There is no doubt that as a people we have come a long way in our struggle to overcome some of the most brutal experiences in the history of humankind; social movements as well as legal and political avenues have given us the means to overcome slavery, Jim Crow, and a host of other oppressive forces and atrocities.
Yet, there is one struggle that appears to be ongoing, and that is the struggle to heal and build: specifically, to heal the pain stemming from disconnection from culture, loss of community, and separation from our intellectual heritage.
Building on opinions expressed by some of our most well-known thinkers, activists and writers, in this article I will address community development from a cultural standpoint, because, as I have been taught by life, it is culture which provides the necessary foundation for a people to heal, work together and build.
In my current role as a student of culture and life, I often call upon experiences I had as a child while living in the Mississippi Delta. It was while living in the Delta, an area considered one of the most destitute places in the United States, where I learned from an early age that Black people survived, maintained their integrity, and built economies using culture as the source.
Life in the Delta taught me that culture is our greatest resource for healing and building. Life as it stands now teaches me that we must recover that which has been lost, we must heal, we must build, and we must use culture as our resource.
Current conditions for African Americans are well known. Increased unemployment, joblessness, homelessness, and an overall reliance on the already scarce social safety nets are constant topics in the mainstream news media. With African Americans fairing economically worse than any other cultural group in the United States today, and being hit the hardest under the fragile jobs economy, it is time for us to deepen our discussion about what we have lost, who we are, how we will unify, and most importantly, how to open the pathway toward collective prosperity — not by fighting, but by building — using our own and greatest asset: culture.
“When I discover who I am, I’ll be free.”— Ralph Ellison
In 2001, The Debt: What America Owes to Blacks, by Randall Robinson, was published and released. In the book, Robinson makes no excuses for the plight of African Americans, and he does not hide from the very real fact that the loss we experienced as a people was a lost sense of identity and self. The first chapter of his book is entitled “Recovering our Ancient Self.”
In this chapter, he writes: “I was born in 1941, but my black soul is much older than that. Its earliest incarnations occurred eons ago on another continent somewhere in the mists of prehistory. Thus, there are two selves: one born a mere fifty-eight years ago; and the other, immortal, who has lost sight of the trail of his long story. I am this new self and the ancient self. I need both to be whole. Yet there is a war within, and I feel a great wanting of the spirit.”
The great wanting of the spirit is the desire to be free, free from the shackles of an identity imposed on it by outside forces and influences. Freeing the spirit means unleashing the potential it possesses for healing, building, and maintaining health, harmony and wholeness.
The path toward this sort of release of potential begins with the reconnection to culture — the reconnection to the ancient self — the one who knows how to live in harmony with creation, the one who knows how to live with high integrity, the one who helped build the world’s first civilization: Egypt.
At the Cultural Wellness Center, I have been granted the good fortune of working with people from many different cultural groups and witnessing what happens to them as they rebuild and reconnect to their ancient sources of knowledge, wisdom and ways of knowing. When this reconnection occurs, what happens can be compared to birth; there is birth of new energy, new ideas, a greater sense of belonging, wanting to share, and wanting to cooperate.
This experience can be had with African Americans; it is one that is long overdue. It is time to reconnect to the Black soul, the one that built the pyramids, created the calendar, studied the motions of the heavens and cosmos, created geometry, and gave the world knowledge upon which to create the three major religions.
I am humbled to have come from such a heritage, and I invite you to return as well. Listed below are books for further reading on this topic:
• The Black Image in the White Mind, by George Fredrickson
• The Reckoning, by Randall Robinson
• The Ethiop, by Akhmad Azzahir
• Reckoning with Slavery, by Paul A. David and others
• Ritual Power, Healing and Community, by Malidoma Patrice Some
This article is respectfully submitted to the community.
Elder Atum Azzahir is executive director and elder consultant in African ways of knowing of the Cultural Wellness Center. She welcomes reader responses to firstname.lastname@example.org.