Tuesday, May 30, 2006

If Your Hands Are In the Dish...Part I

"If your hands are in the dish, people do not eat everything and leave you nothing...."

Adinkra symbols have been popularized among black Afro-centric artists and intellectuals largely because of Haile Gerima's Adinkra-titled indie film Sankofa. Music heads will also recognize Sankofa as Cassandra Wilson's ethereal ode to African identity and self awareness on her rootsy 1993 masterpiece Blue Light 'Til Dawn. The popular West African symbol is also the moniker of an underground Hip Hop artist hailing from Fort Wayne, Indiana, as well as a favorite rap group among North Cack's Chapel Hill locals.

Not knowing otherwise one might think Sankofa, which literally means "return and get it", is the only semiotic form of wisdom the Akan people of Ghana had to offer. But the ubiquity of this particular Adinkra may have more to do with the Africans on this side of the pond than anything else. As the
only group of people who in their entirety were forced to come to the Western hemisphere, the prerequisite for our arrival was the erasure of our languages, religions, histories and cultures.

This breakdown of identity has meant that blacks have had to wage a battle for individual self consciousness simultaneously with a collective struggle against white supremacy in all its forms (slavery, Jim Crow, urban renewal, gentrification and now globalization). In reality, these two struggles are really flip sides of the same coin as white oppression of blacks (and all other peoples of color for that matter) has always contained political, economic, social, cultural and psychological components.

During legal slavery our struggle against white oppression often took the form of self consciousness as artistic expression. With no legal rights, no right to civic participation and no right to ownership even of oneself, African slaves only had art, if that, as a means of self determination. A significant example is that of New Orleans' Congo Square, where slaves were legally permitted to gather, sing and dance, as well as trade goods.

This self consciousness as struggle was famously characterized by actor Levar Burton in the
landmark 1977 TV mini-series Roots. When the newly imported slave Burton refuses to answer to the name Toby, he is savagely whipped by his master. The master repeatedly asks Burton what his name is, and Burton replies Kunta Kinte. With every refusal to acquiesce, or rather with every affirmation of his African identity, Burton receives a lash. It is the expression of his African identity in and of itself that is a threat to the white master’s control. In the end, however, the beating is too much for Burton. He relinquishes control of his identity to the master, calling himself Toby.

The scene, then, becomes an apt metaphor for the limits of individual black self consciousness alone in the fight against white supremacy. It took the collective action of runaway slaves to create the Underground Railroad, and the coalition-building of freed slaves with whites to further build upon the abolitionist movement. And finally, Africans took a decisive roll in gaining their collective freedom by fighting in the Civil War. This is not to say, though, that Africans didn't resist enslavement from the get. Contrary to popular American myth African slaves ran away, fought back and even commited suicide to avoid or escape from bondage. But the end of legal slavery was only possible through collective resistance.

Fast forward 100 years to another decisive stage in the history of the Struggle. Although the strategies and ideologies may have been different for each group, the Civil Rights and Black Power movements both combined African American self expression with collective struggle in the fight against white supremacy. Along with the sit-ins and freedom rides were the freedom singers. The literary giant James Baldwin debated the efficacy of non-violence with Black Power leader Malcolm X. The play Home on the Range by Black Arts Movement writer Amiri Baraka was performed as a benefit for the Black Panther Party. Black Art and activism worked in concert to move Black people onward and upward. Even with the eventual (some say inevitable) assasinations of the Movements' flagship leaders no one can question that significant gains were made for black people in this country, and that the Civil Rights Movement ultimately won out over the Black Power Movement for the direction in which black people were to go.

Our history bares out that Sankofa – self consciousness, self awareness or self determination – is guaranteed only when accompanied by collective action. Enter Wo Nsa Da Ma A - the Adinkra symbol meaning participation, democracy and pluralism. It comes from the aphorism "Wo nsa da mu a, wonni nnya wo", which literally means "if your hands are in the dish, people do not eat everything and leave you nothing". It is the combination of Sankofa and Wo Nsa Da Ma A that has propelled us from chattel slavery, through Jim Crow and into the post Civil Rights era.

So where are we now? We live in a period of plenty of Sankofa and very little Wo Nsa Da Ma A, and my how it shows. Integration, otherwise known as assimilation for America's immigrant groups, has rung the dealth knell for black politics and collective action in this country. Although none of the Civil Rights activists could have possibly desired it or known that integration was going to kill black community, it most certainly has. The question is why?

Mainstream white America's unending refusal to acknowledge the structural racism endemic to our society makes it possible to continue to blame black pathology on our plight. This of course has always been the case and always will be until the bubble of white privilege is burst. Let's just say I'm not holding my breath. According to white folks then, and more and more blacks, the problem is us. But that isn't a satisfactory answer, since if black pathology has always been a constant why now are we experiencing the breakdown of our families, the acrimony between black men and black women and the mass incarceration of our men on scales that did not exist pre Civil Rights?

If I had a dime for every time I heard a black person tell me that slavery destroyed the black family I'd be living in a penthouse on 5th Ave. The fact is, though, that despite the enormous obstacles placed on African slaves most couples married and stayed with the same spouse until death and most children were raised in two-parent households. The situation is far more dire for the black family now of the post Civil Rights "liberated" generation. Isn't it far more likely that the values of the larger society we have integrated into have had a negative effect on us as individuals and as a community?

More in Part II....

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