Written by Paul Easterling
Much can be gained from rethinking what it means to be of African descent in the American world. Employing a keen eye on African cultural development in the new world with attention to African antiquity is extremely necessary when deconstructing, constructing and inevitably reconstructing a sense of being-ness. In this process much is lost and much is gained but invariably humans have learned best when keeping an eye on their beginnings: victories, mistakes, lessons and so forth. Africana Studies has made this, lessons of the past, a point of deep concern and sometimes contention. Concern because to obscure the image of the past is to invite a host of problems that become more difficult to solve in the present; and paradoxically to focus too much on the past can also retard present development. The contention comes when present day thinkers disagree on where, when and how the cultural and historic story is told.
African centered scholars employ the ancient African world greatly in their work. However, thinkers from the ancient African world are rarely if ever cited by contemporary scholars of African American Religious Studies, yet it is not uncommon for African American thinkers within Religious Studies to pull from Plato, Socrates or number of European philosophers. Kwame Gyekye author of An Essay on African Philosophical Thought: The Akan Conceptual Scheme argues, “African philosophical thought is expressed both in the oral literature and in the thoughts and actions of the people. Thus, a great deal of philosophical material is embedded in the proverbs, myths and folktales, folk songs, rituals, beliefs, customs and traditions of the people, in their art symbols and in their sociopolitical institutions and practices.” That is to say, it is important but not always essential to go all the way back to African antiquity to retrieve cultural meaning for African Americans. It is, however, essential to have an understanding of African culture and the African meaning of things in order to deal with the cultural development of African people on and off the continent of Africa.
There are innumerable concepts and paradigms within ancient and modern Africana philosophy that would benefit from close examination by contemporary African American religious studies scholars. On the subject of morality for instance, Maulana Karenga, in the text MAAT: The Moral Ideal in Ancient Egypt, argues that within the paradigm of Ma’at (an ancient African concept) there is a moral idea of perpetual becoming. Meaning, humanity is in a constant state of flux and learning which speaks to human development. That is to say, humans are constantly learning within a process of becoming better humans. He states, “closely linked to the Maatian anthropological concept of the divine image of humans is the concept of the perfectibility of humans. This is not in the sense of finished moral product, but in the sense of progressive development.” What Karenga has demonstrated through this quote is that there is much to be learned from the ancient African world that many African American thinkers of religion have not taken advantage of.
The problem may lie in the nomenclature of the people in question. Meaning, it is difficult to grasp, describe and study a sense of culture when the name used to describe a people is not culturally based. For example, theologian James Cone’s Black Theology and Black Power the concept of color or “blackness” as described by Cone has no meaning except the meaning it was given by Europeans who encountered darker beings and identified them as other. At the root of Cone’s approach he is using blackness, or simply a color consciousness, to deal with problems that are rooted in color consciousness. In essence, Cone uses the same methodology as many early European American thinkers to reverse the meaning of “Black” in order to establish some sense of religious meaning. Simply, this sort of color consciousness attempts to add meaning to a problematic paradigm, essentially, creating consciousness out to color rather than consciousness out of culture. In effect, fighting fire with fire instead of with water.
Color symbolism for European Americans with respect to their analysis of non-European people has historically been used as a marker of “not quite” human whereas culture will provide a different conversation. Further, the meaninglessness gained from a theology based in color is due to the fact any such a theology gives little attention to the construction or retrieval of cultural understandings which aids in the discernment of meaning. Cone, for instance, in his work A Black Theology of Liberation, states that, “Culture then is the medium which man encounters the divine and thus makes a decision.” Cone attempts to recognize the significance of culture to a people however, his construct is based out of culture of the oppressed, where survival and struggle is the norm, rather than growth and prosperity. Cone does not give any meaning to “Black” besides that of oppression, God is Black because God is the God of the oppressed and because God suffered in the person of Jesus Christ as Black people suffer under a racist system this makes black people one with God. Within this paradigm it seems that the oppressed have no meaning outside of being oppressed beings. It leaves one wondering what to do with the history and culture of people of African descent before the oppression of European hegemony.
Perhaps the problem lay in the nomenclature of the people in question. That is to say, referring to people of African descent as “black” rather than “African” creates a consciousness based in color rather than culture. If this is the case, if people of African descent are only to be defined and understood through their oppression then what are the oppressed going to use to fight against oppression? Are the people to fight back with their Blackness (their skin tone) or their culture (their sense of being and self-definition)? Deconstruction should be a cultural venture. Scholar of Religion Charles Long argues that tools from folklorist, novelists and poets (which are to be noted as cultural elements) should be used in the deconstruction of European hegemony and rejects “a romantic return to an earlier period.” It is true that romancing a cultural past may create more problems than it solves, it is important however, to have a return or retrieval of cultural sensibilities in order to thoroughly deconstruct and reconstruct culture that will pave the way towards future development.
 Cornel West immediately comes to mind as he known for the use of the Socratic method in much of his work but never has he referenced the work of Maatian philosophers or modern day philosophers who reference the ancient African world. Here are a few such examples: Cheikh Anta Diop. Precolonial Black Africa: A Comparative Study of the Political and Social Systems of Europe and Black Africa From Antiquity to the Formulation of Modern States. (Lawrence Hill Books; Brooklyn, New York, 1987). Ibid. The African Origin of Civilization: Myth or Reality? (Lawrence Hill Books; Brooklyn, New York, 1989). Ibid. Civilization and Barbarism: An Authentic Anthropology. (Lawrence Hill Books; Brooklyn, New York, 1991). Theophile Obenga. African Philosophy in World History. Charles S. Finch, III. The Star of Deep Beginnings: The Genesis of African Science and Technology. (Khenti; 1998). Jacob H. Carruthers. Mdw Ntr: Divine Speech: A Historiographical Reflection of African Deep Thought from the Time of the Pharoahs to the Present. (Karnak House Publishers; Los Angeles, 1995). Kimbwandende Kia Bunseki Fu-Kiau. African Cosmology of the Bantu-Kongo: Tying the Spiritual Knot, Principles of Life and Living. (Mulberry Tree Press Inc., 2001).
 Kwame Gyekye. An Essay on African Philosophical Thought: The Akan Conceptual Scheme. (Philadelphia: Temple University Press, 1995), 13.
 In these essays the terms African antiquity or ancient African will refer to the time period predating European colonization and enslavement.
 Maulana Karenga. MAAT: The Moral Ideal in Ancient Egypt. (University of Sankore Press: Los Angeles, 2006), 230.
 Lou Potter. “John Henrik Clarke: A Great and Mighty Walk.” (1996). In this documentary Clarke discussed the importance of a people naming themselves. He remarked that the name a people chose to call themselves should reflect “land, history and culture.” He argued that the word “black” describe how a person may look but does not accurately describe who the person is.
 James Cone. Black Theology and Black Power. (Orbis; New York, 1969).
 James Cone. A Black Theology of Liberation. (Orbis Books; New York, 1970).
 Charles Long. Significations: Signs, Symbols and Images in the Interpretation of Religion. (Davies Group Publishers; Aurora, Colorado, 1999), 199.