power era saw the diffusion of Kiswahili among Africans in America, the depth of this diffusion has been mostly limited to single terms and phrases. Thus it is not uncommon for someone to have knowledge of greetings such as “Habari gani?” (What’s the news?) or “Hujambo?” (How are you?), or to use statements of affirmation or negation such “ndiyo” (yes), “hapana” or “la” (no), or even “sijui” (I don’t know), to refer to familial roles such as baba (father), mama (mother), kaka (brother), or dada (sister), or to refer to concepts using the language such as the “Nguzo Saba” (the “Seven Principles”, as created by Dr. Maulana Karenga), “asili” (“essence” or “seed” as popularized by Dr. Marimba Ani’s book Yurugu), and so forth. What has been lacking has been an effective diffusion of knowledge sufficient to promote greater fluency in the language.

The movement from rudimentary linguistic knowledge to greater fluency begins with the requisite will and desire, and continues with the formation of a suitable institute devised to carry forth this charge on as broad a scale as possible. Such an institute can then coordinate the development of a body of highly-trained individuals who have attained a high degree of fluency in the language, the development of curricula for different age groups in the community, and the creation of an educational infrastructure in the form of classes and institutes. From this nucleus can also spring forth literature and other media designed to aid language learning. While the first item requires a substantial investment of time and effort, the second requires an understanding of effective language learning strategies for children and adults. The third necessitates a range of resources, both technical and spatial enabling knowledge to be diffused. For instance, the use of the internet as a vehicle of language learning cannot be understated. Dr. Obadele Kambon’s Abibitumikasa has become the premier African language learning institute with courses in Asante Twi, mdw nTr, Wolof, Yoruba, Kiswahili, and other languages. This resource and others should be effectively utilized. In the Chicago-area groups such as The Swahili Institute of Chicago , the Kemetic Institute of Chicago, and the Association for the Study of Classical African Civilizations Midwest Region are fine examples of what grassroots language institutes can aspire to accomplish (the latter two promote the learning of mdw nTr). Each of these organizations has also developed teaching and learning materials.

In closing, the diffusion of African languages in the Americas in fact is an act of cultural reclamation, a decolonization of the language of those whose estrangement from their ancestral homeland has made the quest for linguistic empowerment all the more fervent. The last fifty years illustrate the degree to which African languages have served the ends of spiritual enlightenment, scholarly inquiry, political education, and casual discourse. This process, despite its uneven outcomes to date, has been one that remains pregnant with possibility as it offers a path towards a potential decolonization of the African mind, a simpler means towards international communication within the global African community, and a mechanism to engage more fully with the deep thought of African culture as these are conveyed by language. As such language is a vital component in the process of Re-Africanization, but its effective utilization towards such an end can only be maximized via a greater degree of organization than what has yet transpired.

To this end, the creation of a Taasisi ya Kiswahili kwa Waafrika Merikani or a Swahili Institute for Africans in America will be a necessary step in this process. This must be followed by the creation of a scholarship fund and institutional connections to facilitate the training of a first generation of instructors. The third stage will be the creation of a body of instructional resources followed by the establishment of a network of instructional vehicles in the form of Saturday schools, after-school programs, rites-of-passage programs, and other mechanisms to teach primarily children, in addition to adults. This fourth stage should occur parallel to the fifth, which is the diffusion of literature (i.e., comics, fashion magazines, political education materials, scientific articles, art publications, news organs, and so on in the language so as to utilize it as a conduit of information. These steps are, I maintain, a process that can lead to both the institutionalization of Kiswahili (or any other African language) in the African diasporan community and its diffusion over the span of time.