A Case Study: Kubili in the House
by Mwatabu Okantah
“Formerly ‘Griots’ were the counselors of kings, they conserved the constitutions of kingdoms by memory work alone; each princely family had its Griots appointed to preserve tradition; it was from among the Griots that kings used to choose the tutors for young princes. In the very hierarchical society of Africa before colonization, where everyone found his place, the Griot appears as one of the most important of this society, because it is he who, for want of archives, records the customs, traditions and governmental principles of kings. The social upheavals due to the conquest oblige the Griots to live otherwise today …” 1
--D. T. Niane
So writes D. T. Niane in the preface to his translation of Djeli Mamoudou Kouyate’s, Sundiata: An Epic of Old Mali. The first time I heard the term Griot, I was a young “wanna be” poet studying in what would later become the Department of Pan-African Studies at Kent State University. I was a student of Egyptian composer, Halim el-Dabh, and he had begun calling a group of us, “The Many Tongues of Ptah.” He called us the program’s Griots. Little did I know it then, but he was providing a roadmap for a career choice I would make later. I begin in this fashion because I know the things I am about to discuss are difficult and painful. There will be some who will accuse me of airing our proverbial “dirty laundry” in public. Others will indict me for revealing internal Department “politricks”2 to outsiders. I can only respond that I am a Griot, one of our poets, and I cannot remain silent any longer when these things that weigh so heavily on my heart are crying out for me to speak my truth.
When I was a young graduate student, I did not understand when Chief Fela Sowande tried to teach us the significance of the number two in Bantu philosophy. He was trying to get us, as young black students, to realize that if we simply saw our struggle in strict black versus white terms, the power of division would surely lead us to eventually turn in upon ourselves. Writing in the IAAA Monograph, The Africanization of Black Studies, he argued, “…the attempt to separate blacks from whites as mutually exclusive groups brings into effective action the Number 2 of the Bantus, that is Kubili, as representing divisiveness, which then operates on the Black Studies Departments themselves, so that the seeming unity which the black leaders started is soon full of holes, and factions spring up unbidden.”3 It is all making sense to me now that I am back here at KSU as a faculty member teaching in the program I helped create as a student activist with Black United Students during the 1970s.
If someone would have suggested to me then, that I would be working here now, I would not have believed them. I would have dismissed the notion. More specifically, no one could have convinced me that the student movement we were engaged in then would, in fact, serve as my training ground for this crucial internal struggle I find myself caught up in at this point in time. Sadly, in 2003, the more dangerous and perplexing threat to departments like this one is no longer external. This is not meant to suggest or imply the age old external forces are any less hostile in the present. Those forces are, however, predictable, and, for the fearless amongst us who understand the lessons of our history, those forces no longer surprise us. The surprises now come from those who are closest to us. We have become a dysfunctional “village.” Our unity is now “full of holes,” and factions have sprung up “unbidden.”
When I returned to this Department to teach in 1991, I came back with a profound sense of being able to continue a struggle that was begun more than 30 years ago. I returned at the urging of former Chair and Founder, Dr. Edward W. Crosby, because I wanted to give something back to a program that has played such a vital role in my own development, not only professionally, but as a human being as well. I came back secure in the knowledge that the real struggle has always been about institution building.
As I write, I am realizing that Chief Sowande was trying to teach us that the “opposition” in what has now become the present phase of the struggle would come from within our own ranks. We have been a divided house for quite some time. The power of Kubili has taken hold. We now undermine each other in ways even our proverbial masters could not imagine. Given the “at each other’s throat” nature of our present, the question of whether the infamous “Willie Lynch Speech” is authentic or not seems moot.
