Fihankra: Security in the House
by Mwatabu Okantah
Healing. Atonement. Reconciliation. Purification. Bitterness, anger, frustration, and our pain have turned us in on ourselves. Because we live in a material society that has lost touch with the real world of the spirit, we are a people in need of spiritual healing today. We have struggled so hard, and for so long, to be accepted as equals in this society that we have become more American than the Americans in some very dangerous ways. In our centuries old efforts to become Americans, we have somehow lost touch with our true sense of ourselves as a unique people of African descent living in America. Niggers and Sambos: what happens to a people when they are reduced to believing in caricatures of themselves? In real terms, we cannot enter into genuine dialogue with others if we do not enter into serious dialogue with all of our fragmented and fractured selves. On December 9, 1994, an African centered spiritual process of purification and healing was begun in Ghana that heralded the potential for new beginnings, and set a course for our forward march into the 21st century. More than three thousand people participated in the inaugural, "Fihankra Ceremony of a Stool and Skin," performed in Accra as part of Panafest 94.
Fihankra is a term from the Akan language of the Ashanti people of Ghana. It refers to one of the Adinkra symbols. According to Dr. J. B. Danquah, "the word Adinkra derives from the Akan nkra or nkara meaning, 'message or intelligence,' and where human destiny or the life span is concerned, it refers particularly to the intelligence or message which each soul takes with him from God upon obtaining leave to depart to earth--the soul itself is called okra or okara." The implication, then, is that Adinkra symbols have a theological and philosophical basis. Each symbol represents a philosophical concept arising out of the Akan people's rich cultural heritage.
Fihankra signifies the "concept of completeness and indivisibility." It means "a house which is safe," or, "security in the house." The circular design of Fihankra "is believed to reinforce its meaning of completeness and indivisibility." The circle is regarded as the "aboriginal symbol of the perfection of God, for like God, the circle has no beginning and thus no end." The Creator, Nyame, is therefore the All in All. Both the Stool and Skin are sacred symbols of divine authority in which resides the very spirit and soul of the people.
This traditional Fihankra purification ceremony was also significant because it marked the first time that contemporary African chiefs had gathered publicly to formally acknowledge and to specifically perform rituals to atone for the misdeeds of those ancestors who collaborated with Europeans to capture and eventually sell their own people into enslavement in what came to be known as the Trans-Atlantic slave trade. Present day Ghana, then known as the Gold Coast, was a major point of demarcation for the export of African captives to the New World. European traders negotiated agreements with African rulers, and were permitted to build more than forty slaving castles or barracoons along Ghana's coast. The Fihankra ceremony was intended to restore to Africans born in the Diaspora two sacred symbols in one to reaffirm the cultural and spiritual ties to Africa that have been denied to us for so long. The ceremony was a sign that Africans in Africa see the need to reach out across the Atlantic to reconnect with peoples of African descent living in the Diaspora as we struggle to reclaim a sense of our African heritage.
It is more than fitting this purification ritual was performed in Ghana. Land of Osagyefo Kwame Nkrumah, it is the modern home of Pan-Africanism on the continent. It is the land whereW. E. B. DuBois laid his "double consciousness" to rest. A significant African-American repatriate community has been active in Ghana ever since the heady days of independence. And, because of the presence of Cape Coast and Elmina Castles, Ghana has become a major desti-nation for African-American pilgrims who feel the need to travel to our ancestral homeland. A delegation from Ghana visited the United States during the summer of 1995 to follow-up and to bring this ritual process of the Purification of Fihankra to those people who could not be in Ghana for the historic inaugural ceremony. They came under the theme: "Fihankra: Reuniting The Divided House." Led by Odeneho Nana Oduro Numapau II, they were in Cleveland from July 25 through July 28, 1995, where I had the opportunity to meet them and participate in the ceremony itself. Unfortunately, the Cleveland area leg of their tour became embroiled in controversy.
Serious questions were raised about the delegation's credentials, and its motives. Because I had been asked to speak as one of the Griots that evening, long time community activists with broad experiences in Africa implored me to speak to their concerns.
The delegation also traveled to Detroit, New York, Philadelphia, Baltimore and Washington, D. C. At the time, a second Fihankra ceremony was planned for later that same year and a second U. S. tour was proposed. On the one hand, little seems to have come out of Fihankra. The Cleveland Fihankra committee was in the hands of people who had no real understanding of African heritage or contemporary African realities. A few dubious people received equally dubious titles. Well respected community activists in attendance were alarmed.
