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Imani and Africana Historicity

The seventh day of Kwanzaa, Imani (Faith), reminds us “to believe with all of our hearts in our people, our parents, our teachers, our leaders and the righteousness and victory of our struggle.” (http://www.officialkwanzaawebsite.org/index.shtml). The creator and founder of Kwanzaa, Dr. Maulana Karenga, stated that all matters of faith originate with God. Our connection to, and understanding of, the Creator was the sustaining force of our enslaved ancestors who experienced the critical period of social disruption [1] known as the Holocaust of enslavement. Africans responded by exhibiting endurance and transcendence.  When African people brought God with them to the islands and the colonies they also carried history. They transported a soul-force-memory which was distinct, a power that was a reflection and reminder of their greatness. The enslaved and free Africans survived because they had faith in the future. Africans in America have always had a keen sense of the past, calling on this knowledge to negate the concerted use of cultural eugenics. History must be known in order to transfer insights to new African generations.

This is important because we, all of us, are told that the study of history in modern society is antiquated, irrelevant—unimportant to our advancement. There is even contemporary discussion about legal actions to regulate the extent of perceived articulated passion being used by teachers and professors in rendering “difficult histories” (i.e. slavery, colonization, imperialism, war, etc.) or histories believed to promote intragroup solidarity.[2]

In the past we were told many things about our history. We were told that chattel slavery was a condition of perpetuity exclusively for African people—that slavery would last forever. We were told that Jim Crow racial violence and segregation would never end. We were told that a Black man would never hold the office of President of the United States. All of these declarations proved to be false. Each day we can enumerate any number of important concerns and challenges facing people of African descent, but this is just one moment in time. Because we believe in the “righteousness and victory of our struggle,” we possess the opportunity—in this moment—to learn something new about Imani; to re-experience our ability to have faith enough (and an abundance of strength) to create necessary change.  The past may appear alien at times, but history is not a foreign country.[3] The past is personal and subjective, and as great leaders have always recognized, knowledge of the past is powerful. 

The principal of Imani is a call for us to preserve our history and continue telling our story.

African people possess a long history of storytelling, from ancient creation narratives to the contemporary manifesto.[4] People of African descent in America have advanced forms of public communication, which have connected the ancestral past to the present, and has clearly defined the collective Black ethos as one of freedom and liberation. In the advancement of this theme, the Black journalist emerged a researcher, storyteller, fact finder, recorder, advocate, prophet, propagandist, activist, messenger—and historian. Among the first known writers within this broad context was Olaudah Equiano (Gustavas Vassa), who in his 1789 personal narrative was actually telling a larger story about African life and culture as well as an account of the horrors of the Middle Passage holocaust. He tells us in his opening letter to Parliament that he is an African “…who is actuated by the hope of becoming an instrument towards the relief of his suffering countrymen.”[5] In 1827 John B. Russwurm and Samuel Cornish founded the first Black newspaper, Freedom’s Journal. Frederick Douglass, an abolitionist, statesman, and also a notable journalist, defended Black liberation and helped to define the field of journalism through newspapers, which included the North Star (1847) and Douglass Monthly (1859). J. R. Clifford, civil rights attorney and a founder of the Niagara Movement, made inroads with the publication of the Pioneer Press beginning in 1882. William Monroe Trotter, a self-described agitator, who held a masters and a doctorate from Harvard University, used his position as a newspaper editor to advance the cause of Blacks by establishing The Guardian in 1901; and by challenging President Woodrow Wilson on the issue of racial segregation and the lynching of African Americans

During the Harlem Renaissance from the 1920s through the 1930s, the Crisis (1910) and Opportunity (1923) magazines were key publications that gave Black writers publishing outlets denied to them in mainstream White presses. The study of the past, particularly Black public communication, speaks to one world, while the history of the traditional American media with reference to Blacks speaks to another. Both offered competing messages about African people in contemporary America. Using the 1960s Black Power movement as an important locus, the transmission of messages, through many media sources, by Blacks varied—but included clear, concise and potent slogans targeted to the masses: “Say it loud—I’m Black and am proud,” “Black is Beautiful,” “What’s the word—Johannesburg,” “Black Power,” “Nation Time,” “No justice—no peace,” etc.  These kinds of unmistakable messages also constituted the work of Black independent and grassroots newspapers and publications. The Black message was consistently focused on freedom and equality. Mainstream media’s message to and about Blacks was much less empowering, but more pervasive. This particular news was committed to “social network conservation” and the advancement of the racial ideology of “intolerable Blackness.”

The public exchange of ideas reveals that the most important human function in any society is the art and practice of storytelling. Command of the narrative is the only force that displays genuine power in the world. As we manifest Imani in 2012, and enthusiastically engage the momentum of the immense opportunities before us, we, out of human necessity and a legacy of great nobility, remember the power of our history to inform, enlighten, and guide our efforts.

by Dr. Katherine Bankole-Medina

[1] Abdul Alkalimat and Associates, Introduction to Afro-American Studies: A Peoples College Primer. Chicago: Twenty-first Century Books and Publications, 1986.

[2] See the transcribed interview regarding “Tucson Orders Closure of Mexican-American School Program as Ethnic Studies Faces Nationwide Threat” at the Democracy Now website http://www.democracynow.org/2011/12/29/tucson_orders_closure_of_mexican_american

[3]This is a reference to the often quoted line: “The past is a foreign country: they do things differently there,” which is from British novelist Leslie Poles Hartley, known best for his 1953 book The Go-Between.

[4] Examples Include: Young, Robert Alexander, “The Ethiopian Manifesto, Issued in Defence of the Blackman’s Rights, in the scale of Universal Freedom (1829),” in Herbert Aptheker (ed.), A Documentary History of the Negro People in the United States. Vol. 1, Secaucus, NJ: Citadel Press, 1973. pp. 90-93.; from the 1960s James Foreman, The Black Manifesto to the White Christian Churches and the Jewish Synagogues in the United States of America and All Other Racists Institutions. San Marino, CA: TACT, 1969; Control, Conflict, and Change: The Underlying Concepts of the Black Manifesto By James Forman, Chairman, Black Workers Congress, Pamphlet; James Boggs, Manifesto For a Black Revolutionary Party, Philadelphia: Pacemakers Publishing House, 1969; and Robert Lecky and H. Elliott Wright (eds.) Black Manifesto: Religion, Racism, and Reparations, New York: Sheed and Ward 1969; in addition to contemporary texts such as Molefi Kete Asante’s An Afrocentric Manifesto: Toward and African Renaissance. Malden, MA: Polity Press, 2007; and Calvin Hall, African American Journalists: An Autobiography as Memoir and Manifesto, Maryland: Scarecrow Press, Inc. 2009.

[5] Olaudah Equiano, The Interesting Narrative of the Life of Olaudah Equiano, Or Gustavus Vassa, The African Written By Himself Author. London, 1789.