Suffice it to say, the post-Crosby era for this Department has not been kind to us by any stretch of the imagination. In a very real sense, we have lost our way. And, for me, the lessons of Chief Sowande that once floated just outside the grasp of my understanding now haunt this program in the present. For example, in our own Department hand-out, The Role of Faculty, Staff and Students, it states that faculty should “Be the example of what you teach. Your personal contradictions can wipe out years of hard work. You must be direction for the young; be what you teach, exemplifying the Black Value System—Nguzo Saba.”4 Yet, how can we be surprised our students appear so directionless, when their Elders so obviously lack direction? Our failure to set a better example as potential role models for our students on a daily basis borders on the criminal.
I look around in wonder today, and I hear the voice of Chief Sowande echoing from somewhere deep inside my inner ear. He warned us, “In short, the Africanization of Black Studies today is not a choice but a dire necessity, if Black Studies is to survive and be meaningful. But this Africanization is not to be regarded as a political platform or a new ideology; it is not to be approached in the manner of the chef who adds a little more of this or that to the soup that is all but cooked on the stove; it is not to be confused with the adoption of African names or dress-styles, although these may have their place in it, but Africanization means the total adoption of the World-View of Traditional Africa as the foundation on which to build. Such adoption will require substantial changes in our ways of thought and of action; it will require the jettisoning of many of our prejudices and fond beliefs, and it is here that the real problems will arise.”5
In other words, problems will arise in direct proportion to our unwillingness to change. Indeed, the current stalemate in this Department is rooted in the inability of some of us to change how we think, and, therefore how we act. It is on this level that our “personal contradictions” now threaten to “wipe out years of hard work …”
We have become adept at looking African. Some of us have even traveled back and forth to Africa. We fill our homes and offices with the appropriate pieces of art and the right book titles on our book shelves. At the same time, we continue to think inside the box of a Eurocentric paradigm. In truth, we are not African centered so much as we have become Afro-Saxons.
I am amazed today when I realize the prophetic accuracy of Chief Sowande’s cautions. He tried to tell us, “The true activist is the blatant patriot from within who is concerned with the emancipation of the common man; but the old saying ‘good intentions pave the way to hell’ applies here. The activist knows how to destroy; he has no conception of how to create. He thinks only in terms of the immediate present; his mind is incapable of grasping the possible results that might face him tomorrow….he must reduce every situation to such a level that it shows the element of confrontation embedded in it, and only then can he act…. Lacking the creative faculty in his mind, he is highly suspicious of those of his own group who possess that faculty, and considers that they must have sold-out to the ‘enemy’ or are ‘infiltrators’ for the System.”6 We have become a faculty that is split into opposing factions; those of us who seem stuck in the “confrontation” mode, and who see the “mythical white” enemy lurking everywhere versus those of us who see the need to “create” new methods based upon the solid foundation of our past, but geared toward meeting the new realities of the present.
Sowande elaborates further, “If we look back, however, I think we shall find that these problems are … rooted in the character-type of the activist-leaders of the Black Protest groups. I am sometimes accused of trying to belittle the achievements of these leaders; but that is not correct. I recognize--perhaps more clearly than most people over here, because I saw the same thing happening at very close quarters in Nigeria throughout the sixties. I have to recognize that the situation that led to the institution of Black Studies Programs required rough handling by tough Black leaders who ‘feared not God and had no regard for man’; it was this type of activist leader who forced the colonial powers to leave Africa at such short notice; leaders who dealt with concrete situations in concrete terms for concrete results in the here and now, who were incapable of seeing any good redeeming features whatever in the system they were committed to overthrowing, and who were also incapable of entertaining … the possibility of failure.”7
Put another way, we have become victims of our own success. We have become blinded by a past that we continue to try to force into the present. Sowande continues, “Unfortunately, it is precisely those qualities that fitted them for the role they played in securing the institution of Black Studies Programs from an unwilling established and hostile system that unfits them for the over-all control of these same
Black Studies Programs … The main flaw in the character-type of the activist-leader is that he lacks creative imagination, and can function smoothly, efficiently and effectively only when he is handling concrete situations in concrete terms….even when black activist leaders are genuinely anxious to produce a competent and effectively meaningful program to cater for blacks, they are forced to adopt the only pattern open to them, which is to borrow bits and pieces from the very system they set out to destroy, and give these bits and pieces a top layer of black paint in any way possible. The result they then beam against the established system by infusing into it the sense of a legitimate revolt against ‘a racist society’ as it is designated.”8
So, instead of being constructively engaged in the necessary work of our discipline, such as participating in research or creative activity, writing grants, developing a viable graduate program or initiating faculty/student exchange programs with our sister African or Caribbean counterparts, we are embroiled in using the university tenure, rank, contract, handbook and policy register to discredit, block and humiliate each other. We sit in meetings together without saying what we really think or feel, while harboring malice and ill will in our hearts. Rather than deal honestly with each other, we look for scapegoats and do not hesitate to write recriminations about each other in memos addressed to university administrators no less. It is most revealing, too, that we complain to the very people we claim are the problem in the first place.
