From Chaos To Creativity:
An African Centered Approach to the Black Man in America
by Mwatabu Okantah
Submitted to NCBS 25th Annual International Conference
As early as 1903, in his classic, THE SOULS OF BLACK FOLK, W. E. B. DuBois wrote, "Between me and the other world there is ever an unasked question: unasked by some
through feelings of delicacy; by others through the difficulty of rightly framing it. All, nevertheless, flutter round it They approach me in a half-hesitant sort of way, eye me curiously or compassionately, and then, instead of saying directly, How does it feel to be a problem? they say, I know an excellent colored man in my town; or, I fought at Mechanicsville; or, Do not these Southern outrages make your blood boil? At these I smile, or am interested, or reduce the boiling to a simmer, as the occasion may require. To the real question, How does it feel to be a problem? I answer seldom a word."1 Instead, in his seminal collection of essays, he spoke eloquently of our tortured double consciousness. He described that feeling of two-ness being "an American, a Negro; two souls, two thoughts, two unreconciled strivings; two warring ideals in one dark body,whose dogged strength alone keeps it from being torn asunder."2
The 20th century has passed, and, Americans of African descent remain more a problem than a people in the eyes of most citizens in this nation today. America still wonders, "What shall be done with Negroes?" During the 1980s and the 1990s, this same question was framed within the context of the almost universal idea of Black men in America as an endangered species. On a personal level, I have always resented the not too subtle implication. I continue to find the notion objectionable, particularly when I hear it being trumpeted by people who should know better. In the final two decades of the last century, it seems it became fashionable, and, even now, continues to be acceptable, for everyone to talk openly about the poor state of Black men. So very few of these public talkers have taken the time to dialogue with Black men. Fewer still are those who genuinely listen when real Black men speak.
Public talk is rarely concerned with the names and the faces of the Black suns who did, and do, rise and shine. I remember my maternal grandfather, Joseph Huguenin, who chewed cigars and drank homemade wine from grapes picked out of his own New Jersey backyard; who brought his family out of the white hot South Carolina of 1925 and raised seven daughters and two sons inspite of Depression hard times. I remember my own father, Wilbur Thomas Smith, Sr., a World War II veteran of the historic Red Ball Express, who wanted more for his son than thirty-three factory years and bitter sweet memories of what might have been. The public posturing is never about real Black men. It is never correctly framed to make the reality we see nightly on the television news comprehensible.
Indeed, if Black men are an endangered species, who, then, is the predator so bent on creating the conditions that would lead to our eventual extinction? What happens to a people when a systematic attempt has been made to blunt their collective will and murder their group spirit? How many more of our fathers will have to dream their American Dreams in a bottle? How many more of our sons, before they become fathers, will have to smoke up their Deferred Dreams in a crack pipe? If there is a problem with Black men in this society, it is a home grown American problem. It is time for Black men to say an emphatic and categorical no to being permanently rendered a chronic problem for Americans to dismiss, or discuss, or resolve according to their own whims or discretion. It is time for Black men to speak out and to speak up in a rousing chorus of diverse, full voices. No single person, or leader, can speak for all of us. Rather, we have a virtual symphony of stories to tell.
It will be the purpose of this essay to engage in a discussion of the African man in the United States of America within a clearly defined Pan-African context. I will employ an approach that places African origins at its theoretical/philosophical center. I propose to argue that so-called African-Americans are one of several groups or tribes of New World African people who literally came into existence as Brazilians, Haitians, Jamaicans, etc., in a European dominated New World. Given our present state of material and spiritual chaos, any discussion of group healing and recovery must be cast in culturally specific terms. This is also to say, our discussion of Black men cannot be forced outside of the context of the general state of African-Americans as a distinct people of African descent living in America.
The inference today is that Black men in America are endangered because of some innate flaw in our collective, racial character. The history of race relations in this nation, however, suggests otherwise. Black reality in America continues to be shaped by those same historical/social forces that worked to alter, forever, the African presence in the so-called New World. Our condition of being an endangered people in this society has always been endemic to our American experience. The very parameters within which we discuss the African experience in America must be redefined to accommodate the unique qualities of the African-American lifestyle. The challenge for us is to find the right language and terminologies to discuss our experience. To place our discourse inside the illusion of being an American and a Negro, for example, was to miss the point. To be an American or a Negro was the problem. Both terms, as concepts, are the products of a sick Eurocentric imagination.
