Our stories and symbols can restore our authentic Black selves

Third of a three-part column

This is the last in a three-part series focused on the effects that enslavement, cultural uprooting, and geographical and CulturalWellnessspiritual dispersing have had on our culture — Black culture — and the ways that we relate to ourselves and each other at present.

During the late 1800s, after savagely ripping many of the human resources from our land of our origin, colonists stripped Africa of its natural resources, which were then divided among the British, French, Portuguese, Italians and Dutch. These European colonists installed a system of imperial rule where they were able to claim these resources as their own.

The process of imperialism meant that people were colonized — instead of being African, they were taught to carry the identity of their colonizers and thus to assist them in unleashing the forces of generational self-destruction. One writer described this plight of self-destruction as lasting into “perpetuity,” meaning it would never end.

It was while looking at all of this history that I began to research why and how these awful things were done to Black people, and with such absolute success. After much thought and listening to others, and after having realized how easy it would be to simply blame our own people (as some of us currently do), I was moved to study and revive what I know about our culture as it is defined by the symbols that we have created.

These are symbols we assigned to ourselves and which express our way of thinking, our unique way of enduring, in spite of the tragedies that we have undergone and the generational atrocities that have been waged upon us.

My search for answers to the questions “Why us?” and “How did this happened to us?” led me into a deeper examination of our culture. It was at the juncture of wanting to know the why and how that I began to question the “what”: What gave us the strength to endure? What was the cause of that strength, and what was its source?

It was there, while questioning the “what,” that I began to understand that the strength was internal, almost imprinted on our DNA, and that the means of explaining its origin dwelled within Blackness and Black culture. My current questions center on what we as Black people are going to do about what we have lost, and where do we start in the process of reclaiming it?

For me, culture provides a pathway for healing ourselves and solving our own problems as well as the means for undergoing the necessary process of transformation so that we can get up, stand up, and move forward. In my study of culture, I have found that the symbols and symbolic thinking are deeply embedded within us as a people.

The use of symbolism has played an important part in the psychic processes that influenced our way of thinking, our thoughts about surviving over time. For example, in our songs, poetry and stories, as well as our dreams, we go to symbolic thinking. As a people, we have achieved a level of mastery in using metaphor to get a message across, and most importantly to understand our immediate and long-term spiritual obligations.

Every one of our societies has used the story as a teaching technique or form for delivering a penetrating message that carries a complex moral teaching. As I watch and listen to what we do, I am able to see how these practices are still used to shield us as we live through difficult times.

An example for us as women is how we have developed the image of the “strong Black woman.” This image is powerful and serves as a constructive symbol that we can use as we stand before the forces that would deny and destroy us and our loved ones.

We have become draped under a mantel of self-denial, unable to wear our independence across our shoulders — a symbol which for us represents triumph, victory, and emotional resistance over the spiritual right to claim and name our authentic selves — no matter the consequences. These transformative thoughts are unconscious, but nevertheless unchanging and concentrated.

The image-making work that we do and that guides the ways through which we have come to see the world is informed by Maa’t and Sia — the symbols that stand as truthfulness and gleaming intelligence as were expressed in ancient Kemet. Maa’t is a symbol word meaning harmony, balance, truth, order, reciprocity, justice and propriety. Sia is the symbol word for intelligence of the heart.

These words are offered because they are concepts that have remained inside of our people across time. We fight for each of the aspects of Maa’t in our personal lives and in society.

An example of how we bring the intelligence of the heart to everyday life is how we follow our intuition, how we turn to our hearts for mother wit, common sense and gut feelings, which in most cases is not rational. An intelligence tied to our emotions has stayed with us and is a valuable source of truth.

In the past I have referred to our women as “keepers of the culture”; I have also stated that women are primary holders of the spirit’s manifestation in the material world and the emotional sources of the connections back to the forces in creation.

Women have the connections and direct linkage between the creator and the human spirit. I am now seeking to work with others in positioning Black women as the leading force to restore and reweave the spiritual web of relationships that will bring us back to consciously giving birth to the symbols and the resilient personality for the African world to live in harmony with creation again.

Elder Atum Azzahir is executive director and elder consultant in African ways of knowing of the Cultural Wellness Center. She welcomes reader responses to atum@ppcwc.org.