Affirmation.

“. . . African-Americans can make no such claim to land. They were brought over to the United States through slavery and have no material basis to lay claim to Africa. . .” – Huey Newton, Black Nationalism or Communism

This quote has always resonated very deeply within my spirit. I have always felt that in the African-American community there exist generational  trauma based on the fact that we were torn from the continent of our origin to be exploited labor for the European capitalist class. I believe that the concept of home and space provides people with a deep sense of balance and that returning to these places creates healing. Inside myself I have always felt two warring factions neither having full definition or form. What does it mean to be African? How do I embrace something I only know second-hand? What is American? Have I ever been truly American? I sure as hell have never felt that way. I grew up knowing one thing for certain: my people do not belong here.

Black people are not native to the West and we are reminded of that with the Bible, the bullet, and the gavel at every turn. This land has been nothing but pain. These are the lessons I learned in the ghetto, looking up at opulent white faces, these are the lessons I learned watching my mother, back near broken, sit on a couch counting her last tear-stained dollars attempting to calculate the rent.  I wanted out and was ready to cut my way through every white body I perceived in my way, but I had nowhere to go. I, like most Black Americans, had no where beyond the borders of this country to flee to.

After all, I was not African. What is does Africa mean to someone who’s has never seen the continent, never touched her shores? It was really only a fantasy. I knew that some time ago slaves had been brought here, that they were Black like me. I knew that there was a culture that existed before, that in some places on this wretched soil it still bloomed in the hearts of stolen Africans but that the West was making every attempt to erase it from memory. And like many Black children I felt lost and unable to articulate my rage. I felt unable to speak to the fact that there was a pain in my heart when I heard children say their families were from here and there, all the while my mind’s eye went black. A part of me was missing. A part of me is missing. It’s absence fuels me to push forward. To learn more and to use that as a core to power my need to struggle for people’s liberation. This is why when people ask me to define myself politically, I now say “marxist in method and african in spirit”. This current definition, like all labels we attach to ourselves, will change as I do, but in this moment it is how I feel.

I had a profound moment in class today as I listened to African artist Masankho Banda speak. He stated to the class the following:

“It is not about knowing definitely where you come from.It’s about acknowledging where you come from, that you have ancestors and that where you come from helps you to stand where you are now. And that it is all a cycle. You are now a child and an ancestor.”

I felt my eyes sting as tears formed. It was as though he was speaking directly to me. The trauma of years rose to the very surface of my being. In that moment I saw many things. I saw the radiant sun, I saw my grandfather, I saw chains, I saw my great aunts house in the south, I saw my uncle’s harmonica and I saw myself standing in a doorway and I began to cry.

For years I have dealt with this dual nature: being of Africa but not feeling African. I don’t say this with the intention of romanticizing Africa and it’s people to the point of perfection but with the intention of expressing a profound loneliness I have felt in the under the foot of white capitalist America. Oh recent I have felt a rebirth of spirit, through my art and through my personal mission to understand themes and philosophies of African cultures; things that have been stolen from me.

One of the things that I have taken and made a serious effort to apply to my life is the Yoruba concept of “ubuntu”, which means I am because we are”. The concept of community is something that has been over used and vulgarized by non-profits and leftists alike. However, I am personally committed to making this idea of community truly manifest. If we as revolutionary minded people are as serious about our historical task as we claim then it is our duty to battle the bourgeois ideal of individualism that has rendered us strangers from one another. We must see one another with our hearts again, this is something that can be studied and found through African philosophy. As life in the imperialist West brings us further and further away from our emotions, it is our job to resist. This is class struggle. The changing of thought is just as important if not more than that of material conditions.

