Community Pillars: Mother Atum Azzahir on resurrecting Black culture and heritage

Mother Atum
Photo by Steve Floyd

Community Pillars is an ongoing series that will showcase people with an enduring legacy of selflessly serving and empowering the community.

Mother Atum Azzahir is one of the area’s more renowned authorities on cultural wellness and recovery of the African voice and ways of learning and sharing ancestral knowledge.

Since 1996, through the Cultural Wellness Center (CWC), she has helped Blacks self-identify using a comprehensive spiritual, heritage and cultural approach, allowing many to move from the concept of race to culture.

The CWC’s classes and programs include prenatal care, life coaching, cultural re-engagement, cultural self-study, health hub, life navigation, and elder coaching. Azzahir’s treasured wisdom and knowledge of the Black ancestral connection are certain to make some want to reexamine their cultural roots from a more thoughtful and historical perspective. 

She challenges us to go beyond the veil of conventional mis-education, which for years has taught us who we were not—as African descendants. Welcome to class with Mother Atum.    

MSR: You are sometimes respectfully referred to as “elder” and other times as Mother Atum.  Is there a specific meaning behind both names?

Mother Atum: Know that I didn’t give myself either one of those titles and have never asked anyone to call me either. Part of the life experience is that you grow into your purpose and do the work that you are called to do, and along the way those titles were affectionately bestowed upon me because of the work I was called to do.

MSR: What is the inspiration behind the creation of the Cultural Wellness Center?

Mother Atum: What inspired me to create Cultural Wellness is there were no organizations or institutions anywhere that I’ve traveled and known that solely existed to study Black culture, to name Black culture, and connect it to knowledge, our belief systems, to our survival, and to our capacity to be everywhere all over the world but at the same time be nowhere.

Also, in part, because I became aware of how our people were passing down a pattern of self-destruction. I did not want to pass this down to my three sons, Anthony, Robert and Nevin. I didn’t want them to learn self-hate from me, but instead to learn cultural pride and honor—as I want for all of my people.

MSR: Does reconnecting our people with their true heritage require a different type of teaching?  

Mother Atum: Sharing our stories is how we should teach. We should teach as far back as possible. Only by knowing our true origin can we hope to know who we truly are. We all know things like slavery happened, but most of us do not know what existed before enslavement. 

What happened before enslavement? Who were we? Where did we come from? What was our belief? Everything I learn I make a point to share with our people. That is the primary way in which we teach—we share and obtain knowledge during the process of teaching.

MSR: What does cultural wellness teach us about ancestral relevance?

Mother Atum: Our ancestors, those who have gone before us and those who will come after us, both are connected to us who live in the present. Our ancestors are very important to us. We start with God as a higher power—invisible, yet present. That amazing power exists in our past, present, and conceivably in the future.

MSR: What is a core principle of cultural wellness that everyone should know?

Mother Atum: There are many. We teach there is never any judgment of the actions of those subjected to their pain and suffering. For example, our people who jumped to their deaths from the slave ships—are they any less heroic than the ones who died at the hands of the oppressor after reaching the shores of the Americas or those who survived and produced a lineage that survives to this day? We learn from them all—the living and the dead. 

Also, we don’t see death as the end. We see it as an extension of the beginning. Cultural wellness starts with the African for me. Our center is about Africanism and bringing back our humaneness and then teaching it to the world.

MSR: Can whites learn through cultural wellness?

Mother Atum: We have to understand that Whites have also been harmed by White supremacy but no one tells them this. To have practiced that level of brutality to everything else on the planet is a violation of life. Their souls cannot help but be damaged by wielding that much hate and disdain for so long. 

We offer the teachings to anyone who wants to participate, but we do not have anyone come to study others. If you come to the Cultural Wellness Center, you come to study yourself. Our curriculum is about cultural self-study. We don’t teach diversity/inclusion, we teach cultural self-study and cultural empowerment, knowledge, and value systems.

MSR: How hard is it to successfully appeal to funders who do not look like us?

Mother Atum: The reality is even if the funder does look like us, it’s not their money. We encourage any foundation staff person to visit and see first-hand what we offer here.