Even giving the organizers the proverbial "benefit of the doubt," it was clear that good intentions are no substitute for ignorance or our general lack of cultural awareness. The Fihankra delegation had no real sense of the depth of African-American ambivalence and anxiety about our connection to Africa and Africans. Africans and African-Americans coming together in mutual ignorance is a volatile mix. This very real quandary speaks to the enormous obstacle blocking the path before us. On the other hand, however, Africans from Africa and African-Americans reaching out to touch each other across age-old barriers of time, distance, fear and mistrust is the right path. It is the way of our ancestors. On both sides of the Atlantic, the lesson of Fihankra is the learning how to do things in the right way. The idea of Fihankra offers the potential to open forever that once closed Door of No Return.
From the vantage point of the year 2001, we can look back on W. E. B. DuBois' THE SOULS OF BLACK FOLK to see that he was correct. The problem of the 20th century was the color line. "The relation of the darker to the lighter races of men in Asia and Africa, in America and the islands of the sea" has been the major issue of our time. In many ways, the 20th century signaled an African world renaissance. In the larger, so-called Third World, anti-colonialist and anti-imperialist resistance literally forced a shift in the European dominated modern world's racial paradigm. In the United States, the Civil Rights/Black Liberation movements forced this same paradigm shift into stark American terms. For me, the Fihankra ceremony had meaning because I saw the delegation's efforts within the context of the awakening throughout the Pan-African world. We cannot view Fihankra through the limiting sight of American eyes. Being in America has stunted our growth and blurred our vision. As an idea, we must not limit Fihankra to only those people who were aware of it back in 1994 and 1995. We must all realize that our slow movement toward a true African centered consciousness is a more demanding and difficult journey than most of us recognize. If we are to achieve a genuine African centered consciousness, we must also realize the degree to which traditional African thought patterns and cultural practices will require profound and substantial changes in our own individual and group thinking. It will require hard changes in our behavior and outlook. Traditional African culture is what it is, not what we--in our American confusion--would like it to be.
We must begin to see how the tragic history of race relations in this society has fundamentally molded the collective American consciousness. As African-Americans, we have been no less homogenized. Yet, the relations between Americans of European, Indigenous, African and Asian extraction have defined and shaped the American experience in ways that will continue to confound white America's hallowed Melting Pot mythology. It is no longer deniable that the face of just who is considered an American is changing. So-called peoples of color as a force to be reckoned with in this society are a reality that is not going to fade away. Some time during the 21st century, those people who call themselves white will no longer be the majority population in America. America's military might as the world's lone remaining Superpower will not alter this fact. No amount of legislation declaring English as the official language of this country can stop the inevitability that Spanish will become the most widely spoken language in this society. The reality of a changing world is fast becoming the reality of a changing America. Denial of these truths is the problem in this nation today. As Americans of African descent, these truths have particular implications for our future. Unfortunately, we may be deeper in denial facing a changing American reality than anyone else.
Each time I visit the Frederick Douglass memorial house in Washington, D. C., I am reacquainted with my own nagging ambivalence. Our ancestors are restless in their eternal sleep. I could feel it in Douglass' powerful presence in that house. Even on stifling August days, you sense his agitated spirit moving about the grounds. You feel him moving in the breeze wind whispering through the trees anchoring that majestic hill overlooking Anacostia. Walking those grounds, the notion that our citizenship has come at too high a price echoed in my head. I could hear Douglass delivering his famous Fourth of July address in my inner ear: "… I am not included in the pale of this glorious anniversary! Your high independence only reveals the immeasurable distance between us. The blessings in which you, this day, rejoice, are not enjoyed in common. The rich inheritance…bequeathed by your fathers, is shared by you, not by me…this Fourth of July is yours, not mine. You may rejoice, I must mourn." I read his words today and his insight as well as his eloquence astonishes me.
From Douglass speaking in 1852 to DuBois writing in 1903, the truths that dominated their lifetimes still resonate for too many of us today. I did not fully comprehend the enormous cost of being made American citizens until I stood in the open "Door of No Return" inside the House of Slaves on Senegal's Goree Island. The unfathomable depths of the African Holocaust washed over me as I stood overwhelmed by the lingering smell of death deep inside the male dungeons at Ghana's Cape Coast Castle. I can never forget the wailing silences that engulfed me as I stood transfixed inside an empty slave cabin on South Carolina's Boone Hall Plantation in the sweltering "Low Country" heat. It all came together for me as I stood on that hill outside the Douglass house feeling his presence in my bones, wondering: just how do we measure the human distance from traditional West African villages to teeming New World slums? We are no longer the same African people whose ancestors were taken from Africa centuries ago. We are still unsure of just who it is we have become as a New World people.
