Minnesota griot honored by Turning Point

Mahmoud El-Kati talks about race and democracy


By Dwight Hobbes

Contributing Writer


Mahmoud El-Kati. Mention the name and you’ve said it all: icon historian, scholar and griot. And he can talk your ear off. That’s okay. When he’s finished, just put it back on.

Caption: Mahmoud El-Kati was honored by Turning Point at Macalester College on Friday, February 15. Photo by Walter Marmillion
Mahmoud El-Kati was honored by Turning Point at Macalester College on Friday, February 15.
Photo by Walter Marmillion

I used to say, “Ask Mahmoud what time it is and he’ll tell you how to build a clock.” Fact is, though, when he’s done, you’d have absolutely no doubt what time it is.

I also used to joke, “Mahmoud probably knows what size sandal Moses wore.” For all anyone knows, he very well might. I have yet to ask him.

I have interviewed him, though, for a variety of publications and finally figured out how to do it right. He hooked up with me at a coffee shop and, sure enough, all I had to do was sit down, turn the tape recorder on, and say, “Hello.” Whereupon we slipped into a chat and I pretty much just sat there and listened. Then I went home, made up questions and stuck them in at sensible places.

I wasn’t worried about him going long, using up all the tape, taking up too much space on a page. Because the fact is, he’s up there in years, and we don’t know how much longer we’ll have his voice around to wax profoundly knowledgeable and characteristically eloquent. So, the more he had to say, the better.

Mahmoud El-Kati (ME) gave this interview before the tribute he received from Turning Point on Feb. 15 at A.G. Hill Ballroom on the Macalester College campus in St. Paul.

MSR: Much as the word is used, you have a problem with the term “race,” which is interesting, considering the concept has prevailed in society, as in Black race, White race.

ME: Well, Christianity is the first unity of Europe, murdering one another for centuries. The fact that maybe a third of the English words are French is a result of William the Conqueror [crossing] the channel in 1066 and imposing the language.

The language of government, the language of culture, is actually French. This is why, in English, when you use a French word, it suggests that you are literate, if you [say for instance] “déjà vu,” “détente” or whatever. “Parliament,” “government” are French derived because they made those Anglo Saxons kneel. That’s one of the biggest [among] hundreds of wars between Europeans.

When they came into Africa and the so-called New World, they were fighting one another, at home and abroad. Yet White folk are surprised that we can’t all just magically get along — Somali immigrants and African Americans, for instance. There were many fights between Europeans on the west coast of Africa for control of the slave trade, slave castles.

So, Whiteness is a fairly new thing. People calling themselves “White” — that has never been any group of human beings’ basic identity. Nobody calls themselves a people by color. It’s by language, customs, habits, mores, [or] a single geographic space.

That’s how you got the Englishman, finally. But if you go to England today, you’ll find all these dialects, 33 of them. Not the ones we hear, because it’s fairly new. And I don’t think any one genius came up with idea of calling everybody in Western Europe “White.”

So, what happened? It was gradual and evolutionary, and it was easy to see how they could make this contrast of the English calling a Frenchman a race, calling Germans a race. For example, there was once an Irish race. They applied the word “race” to themselves. When they meant Native people and African people, it was much easier because of the physical contrast, so you [have] the race idea.

What I’m saying [is that] it’s fairly recent in the world — most White people don’t know this — that people have been calling themselves “White.” Certainly no African ever called himself a Negro.

MSR: No, I guess not.

ME: No Navajo or Choctaw-Chickasaw ever called himself an Indian. That was imposed, right? So, all these are new identities.

That’s what I want to challenge. I want to debate any White intellectual on these questions. Because, I think people will learn from discussion. White people should know, “I’ve been had — not just Black people. That okey-doke was worked on me. It limited my development.” White people don’t know who they are.

MSR:  How do you feel about the Turning Point tribute?

ME: Obviously, I’m appreciative. I have reluctance about being honored, and certainly people are going to read that as false modesty, as they should. But, it’s true.