Since returning to work in the Department, I have had to survive a Chairperson who called me a liar, questioned my professional ethics and actually suggested I talk to the “real Africans on campus” as if geography or origin of birth is the only criteria for being African. I have had to endure colleagues who smile and participate in small talk about our families, while they act to effectively limit my input in Department matters in the name of University procedure. Yet, we claim to “not be like other departments on campus.” Colleagues who once granted you “insider status,” now shun you because their motives have changed and their alliances have shifted. I have colleagues who would label me a “sell out” simply because I do not “lock step” to the tune of their arrogance cleverly masked in the guise of the privileges of tenure and faculty rank.
Ultimately, it is our own failure to learn from our history that is crippling our progress in the present. I find myself returning to the teachings of Chief Sowande because I think it is self-evident we have become disconnected from our philosophical foundation. If the truth be told, we cannot deny the current reality that we no longer function as a “family” in the Department today. We have become a collection of individuals whose competing personal agendas too often blind us to whatever might be in the best interests of the program. It almost seems as if some of my colleagues would prefer to see the program fail rather than admit to themselves there might be another way of doing things. Or, as the old folk say, some people would “cut off their own nose to spite their face.”
In his book, Ritual: Power, Healing and Community, Malidoma Patrice Some identifies the following seven criteria as a partial list of the characteristics of a
community based on his observations living in his own village in Burkina Faso:
He writes, “We need ritual because it is an expression of the fact that we recognize the difficulty of creating a different and special kind of community. A community that doesn’t have a ritual cannot exist. A corporate community is not a community. It’s a conglomeration of individuals in the service of an insatiable soulless entity. What we need is to be able to come together with a constantly increasing mindset of wanting to do the right thing, even though we know very well that we don’t know how nor where to start.”9 For our part, we have not acknowledged the real difficulty in trying to create and maintain a true community based on an African village model in this program or on this campus beyond empty rhetoric.
It goes without saying that we have no community-based rituals in the Department or on campus that we respect and take part in as a community. Our lack of unity, openness, trust and mutual respect is evident to all who have eyes to see. If we think the university administration is unaware of our own deep divisions, not to mention our inability to clean our community’s “dirty laundry,” we are only deluding ourselves.
At a time when our students are looking for meaningful ways to resolve their differences, what can we offer them in the face of our continuing failure to resolve our own? It is embarrassing to admit, but our young people are actually showing good judgment when they “tune out” their Elders in this instance. More than saying what we mean and meaning what we say, it is now time for us to act in ways that are consistent with the African-centered philosophy we so eloquently proclaim.