The scope of this paper will not permit a fully detailed discussion of the African origins of African-American culture and lifestyle. At the same time, however, I am arguing that true Black culture in America is the product of a dynamic process in which peoples born into a traditional African worldview and lifestyle were compelled to transform and adapt themselves inside a White Anglo Saxon Protestant dominated cultural field of reference. This question of cultural origins and group identity is crucial to the overall point of view being expressed. I am essentially arguing that our fundamental dilemma as a people is cultural in nature. In African centered terms, the shaping of individual identity is never abstracted outside of the context of the group's process of identity formation. Consequently, it is imperative for this discussion that the subject of "Black Men in Dialogue" not be isolated from the larger topic of African-American community development in general. Ultimately, the real focus of our discussion of Black men must necessarily be centered in the state of African-American families as a true barometer of the real condition of our people as we stagger into the new millenium.
It goes without saying that as Black men, we must take a hard look inward at ourselves collectively, and as individuals. We must be honest with ourselves, and, when necessary, we must be strong enough to forgive ourselves; that we have problems and must strive to begin transforming negative behaviors is not open to debate. Our real challenge is to find a balance and harmony between our strengths and our weaknesses. In the words of Mali's Yaya Diallo, I, too, am "a fool who is healing." In his book, The Healing Drum, he writes, "The fool is content to be himself, to be what he is today. He has ceased dreaming of what he ought to be and will never be. I am a fool who is healing. In Africa, when a fool is healed, he is called a former fool. So, having been a fool, I will always find this term attached to my name."3 For my own part, I have failed once at marriage. I have suffered the instability of fathering a child out of wedlock. I have two children in this world who are paying theno win price of my inability to make peace with their mothers. I am a Black man who is healing, a former fool who was blessed to find help and a way to rescue myself from the clutches of my own foolishness.
I know now that the price of indulging in one's own foolishness is too great. The absence of my two eldest children in my life haunts me by day and by night. In old, traditional Africa, the true measure of the man was seen in his ability to maintain his family and raise his children.
Status in the community was derived through the successful rearing of one's children. Men and women could not participate in governing the society if they could not maintain their families and govern their own homes. The public behavior of one's children is the indicator of the quality of an individual man or woman's parenting skills. In this traditional African context, however, it should be pointed out that even though parents are responsible for raising their children to successfully complete the village level of their education--Rites of Passage Initiation-- the proverb, "it takes a village to raise a child," provided the cultural fabric that held the community together. Individual parents were never left isolated inside their own homes. Family included kinship ties, age-group support networks and the presence of a revered class of elders who provided wisdom and stability. In African centered terms, then, I am no more than a fool who is healing.
FROM THE INSIDE OUT
In a very real sense, this discussion is the result of my work as a Rites Instructor with theNational Rites of Passage Institute under the local(Cleveland, Ohio) direction of Paul Hill, Jr., and with African Systems for Human Enhancement(ASHE) under the leadership of Kwaw David Whitaker. Writing in one of his columns, "The Hillside," in the Institute Newsletter, THE DRUM, Paul Hill, Jr., states:
The development of men and women and a community of caring adults will require a rediscovery and resurrection of some of the customs, traditionalism, rituals and ceremonies we have lost. Customs, traditions, rituals, and ceremonies are as veins and arteries to the body. Without connectors, there will be a breakdown in continuity. A shortage will occur somewhere in the system….The results of discarding customs, ritual, and ceremony are the headlines of the major urban newspapers in America--crime and the like. Ritual expression is an important aspect of human existence and continues to be needed by people in a secular urbanized world for their transition from one stratus to another. Ritual is a modality for learning and for transformation. It is therapeutic and it is spiritual.4
It is on this level that this paper is also a personal statement, for my Rites experiences have had a significant impact on my own personal development and transition into the Age Group of the Elders.