MSR: How do we handle where blame is placed for our condition after enslavement?

Mother Atum: At this point, it serves us no purpose to blame the enslavers or modern-day educators for what they taught us as they mis-educated our people. I know that it’s hard for us to have this discussion, but blame and shame do not help me because it doesn’t feed my soul or my heart.

So, it comes down to which energy you want to feed. Do you want to feed the common perception that if you are a victim there must be a perpetrator, so in your mind you have to create one? I said that to say we are not victims anymore. Sure, we are faced with systemic inequities, but they are not debilitating in the sense that we cannot think, act and produce for ourselves.

MSR: How would a full embrace of village elders impact our communities?

Mother Atum: First thing is that if you see someone who is 79 or 80 years old who is still teaching, working, and giving love and respect to their disciplines, you say to yourself, “I can do that too.” Elders bring hope, vision, lots and lots of knowledge from the past, and stories of our proven capacities to endure and to hold ourselves together under major atrocities. As Elders, we teach resiliency just by our presence.

Mother Atum
Photo by Steve Floyd

MSR: What is the Doula program?

Mother Atum: We have to take care of our babies and our pregnant mothers.

Doulas were sometimes called midwives but had to have a medical license to practice their skills. However, the lay midwives were not medically trained but were women from the community or family members such as aunts, grandmothers, or even neighbors or church members offering support to mothers during and after childbirth.

MSR: How excited are the women in your Doula program and are there age restrictions to join the program?

Mother Atum: We have young women who are excited to learn this from older women and experienced birth attendants. They are learning that the birthing process is a collective process. A baby does not come simply to an individual—a baby comes to a family and a community. 

So we want the mother and father to have support in the birthing process. We teach the doulas to learn how to provide support, a caring touch, and a warm spirit to that newborn as we welcome a new member of our community. As for an age requirement, to join the program one must be 18 and older.

MSR: Let’s talk about the Health Hub Kitchen and “healthy soul food.”

Mother Atum: We look forward to the opening next month inside the Midtown Global Market, where we are also one of Midtown’s owners. This is something that we have been working on for more than 15 years. We started with something called the backyard initiative, but the Health Hub is about four or five years old.

In the hub, you can interact with numerous health activities.  It consists of more than just food. There’s walking, Zoomba, massages, teaching, meditation, and movement activities. We also just added an amazing commercial kitchen to the health hub where we’ll utilize ancient grains as key ingredients in soul food.

The reason we use ancient grains is that we teach that food is medicine and culture. Ancient grains are defined as the grains we left behind during the process of being stolen from our lands in Africa. This means we also lost the natural foods we grew and consumed in those times.

Many of these grains will already be familiar, and some will not. We mix these grains in soups, stews and bread. We have a culinary extraordinaire to oversee our kitchen and healthy meals.

Our kitchen is not a restaurant but instead a testing kitchen for new and old recipes where we will create meal kits, grab bags, and offer classes to learn how to use healthy ingredients.

MSR: The Dinner Dialogue also sounds viable and like a fun time.

Mother Atum: The Health Hub provides dinner dialogues for people with diabetes, heart disease, and kidney ailments. COVID interrupted the dialogues, but people are starting to come back. So how it works is that you come to the Midtown Global Market and you get to taste and test all these recipes along with receiving instructions from experts, including dieticians and guest speakers. You will also be taught to enjoy food that is healthy for you.      

MSR: For those not clear about what the concept of cultural wellness is, please give us your meaning and why it is so important for our community.

Mother Atum: Cultural wellness is an approach to resurrecting our culture, heritage, and ways of knowing. We teach courses to many people and offer institutional coaching and organizing and gathering of people, so their voices will be heard. Our primary job is to our people together so that they can speak, teach, and tell what they know, and share their thoughts on important issues.

MSR: I’ll conclude with this: In respecting our heritage, what is the best way to pay tribute to our ancestors?

Mother Atum: We should acknowledge that they taught us many things and we should be willing to continue sharing those things. Secondly, we should do rituals and ceremonies for our ancestors, calling them out and honoring them regularly. We should do something at least three times a day to honor our ancestors.

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