Learning the White way, knowing the African way









“Nothing surpasses your writings! You shall love books more than your mother. No Scribe is ever in want and he is valued for his understanding.” 

(Ancient Kemetic Teaching 2nd book of Khepra)


Going back many years in my memory, I hear the deep anguish in my mother’s voice as she spoke of not being able to read or write. Even as I write today, at this moment, the pain is with me.

It is a deep pain that intensifies as I reflect on the interconnectedness of reading, writing and intelligence in this society. I am remembering the patterns of this society historically and deliberately denying Black people access to schooling, language development and information systems.

The label “illiterate,” which really means “stupid,” was cast upon my mother and not removed before her death. Her reality was the experience of many Black people. The label of illiterate became a cloak that weighed on my mother’s every action, all of her life.

She was competent and skilled in creating opportunities for doing jobs that earned her enough cash to live with honor. These skills were passed on to her from her parents. She transmitted specific competencies onto me.

I cataloged the teachings from her but later realized how critical it is that we write the stories of our experiences. We also have to document our approach to teaching and sharing life experiences as knowledge production.

To recall competencies passed to me from my mother is like taking a trip into a cellar, which is hidden. There are old words and text, like a child’s memory of the alphabet. This means that the skills for coping, cooking, womanreadingpicwebcaring and surviving as they were given to me were done inside of an oral tradition, where they were not written down.

Knowledge was transmitted to me by relationships of being with me. My mother and other teachers did not read or write and they were not limited in either knowledge or teaching abilities. Knowledge transference through being together and word of mouth remains with me, but this approach to teaching through transmittance and openly observing work being done has been discredited.

The educational system in this society does not have curriculum for teaching the other side of reading, writing and arithmetic. The other side includes: deep listening, feeling empathy, intellectual intimacy, and most of all inspiring creativity.

This other side of the three R’s is still active in the Black community, yet we are perceived as not having an effective educational process for our people. We as a people do not show value for the process that we do have.

My brother, who is five years older than me, was my tutor. Sadly, he experienced directly the forcefulness of my mother’s push for learning the “White way.” He had to submit to learning to read from the son of the very same White people who kept my mother out of school, where she held a job as a domestic worker.

This experience provoked a burning desire in my brother of proving to members of this White family that our mother was not stupid. Everything my brother learned in his tutoring sessions, he taught me.

My personal life and the historical patterns of relegating the African to illiteracy still exist. What I inherited from my mother around being thought of as stupid is not only about literacy, but also about a complex system of robbing my people of our collective intellectual memory. While my antennae are constantly alert to any signal of this vibration, I am simultaneously deeply afraid of being called the intelligent “Negro.”

The word “Negro” is an invention of the European mind. It establishes the Black image as one with a denuded intelligence and memory of an original self. In my research on the word “Negro” as a label attached to Black people, I found the word, in this context, was first used in 1555.

It was first used interchangeably to describe the Black people with snubbed noses, black skin and frizzled hair. The word soon became associated with a people being emptied of their history, language, national place, original narratives, values, interests and goals. This definition persists today.

During my schooling years, holding back, being silent and deliberately shrinking in my seat so as not to get called upon to answer when I knew the answer, had done the work, but didn’t want that to be found out and made ashamed. At the same time, I longed to be called upon to prove to everyone that I wasn’t stupid. I was sure but unsure.

Today, this same double-mindedness about intelligence continues inside our children. We passed this down to our children.

Even with her deep shame, my mother always said she was schooled by God. Her statement was a defense, not a fact. I too am schooled by God. This is a fact, and in Ancient African cultures, this is known as the intelligence of the heart.

The intelligence of the heart is the original form of intelligence; with every beat of the heart, we are informed. This story is of my experiences. I see our children carrying this experience. I am now reading, writing and calculating the strategic importance of learning and teaching our “African Ways of Knowing.”

Please join me in this endeavor in 2014!

Thank you, Hotep!


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