My work with Hill and Whitaker served to provide a language and terms to fit my own inner struggle to find a true spiritual center in my personal life. My own conscious quest to discover a language to express the dynamics of my internal dialogue had begun during my teenage years when my own inner discomfort was compelling me to break out of whatever it was my intuition sensed was confining me. I only knew that I was being driven by something I could feel, but could not name or explain. Being introduced to the teachings of Nigerian musician and philosopher Chief Fela Sowande, as a college student, put me on the road to eventual healing. He taught us, "…the current search for identity by the Black American is…more than necessary …especially for the Negro in America. He is not a whole person unless and until he knows himself for what he is, unless and until his individual consciousness is firmly rooted in the Group Consciousness of the Black Race, and the channels of communication between the two are left open and are fully functional and functioning. The Negro in America must choose between recovering and becoming fully conscious of his own identity, or being washed down the plumbless drains of history, as a mindless freak of nature."5
It took some time for me to realize that my personal struggle as a Black man is not just my struggle. It is our struggle. It is a struggle passed on to us before we were born. It is why we were born. It is said that Frederick Douglass, in describing the differences between himself and his contemporary Martin R. Delaney, is to have remarked that when he awoke in the morning, he thanked God for making him a man. He said when Delaney awoke, he thanked God for making him a Black man. For those of us today who are kindred spirits of Delaney, seeing ourselves as
Black men colors how we see and react to our personal struggles as individual men. The National Rites of Passage Institute was formed in 1993 to implement an African centered process based on Ghanaian Dr. Anthony Mensah's model, "Rites of Passage and Initiation Processes with Akan Culture." Hill writes, "Out of the need for the development of community and caring adults to raise children, the National Rites of Passage Institute was developed. The need for rites of passage is the result of the collapse of traditional cultures, the loss of shared myth and rituals that enfold the individual into the group, and the spread of a post industrial society which has produced generations of unbonded children and adults who are not initiated into the purpose and meaning of their own lives."6
When Paul Hill first approached me to conduct what he described as a workshop on African spirituality, it came at a time in my personal life when I had finally begun to right my own ship. During my first pilgrimage to West Africa, the experience was so emotionally and spiritually profound it forced me to look into my own mirror to confront the real problem in my life. I was introduced to a 102 year old village woman in Nigeria who, when told I was visiting from America, asked, "how did he get to be there?" She had always wanted to know what had become of the people who had been taken away. At that precise moment, I knew I had to make my personal story make sense to her if I was going to give her a true glimpse of our life as a people of African descent. I could hear Sowande's ancestral voice whispering in my inner ear: "…the Black American does not merely represent Africa; he is Africa. What the cultured Black American is today, the cultured African must be tomorrow, or else become a relic of history. Thus the Black American is perhaps the most direct link Africa will have with the New World now on the horizon, already casting its shadows on the old."7 As Brother Hill described Mensah's Akan-based Rites model, it brought me back to that moment, and I could only smile because I realized I was in the right place at the right time.
A few years before his passing, while he was still receiving visitors, Chief Sowande called me one of his disciples. At the time, still in my early 30s, I was humbled, and, a bit nervous to know he saw me in those terms. He had come to the US in the late 50s, and began teaching at Howard University by the late 60s, attracted by the energy of a then emerging student inspired Black Studies movement. I now realize I was one of those radical students who worked with Sowande at Kent State University during the late 1970s. At that time, I had no idea as to the influence his teachings would have on my development, not only as an artist and educator, but, as a man. By the 1970s, the "mindless freaks of nature" had begun appearing in our neighborhoods. And, even though we had no way of knowing just who Chief Sowande was, we knew enough to fear being washed away down those "plumbless drains of history." They called us his "groupies," but, we sat at his feet anyway. We instinctively knew he was the black light shining in the white darkness of our tunnel.
In his essay, "The Africanization of Black Studies," he wrote, "I see the Africanization of Black Studies as requiring the restructuring of Black Studies--a total restructuring if need be--so that it rests on the traditional thought patterns of traditional Africa, which thereby become its reason for being, its life-essence, the actualization of these thought-patterns in the day to day lives of common folks being its specific objective, to achieve which nothing will be allowed to be an insurmountable obstacle."8 In another of his essays, "Black Folklore," he wrote, "The Way of Life of the Blacks of Africa, as for Peoples of African Descent anywhere, is firmly rooted in the Unity of GOD-MAN-NATURE, and its study, or the study of any aspect of that Way of Life whatever, must be undertaken within the context of this Unity."9 I was attracted by the offer to work as a Rites instructor because it was evident to me it would provide me with the opportunity to share Sowande's wisdom. It was also evident that like Sowande, Anthony Mensah also saw a potential in African-Americans we do not necessarily see in ourselves.
