Reconnecting to the Self
Practice as Cultural Ritual
During 2013’s International Conference of the Association for the Study of Classical African Civilizations (ASCAC), Baba Ali McBride did a presentation on the need for practice with regards to traditional African spirituality. He argued that "practice" equated with rigorous engagement and internalization of the values of these systems, and ultimately demonstrated their capacity to inform a revisioning of communities. so beset by what Kobi Kambon has termed cultural misorientation. I think of Baba Ali's presentation often.
A few weeks ago my children and I were discussing conceptions of speech in the ancient Nile Valley. I was explaining the differences between mdw nfr, which is good speech; and mdw ntchr, which is divine speech. Good speech is speech that perfects one's character. It is speech that emphasizes balance and sound judgment (Maat). It is speech that is intelligent (Djhuty). Divine Speech is speech that is transcendent. It is speech that captures the timelessness and boundlessness of wisdom, connecting the living individual with the wisdom of their ancestors, and the cosmic or divine principles (ntchr) that were believed to govern the universe. The difference between these two demonstrates that good speech was a process of refining one’s character, deepening one’s knowledge, and expanding one’s awareness in an aspiration to practice divine speech. This aspirational quality cannot be understated, as mdw nfr requires constant practice.
I was thinking about how Baba Ali's point about practice is captured quite succinctly in this conceptualization of speech. It is also conveyed in the Yoruba concept of iwa rere (good character) and the Akan concept of Suban Trenee (righteous character). This is to say nothing of ritual as cultural and social practice.
If practice is imperative, and we need more of it, as Baba Ali stated at the beginning of his presentation, then we are left to ponder what does this mean in expanding the locus of cultural practice beyond the realm of individual transformation to communal transformation. How are mdw nfr, iwa rere, and so forth operationalized in a way that become compelling and instructive for the community at large?
On the South Side of Chicago Baba Zakee coordinates a Capoeira Angola class. His class is important in a number of respects. First, it is an attempt to make African Diasporic culture accessible within the African American community. This is critically important, as many elements of traditional African or African Diasporic culture are often inaccessible, both geographically and economically for low-income and working class African Americans. Baba Zakee’s class location and cost all attempt to disrupt this pattern. Second, Baba Zakee emphasizes that Capoeira is not simply a kinesthetic art, but it is a healing art. He argues that just as Africans in Brazil employed Capoeira in their resistance to the system of enslavement in their efforts to transform Brazilian society, so too does Capoeira possess the capacity to transform our communities and our lives. Third, Baba Zakee’s sbayt (instruction) reflects Baba Ali’s point about the necessity of practice. It also echoes a statement in the Yoruba sacred text, the Odu Ifa, that states “It is by practicing Ifa that we come to understand Ifa”. The implication herein is that a thing cannot be fully understood from the standpoint of being an observer. True depth of understanding comes from active engagement with a thing within a community of practice. Thus I agree with Baba Ali—we need practice. We need to practice at educating for liberation. We need to practice the science of food production. We need to practice the art of healing the bodies and minds of those who have so been affected by the Maafa. We need to practice the various cultural forms that inform and augment our capacity to transform reality.
Indeed, we need practice.
By Professor Kamau Rasid
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