MSR: You don’t consider yourself anything special. You just do what you do, and merely happen to be an invaluable source of insight while doing it.

ME: Man, cut it out.

MSR: Just messing with you.

ME: I’m going to talk about things as long as God gives me the ability, because I’m a part of that mission. But, that isn’t cause for celebrity or being “the guy.” I can’t be that, but [I do] want to make a contribution.

The spirit of what Black people represent, it’s such a powerful spirit. You get into it, man. These are some incredible human beings, a remarkable people. And [the] story needs to be told. The folk doing this event think I should be acknowledged, and I’m going to thank them.

One of the people suggested I sit on the stage by myself, looking out on the audience, like I’m watching the program. That’s not going to be. I’m not going to do that. I’ll be in the audience with everybody else — on the floor. Being a celebrity is not my thing.

I remember a brother once said to me one time, “They say you doin’ this, that and the other, but I don’t see you doin’ anything. I never see you at the bar. I don’t see you hangin’ out.”

Well, that’s not my set. I have been to the bar; I’ve taught classes in the bar, in Chicago. But, it’s not my set to sit and hang out in the bar. When a friend of mine was running for office in Milwaukee, that’s where his constituents were. So, yeah, I went to the bar. I know where the barroom is.

See, the brother [was] making a judgment, and I understood that. “You’re not genuinely Black if you’re not hangin’.” It’s funny, but then again, it’s tragic. We got a lot of educating to do, but I’m going to continue to do this until the day I die. There’s no question about it.

One of the earliest things that Dr. King said before the bus boycott, and I’ll always remember this: “We’re going to continue to struggle. We are going to continue. And we are not wrong.

“If we’re wrong, then the Declaration of Independence is wrong. If we’re wrong, the Constitution of the United States is wrong. If we’re wrong, the Bill of Rights is wrong. If we’re wrong, the Supreme Court decision of 1954 is wrong. If we’re wrong, God Almighty is wrong.”

I think that’s where the courage of Black people came from: a moral stance. I have a theory.

MSR: What?

ME: Black people create democracy. Democracy’s a process; it doesn’t exist, you make democracy. That’s what Thurgood Marshall said: It’s an abstraction that you have to bring into everyday life.

So, how does democracy grow? It’s a process. The way this country was founded, it could not be called a democracy in any sense if you have respect for the word. Obviously, the people who were enslaved weren’t part of this thing they called democracy. Women, Native people were not included. Un-propertied White men weren’t included, [nor] certain Catholics in certain places, because they weren’t Protestants.

All of the men who formed this country were White Anglo-Saxon Protestants. They founded it in their name. So, it wasn’t a democracy. Democracy was won by various steps of struggle. Struggles began with the reaction to the inclusion of slavery in the Constitution, with it being legitimate. That created the abolitionist movement, which questioned the society.

All through the 19th century, all of the major domestic issues centered around Black people and the growth and stages of democracy. Finally, the Civil War and [its] after-effects would mean amendments to the Constitution, which theoretically liberated Black people from slavery, made them citizens, allowed Black males to vote. Still there’s no democracy.

The Civil Rights Movement, that’s the major chapter, because everything before that added up to the Civil Rights Movement. Black people are the center; they are the major force of democracy. It’s Black people — Black leaders — who taught this country how to struggle. And, it’s bad today. These are not good times, especially with prisons filled with our people. It’s ugly.

But in terms of democracy, more people are included now than ever. More people vote. Women are almost free. Not quite, but there’s no institution that would dare question a woman’s right to participate.

The whole undercurrent of the gay movement, that wasn’t even on the agenda. Civil rights put that on the agenda. Black people create democratic spaces — for everybody, not just Black people. The Civil Rights Movement has benefitted everybody in the country, every movement that you can name.


Dwight Hobbes welcomes reader responses to P.O. Box 50357, Mpls., 55403.