More than a dialogue with university administrators in particular, or with any other people in general, we need to start developing meaningful relationships with each other. It is time for us to clean up our own act. I agree with Malidoma. When it comes to being a real community, we do not know where or how to begin. As Elders to our students, it is time for us to practice what we are all charged to teach. Returning once again to the Role of Faculty, Staff and Students, it states, “The Mwalimu (teacher)— Mwanafunzi (student) relationship is of major importance and must be understood and adhered to if an atmosphere of learning, discipline and respect is to be created….No institutions can advance intellectually, culturally or politically unless there are dedicated and sincere Walimu (teachers) with an equally committed Wanafunzi (students). The Walimu and Wanafunzi are equally responsible to each other and must develop an unbreakable trust between them.”10
For me, this is ultimately about our students. It is also personal. More than being a current member of the faculty, I relate to this program as an alumnus that was here during the “heyday” of the 1970s. This is to say, I was here in the days when we dreamed of a future Department of Pan-African Studies presence on this campus. Because we could not see into Sowande’s lesson, we never envisioned a time when our own slackness would become a serious threat to the reality of that department’s continued existence. At the time, we just did not believe his warning could come true. It remains to be seen if we will finally come to understand as we struggle to continue the tradition of those committed students, faculty, staff and community people who have preceded us in the Black struggle on this campus. Or, will we self-destruct and lose it all on our historical watch as we fight with each other over petty jealousies and professional envy?
And lastly Sowande warns, “Power without wisdom is but another name for death…. Power without wisdom therefore boils down in the final analysis to power without love. It is not the presence of power that is evil; it is the absence of love that makes power evil and destructive. That is why Black power structure in Africa can be, and has been, much more to the disadvantage of the Negro in Africa than White power structure has been to the Negro in America.”11 It is our own obvious lack of love, and, more importantly, respect for each other and this program that now threatens its future in ways “white folks” could never conceive. It is time for us to finally acknowledge and make peace with the reality of our own unique diversity as a people, and strive to become the African village we claim to be.
It is time for us to restore peace and stability to our house. It is time for us to update our essential vision and to realign it to meet the challenges of this new millennium. Our past is our past. It can provide valuable lessons that will help guide us as we navigate these treacherous waters of our time. We cannot live in the past. We cannot try to live the past in the present. It is time for us to “walk the way of the New World.” If departments like this one are to continue to grow and flourish, we will have to revitalize ourselves. We will have to renew our commitment. It is on this level that we have to understand the future is not a place we will experience in our lifetime. Rather, like those early students whose dreams are alive in us in spite of the chaos of the present, we are now charged with dreaming big dreams and creating a future for those generations we know are still there “on the other side” waiting to be born.
Madhubuti, Haki R. From Plan to Planet Life Studies: The Need For Afrikan Minds And Institutions. Detroit: Broadside Press, 1973.
Niane, D. T. Sundiata: An Epic of Old Mali. Essex: Longman Group Ltd., 1993.
Some, Malidoma Patrice. Ritual: Power, Healing and Community. Portland: Swan/Raven & Company, 1993.
Sowande, Chief Fela. The Africanization of Black Studies. Kent: Department of Pan-African Studies, African IAAA Monograph Series, Vol. 2, No. 1, 1972.
Sowande, Chief Fela. “African Studies and the Black American in 1968,” Hansberry Memorial Lectures, Howard University, December 12, 1968.
1. D. T. Niane, Sundiata: An Epic of Old Mali. Essex: Longman Group Ltd., 1993, Pg. vii.
2. Common Rastafarian expression for “politics.”
3. Chief Fela Sowande, “The Africanization of Black Studies.” Kent: African American Affairs Monograph Series, 1972, Pg. 3.
4. Haki R. Madhubuti, From Plan To Planet Life Studies: The Need For Afrikan Minds And Institutions. Detroit: Broadside Press, 1973, Pgs. 68-74.
5. Sowande, Pgs. 5-6.
6. Sowande, Pg. 4.
7. Sowande, Pg. 6.
8. Sowande, Pg. 6-7.
9. Malidoma Patrice Some, Ritual: Power, Healing and Community. Portland: Swan Raven & Co., 1993, Pgs. 70-71.
10. Madhubuti, Pgs. 68-74.
11. Chief Fela Sowande, “African Studies and the Black American in 1968.” Hansberry Memorial Lectures, Howard University, December 12, 1968, Pgs. 17-19.