In the final analysis, I am arguing that Black men, Black women and Black children are at risk in contemporary American society. We are a people in crisis. The discussion of America's Black men as an endangered species must be moved from the current distortion--the "Black men are a problem to be solved" mode, to a context based upon a new paradigm. Viable alternatives shaped by a new cultural critique must be offered. Toward this end, both the Sowande and the Mensah models provide the kind of return "to our African values" the theme of this 25th anniversary conference of NCBS seems to be advocating. Both models are also relevant because they are based in the Yoruba and Akan traditions, respectively; two West African ethnic groups who supplied large numbers of captives who were kidnapped and sold into slavery in the New World. If we look to works like Leonard Barrett's, SOUL FORCE: AFRICAN HERITAGE IN AFRO-AMERICAN RELIGION, or Edward Ball's, SLAVES IN THE FAMILY, we can plainly see that the foundations of African-American culture can be found in the specific African ethnic groups introduced into the English colonies. In addition to the Yoruba and the Akan, these groups also include Igbo, Mende as well as Mandinka peoples.
Our search for identity can be more specific than we have been previously lead to believe. Mensah writes, "This lecturer, an African in America, surmises that Black culture in America is possibly in conflict with the dominant culture, and that it may become necessary for Blacks to return to the primordial source to rediscover their cultural forms."10 As I became more familiar with the specifics of Mensah's approach, the striking similarities between his work and Chief Sowande's became readily apparent. Returning to Mensah, he writes:
Sowande and Mensah, therefore, are concerned with enabling each of us to find answers to the fundamental questions that continue to plague us as people: Who am I? How did I come to be who I am? Am I really who I think I am? Am I all I ought to be?
Our dialogue as Black men must lead to a real centering of our lives as men. It must lead to better relationships with our women. Like the traditional Yoruba Gelede masquerade that honors women, we must begin to see our women as valuable human beings. They are so much more than the male tendency to reduce them to mere reflections of our petty egos and distorted self-images. Our dialogue must inspire us to become better fathers to our children. Only after becoming better men--which is to say, better husbands, fathers, uncles, brothers, sons--will our quest lead to a real strengthening of our families and our communities. The reclamation and positive development of Black men in America is a crucial element in the overall enhancement of our people throughout the entire African/Pan-African world.
I began this discussion with the reference to DuBois' classic, THE SOULS OF BLACK FOLK, because I think we are still struggling to reclaim a clearer sense of our identity as a distinct people of African descent living here in America. For those of us who are engaged in the Rites of Passage movement, we are attempting no less than the creation of a new community; a New World African community. In this regard, I agree with Asa Hilliard when he says we are not a community, but a population. We are a collection of individuals who do not quite understand or see just what it is we should have in common as a people. Thanks to traditionally minded Africans like Chief Sowande and Dr. Mensah, we feel like we have been put on the right road to healing and prosperity. For those people who are skeptics, and who feel that village life in Africa has no relevance, I think this final thought from Burkina Faso's Malidoma Patrice Some sums up the essence of our endeavor:
We are no longer the same people whose ancestors were kidnapped and ripped out of Africa centuries ago. For us, Africa is not a place we come from, or travel to, so much as it exists inside of us as the Life-Force that sustains us. Africa is in us. Through an African centered Rites process, we have been gifted with a viable means to rediscover it.
Ball, Edward. SLAVES IN THE FAMILY. New York: Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 1998.
Barrett, Leonard E. SOUL-FORCE. Garden City: Anchor Press/Doubleday, 1974.
Diallo, Yaya and Hall, Mitchell. THE HEALING DRUM. Rochester: Destiny Books, 1989.
DuBois, W. E. B. THE SOULS OF BLACK FOLK. Boston: Bedford Books, 1997.
Hill, Jr., Paul. "The Hillside," The Drum, Vol. 4, No. 2, Fall/Winter 1998
Mensah, Anthony J. RITES OF PASSAGE AND INITIATION PROCESSES WITH AKAN
CULTURE. Milwaukee: NTU Rites of Passage, 1993.
Some, Malidoma Patrice. RITUAL: POWER, HEALING AND COMMUNITY. Portland:
Swan/Raven & Co., 1993
Some, Malidoma Patrice. OF WATER AND THE SPIRIT. New York: Penguin Books
Some, Malidoma Patrice. THE HEALING WISDOM OF AFRICA. New York: Penguin
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Sowande, Chief Fela. "African "Studies and the Black American in 1968." Hansberry
Memorial Lectures, Howard University, December 12, 1968.
Sowande, Chief Fela. THE AFRICANIZATION OF BLACK STUDIES. Kent: KSU
Department of Pan-African Studies, African-American Affairs Monograph Series,
Sowande, Chief Fela. "Black Folklore." Black Lines: Special Issue on Black Folklore, Vol. 2,
No. 1, Fall 1971, Department of Black Studies, University of Pittsburgh.