I have been so pre-occupied of late with responding to the disaster in Haiti that I neglected to pen an article for Black History Month. But, since Black History should be a continual source of study, I am belatedly sharing some thoughts on the subject. In fact, this piece was inspired in part by a very engaging conversation I had with Rev. Willie Wilson, the visionary Pastor of Union Temple Baptist Church in Washington, during the Nation of Islam’s Saviours Day Commemoration in Chicago. Rev. Wilson pointed out how “African” identity was a unifying force among the quasi-free Black leaders in the late 18th and early 19th centuries as they sought to build institutions and a new community on these hostile American shores. There was clarity about their African identity, and therefore the institutions they built bore the name of the land of their origin -- most notably early Black religious denominations. The African Methodist Episcopal Church, African Methodist Episcopal Zion and African Baptist denominations became the cornerstones of the emerging new African community in America.
These African Churches spawned vital African institutions like African Free Schools, the first independent Black educational institutions, African Free Societies for charitable giving and Mutual Aid Societies which became the seed for Black insurance companies and Black banks. As time passed, however, confusion developed about the identity of the sons and daughters of Africa in America. By the 1830’s the designation “Colored” was more prevalent. The great political gatherings of leaders were called “Colored People’s Conventions” and “Colored” was used widely in the writings/literature.
Perhaps, the gradual decline of “African” as a conscious identity was due to the interruption of the trans-Atlantic trade of enslaved Africans, which blocked the infusion of new members into the community with memories of Africa fresh on their minds or the rise in miscegenation, that diluted the purity of African stock thereby producing what some may have chosen to call “coloreds.” No matter the origin of the confusion, the issue of identity or the quest for the appropriate designation for formerly enslaved and quasi-free people became a source of major debate and struggle.
Some might ask, what difference does it make? Why make such a fuss over what we call ourselves? It is interesting that most Euro-ethnics (as Rev. Herbert Daughtry of the House of the Lord Church in Brooklyn calls them) did not have to cope with this question. As Queen Mother Moore used to remind us, the people from Ireland who migrated to this country were clear that they were Irish. Similarly, Germans, Italians, Poles and Greeks identify with the land of their origin. Queen Mother Moore used to ask, “Where is colored, Negro or Black land?” Self identification was not a problem for Euro-ethnics because they brought their culture to America in tact. Unlike Africans, who were forbidden from speaking our native tongues, practicing our religion or playing our musical instruments, cultural continuity was the basis for Euro-ethnics to establish viable communities in America. Cultural continuity was the foundation for an internal economy and eventually the basis for amassing sufficient political power to become significant players in the American body-politic.
Identity matters. Malcolm X once said something to the effect that “of all the crimes committed against Africans by Europeans, the greatest crime was to take away our names.” By that he meant “cultural aggression,” the attempt to strip us of our original culture or as Queen Mother Moore would put it to “de-Africanize the African.” Given this historical reality, Dr. Maulana Karenga has consistently taught that the “key crisis in Black life is the cultural crisis.” Therefore, he argues that any ideology to address this crisis must provide “an identity, purpose and direction.”
Dr. Karenga’s criteria for an ideological corrective to cultural aggression are instructive. The quest for an appropriate identity is not just about a name or ethnic/national designation. It is about identifying with a source that provides a distinctive worldview, historical connection and cultural foundation that anchors a people and offers a sense of purpose and direction. This is precisely what Dr. Karenga achieved by innovating Kawaida, the Doctrine of Tradition and Reason, which articulates the Nguzo Saba, the Seven Principles of the Black Value System as a guide to Black life.
Notable African scholars have identified an overarching world view and traditional way of life that is shared by Africans of various nations and ethnicities on the continent. Whether one is an African Ibo, African Yoruba, Ashanti, Fanti, Jamaican, Haitian, Bajan or African in Europe, Canada or America, the embrace of African identity and attendant worldview, principles/values should be the foundation for the development of social, economic and political institutions and a force for the liberation of African people everywhere. As a counter to the “White” aesthetic and social domination, “Black” is an appropriate and necessary designation. However, it is insufficient-inadequate in terms of linking/connecting us to an ancestral homeland, worldview, cultural commonality and history of achievement, tragedy and triumph that defines who we are as African people.
Forty years ago I wrote A Pledge to African People to be recited as a way of instilling and conveying the power of proclaiming “We Are an African People.” Just as our forebears at the outset of our sojourn in America were clear about our African identity and used it to brand institutions that were vital to our survival and development, so we as Africans today must do likewise to create greater Pan African unity in our community as we strive to achieve liberation and righteous, global, African empowerment!
Note: Individuals and organizations interested in contributing to the relief, recovery and reconstruction effort in Haiti, including investing in the future of the country, should review the Haiti Support Project’s Haiti Relief Fund Initiatives at www.ibw21.org or call 718.429.1415.
Dr. Ron Daniels is President of the Institute of the Black World 21st Century and Distinguished Lecturer at York College City University of New York. His articles and essays also appear on the IBW website and www.northstarnews.com. To send a message, arrange media interviews or speaking engagements, Dr. Daniels can be reached via email at firstname.lastname@example.org.