More than any other national holiday, on each Fourth of July, I am reminded I am a citizen of this European settler nation as a direct consequence of what can only be described as a criminal enterprise. Returning to Douglass' address that fateful day in Rochester, he reminded his audience that "… if I do not faithfully remember those bleeding children of sorrow this day, 'may my right hand forget her cunning, and may my tongue cleave to the roof of my mouth.' To forget them, to pass lightly over their wrongs, and to chime in with the popular theme, would be treason most scandalous and shocking and would make me a reproach before God and the world." Now more than ever, our ancestors command us to remember and retell their stories in the face of this society's dogged call for us to forget. We are descended from enslaved Africans who quite literally refashioned themselves into new peoples. No peoples who could be called Brazilian, or Haitian, or Jamaican, or African-American existed in the New World before the 18th century.
Even here in the United States, as a new and culturally distinct people, we have managed to create and sing a new song inspite of this still strange land. Poet Maya Angelou has proclaimed,
"The caged bird sings because it must…"
For the better part of the 20th century, the uniqueness of our singing fell on deaf ears. We still live amongst people who essentially do not care to listen. There is something sinister about this society's refusal to sound the deep depths of black people's song. The even deeper irony is the degree to which America has taken our music and claimed it as it own. Today's Britney Spears and Backstreet Boys only echo yesterday's Elvis. Elvis was made King of Rock n Roll in the same way a Benny Goodman was made King of Swing or a Paul Whiteman was crowned King of Jazz. Only in America are musicians crowned kings of music they merely imitate. Only in America can the music of the unfree be presented to the world as the symbol of freedom. Our music is not blue; it is black. It is black as the night that gives birth to day. It is soft. It is hard. The melodies are as sweet as they are pained. Thelonius Monk called it our "Ugly Beauty." Duke Ellington called it, "Black, Brown and Beige." Our musicians and our poets are here to remind us, "the caged bird sings or it dies." It sings because it does not know how not to sing. To sing is central to its nature.
There is still music in our people today. Even though too many of us no longer pay attention to our own singing, there is still movement. There is motion. Forward motion. Retrograde motion. If you listen closely, you always hear it in the singing. Our real music occurs away from the polluted mainstream; drum voices continue to sound in the raw singing. It moves up from one generation to the next. Black sounds. From Blues groove to Jazz hues, from Bebop to Hip Hop, the dance floor remains sacred space. Movement. Hear the new music in today's African centered talk. How do we name this same longing that speaks back to us from a new generation whose Rap music--today's new black music-- irritates and agitates their elders, as they rebel against a society that refuses to see them? Consider the X factor. It is no accident our youth's attention was diverted from Malcolm X to Generation X. From X-Files to X games, what we call a thing does, indeed, determine what it becomes. Names. Whose agenda is served when even the image of Malcolm X can be turned into a crass, commercial icon?
Mine is an historical point of view that exists within the larger African-American community, but is too often dismissed or ignored or distorted or obscured or labeled in generally negative terms. People ask: "Why do you speak so much of blackness? Don't you think you are segregating yourselves?" No one seems willing or able to question the naked reality that Douglass' Fourth of July Address, delivered almost 150 years ago, speaks the same truth today. And, because it is the same truth, it is more compelling today. We are labeled haters of white people, and have been disingenuously charged with further dividing an already historically divided nation. We have become a convenient scapegoat for those who lack the will to admit that America's race problem is the creation of those Americans of European descent that founded this nation. Skin color as a criteria for social acceptance and advancement, in this society, is a direct consequence of the European experience in the New World. We are charged the real price of free speech in America, for it is paid in consequences earned whenever that speech challenges the status quo.
White Americans have segregated themselves inside a reality cast in the terms of their own preferred illusions. Western societies, including the United States, have ruthlessly imposed those illusions on the rest of the world. To exist outside of this Eurocentric frame of reference is to be forever defined as something oddly other. Yet, there have always been those rebel souls in America's New World African community who refused, and, continue to refuse, to accept an imposed "other class" status. We define our American reality in our own terms. We remember David Walker's Appeal. Martin R. Delaney was a Douglass contemporary who founded the Niger Valley Exploring Party, and organized a repatriation conference in Cleveland in the 1850s. We remember Queen Mother Moore. There have always been black people who did not accept America as our home. A conditional citizenship was the only option offered to freed slavesafter the Civil War. Constitutional amendments replaced the ability to make real choices. All of this is to say these issues are not new.