As a Black male I was socialized through fists, and television screens to treat my emotions as alien. It is something that carries on to this day. Displays of emotion for a while were uncomfortable for me. I felt my chest tighten with each hug or utterance of the words “I love you.” no matter how honest the gestures were. In the back of my head the rhetoric played loud and clear: “Man up!” “Put some base in your voice” “Real niggas ain’t faggots”. Often times when we talk about the effects of patriarchy, under capitalism, on society we leave out the ways in which men are damaged. How generations of men are socialized not only to dehumanize womyn but to also remove themselves from key aspects of their own humanity. It is this removal of intimate emotional connection, through socialization, that fuels violence against womyn. This is one of the many things I have began to understand about the nature of patriarchy in my life and how it all fits together under the alienation from ourselves we face as humans under capitalism.

I feel that my primary tool for fighting this oppression lies in the wisdom of my ancestors and the traditions of African people. African people, like many people of the world classified as non West, posses a communal spirit that has the power to over come the rugged individualism that fuels capitalism and this spirit combined with our practice of the marxist method holds the key to liberation for me. Of course I am still in the beginnings of understanding all of what I am writing but it feels promising and powerful. It feels good, I feel good.

 So what am I going on about here? Is this just romanticized ethnic chauvinism? immaterial babble? No. It is experience and exploration. It is a radical reclaiming in the service of revolution. Taking back what has been stolen and using it to build as we break with capitalism, racism, sexism, homophobia, and the other poisonous “isms”. It is affirmation.

5 thoughts on “Affirmation.

  1. your writing made me stop my music and just read and listen to your words.

    i feel you. i think a similar form of an all encompassing otherness resides in many folks of color who live in the u.s. we don’t fit into the judeochristian-white-male-hetero-elite ideal here. and yet, we live here where we are disconnected to the communities of our roots. a fragmented identity and the feelings and beings of otherness are the products of this formula.

    but i think too, in this space of grey and in between, we can relate to radical struggles against oppression and for unity because both exist in us. that’s all this revolution business is about anyway- unifying broken identities.

    thanks for the beautiful wake-up.

    1. I love your point of our pain, stemming from oppression, potentially being the same force to create compassion and unity. Often times I feel like the “revolutionary” circles I run in forget the practice that can’t be “quantified”, the care work that builds community and support. We are all humans that exist in the same system that we wish to transform and we are just as broken, in places, as the “masses”.

  2. Wow. There’s so much depth and richness here. Thank you for sharing these explorations and affirmations.

    Part of what I love about this piece is that it actively demonstrates what I feel is the best form of “tradition,” which is not simply appropriating/knowing/reciting/mimicking past ways, but applying them to one’s own experience and seeking the insights for oneself. So “ubuntu” (which we were just talking about this week on street retreat, btw!) is not just “African wisdom,” but becomes a universal practice when applied seriously and rigorously through painful experiences of human life, like homophobia, racism, capitalist exploitation, and their toxic internal manifestations.

    For me, one of the big questions is: how do we relate to feelings of loneliness, homelessness, and dislocation? Do we imagine that if we were only reunited with our ‘true home,’ then this loneliness would be eradicated, never to plague us again? I find this unlikely. I think loneliness is a part of the human condition: it comes and goes, conditioned by our life circumstances, but powerful regardless of whether we live in a place connected to our ancestors or not.

    When loneliness comes, do we immediately look for people or contexts to blame? Or do we take some time to get to know loneliness itself? Discover how it actually feels in our physical bodies? Use this being-with, this non-covering-up and non-distraction, to connect more deeply with our own lived experience (which is also the continuation of our ancestors’ experience) and develop compassion for the fundamental loneliness of others?

    I remember the first time I felt totally, profoundly lonely. It was an autumn day in Cambridge, MA, about two years ago. For the first time in my whole life, I was able to rest with that uncomfortable, painful loneliness — the feeling that no matter how close or intimate I am with someone else, I can never fully understand them, and they can never fully understand me — long enough to really learn something about it. Without intellectualizing it. Just feeling what it’s like. And even at the time, I felt extremely grateful for the chance to fully experience this enormous, basic feeling, to a greater extent than ever before. It felt like a moment of growing up.