What is new, however, is the way in which the forward motion of contemporary black history has forced these long festering issues into this era's mainstream discourse. Even the question of reparations and a safe haven for descendents of enslaved Africans has reemerged to the absolute dismay of the more conservative elements within African-American leadership. Although there is no consensus within the national black community on this particular issue, there are those who think it is futile and counterproductive to even inject such talk into the debate. They feel it will only further alienate and enflame an already hostile and unsympathetic white majority. We would only argue there could be no real debate or dialogue if all perspectives are not considered. For more than just a few of us, America is the land of our birth, but, its self- proclaimed Melting Pot is an unacceptable metaphor to define the nature of our experience as Americans. We lose too much in the process. And, the real issue is the power to define.
Speaking in an interview published in the New York Times Magazine back in 1994, novelist Toni Morrison offered this insight: "You know, the term 'political correctness' has become a shorthand for discrediting ideas…. What I think the political correctness debate is really about is the power to be able to define. The definers want the power to name. And the defined are now taking that power away from them." Our American experience has rendered black people virtual strangers to ourselves. We have no real memory of ever having once been a whole people. We have grown too accustomed to living as "Afro-American Fragments." We are a people who are in search of our proper name. So long as we remain confused about our names, we will remain a stunted people; a "throw away" people to be discarded onto the garbage heap of someone else's history. Our only real choice is to continue the struggle to pick up and put back together the shattered pieces of our lives.
The true scope of Fihankra is larger than just those people who were in Ghana for the inaugural ceremony in 1994, or, those people in the cities in the United States the Fihankra delegation visited in 1995. As Americans of African descent, we must begin to see ourselves and our experience as part of a global Pan-African experience. Fihankra must be viewed in African centered cultural terms where ritual and ceremony are designed to integrate and renew the entire community of the departed, the living and the not yet born. As we enter the 21st century, we must begin to understand that being African has less to do with geographical location or one's origin of birth, than it does with the nature and condition of both our individual and our collective group inner "good and gentle character," or what the Yoruba people of Nigeria call, "Iwa-Pele." For the Yoruba, each individual's life is a quest("Iwa-Kiri") to develop Iwa-Pele. In the same regard, this thing we call Blackness is more than just the color of one's skin. It is about our state of consciousness as a people. It is an attitude. Blackness is a way of seeing, and a way of being in the world.
Like the annual Kwanzaa celebration, the Fihankra Ceremony of a Stool and Skin must be seen as part of our ongoing struggle to create new rituals and ceremonies in our lives. Writing in his book, RITUAL: POWER, HEALING AND COMMUNITY, Malidoma Patrice Some 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 … ritual cannot exist." He suggests that "the way to know that your rituals are having a positive effect on you begins with the discovery of how much emotion is pushing you from the inside like a volcano. Those who are able to express their emotions have been, at some point in their lives, in alignment with their own spirits, saints, guides or guardians." Fihankra, then, is about our realignment inside an African centered universe no matter where we find ourselves domiciled on the planet. And, for those of us who still wonder about our relationship to Africa and Africans, Fihankra is living testament to the fact that we have not been forgotten in our ancestral homeland. Here in the Diaspora, we are African people still.
The stain of disruption, dispersal, enslavement and colonialism continues to fester like an open wound in the consciousness of African people on both sides of the Atlantic. Fihankra is for all of us as African derived peoples. The 20th century, indeed, signaled a true renaissance in the African/Pan-African world. The Fihankra Purification ceremony is part of our movement out of white darkness into black light. The theme of "Fihankra: Reuniting The Divided House," is about Africans at home reaching back across the ocean "to fetch" or "to pick up" Africa's children who are scattered across the New World. Sankofa is the Adinkra symbol that expresses the concept of reclaiming one's history. If we continue to reach out to each other from points of view steeped in mutual arrogance, greed and deceit, our outstretched hands will never make the desired contact. Nations, like individuals and groups of individuals, can also be in need of healing. For too long, we have tried to convince others of truths we did not necessarily believe ourselves. Fihankra is about believing in our capacity to be healed. It is about embracing our reality as African people at home and abroad. It is about bringing final closure to a sad chapter in our history as peoples of African descent. It is about finally attaining a true sense of tranquility and completeness within our black selves.