    So what I’m really appreciating about your words is that, with an artist’s eye that does not paper over even the painful details, you are actively seeking reconnection with your emotions, seeing how estranged so many of us are from our own loneliness, and linking that to the social struggle. This kind of analysis and testimony is so vital, and I really, deeply thank you for bringing this level of honesty and insight.

    with love, heart, respect, and admiration,

    katie

  3. Very interesting discussion here. I enjoyed reading the piece Jamal, thanks for posting it. I also enjoyed what you had to say as well Katie. Many times I have struggled with my own loneliness and have felt lost about how to deal with it. I also struggle with the idea of accepting it and not knowing how exactly I could go about doing that. I guess acceptance simply starts with admitting that I have these feelings and then going from there.

    At the same time, however, I do think that there is a certain alienation and loneliness that comes from being a person disconnected from their roots. The more that I learn, the more that I realize that I have felt like an outsider all along. I have felt ashamed and disconnected from African ancestry, I have felt like an outsider in this land of my birth. The more that I learn the more that I don’t know. There is so much that has been lost. Recently I read “Narrative of the Life of Frederick Douglass” and he opens the book speaking about how he never knew his birthday, or even birth year. It seems so small and insignificant at first but its something he felt deprived him of certain experiences which he felt he should have had. Having been aware of the fact that he had been deprived of knowing created a sort of resentment and inner tension within him.

    There have been several times where people have looked at me and asked me if I was Ethiopian. I would quickly respond and say “nope” and move along. The other day, however, I said “you know what, I don’t know, I may never know”. I do feel angry about the fact that so much has been erased, so much has been kept from us. To feel such a profoundly deep disconnection from one’s ancestors and their contributions to humanity is such a strange feeling. To grow up internalizing my own inferiority and incapacity and then later blaming myself for being insecure, was a unique kind of pain that I do not think is inherently part of the human experience. To feel ugly, ashamed and uncomfortable with your body is not just human loneliness, it goes beyond that. The ways in which men and women of color as well as women of all ethnicities experience loneliness is largely affected by our unique experiences living in a society that is oppressive to us. Sure we all experience loneliness but, wouldn’t you say that the ways in which we interpret loneliness and deal with it are very different and very much influenced by our external identities and experiences within society?

    For example, I know that I have been socialized to use men to validate myself. Feeling inferior and insignificant, I have been using men to validate me since I was a teenager and for so long it was my quick fix to feel good about myself for a little bit. Now that I am trying to break away from these destructive patterns I feel lost at times. I do not know how to feel good about myself on my own at times and I feel ashamed of that. I feel that there is a certain amount of alienation and loneliness which comes with the shame. It is not something that has been inherited. It is a result of all the times in which I was taught that I was insignificant, incomplete, incapable, etc. Will some of these inner struggles ever go away? Maybe not. Maybe I should try to accept my struggles instead of resisting them so much. I find that changing the ways in which I relate to men has helped me a lot, but at the same time, I still have my internal struggles. All in all though, I do believe that feelings of loneliness and alienation are concentrated among certain groups more than others and I think that we should acknowledge this as opposed to thinking of loneliness as a human feeling that all people interpret the same way and, therefore, must deal with in the same ways.

    Anyways, I wrote a lot. I’ll leave it here 🙂

  4. I love the discussion going on here and I appreciate the thoughts articulated on the page. I agree with both points raised. I agree that loneliness is something all humans deal with in a society that oppresses and alienates in various ways. So it’s an interesting concept to then ponder on if loneliness is something that is inherent in the human experience or whether or not it is a result of the destructive society we live in. It’s kinda like the “chicken and egg” debate. It has also been my experience that the unique position of Africans with ancestry in the slave trade have an added dimension of stress and internal tension whether articulated or not, stemming from the horrors of the slave trade and the inability to trace these things we call our roots. It is a particular pain. So I am in a place of trying to accept that without becoming overwhelmed and taken under by it, trying to reconnect without electicism.

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