What Does it Mean to be "a Spiritual People?": Challenging God-Talk in the Africana Academy
Written by Paul Easterling
If the notion that African American people (or people of African descent in general) are a “spiritual” people is accepted it is then extremely important to understand exactly what that means. Does it mean that people of African descent are inherently closer than other humans to the being commonly referred to as God? Does it mean that African people are somehow divinely chosen above all others? Or does it mean that people of African descent are themselves Gods? To answer in the affirmative to any of the above implies that African people are something other than human or that all other groups of people are something other than human. This line of thinking can be dangerous. Not only because it can give other groups reason to dehumanize African people, but more importantly because it can keep African people from asking the hard questions about their own spirituality, like: is a belief in God necessary in the first place?
African people in the United States have a long standing tradition of remaking an oppressive religion to suit the cultural and spiritual needs for a given environment.[i] For instance, Nat Turner used the bible not as an inhibitor, but as a tool for his rebellion in the 19th century, despite it being used by European Americans for the opposite effect.[ii] Also, despite the use of al-Islam in oppressing African people on the continent, Noble Drew Ali and those who followed him[iii] turned the religion of Islam into one of the more powerful combative tools in African American history. However, at the end of the day African people in 2015 seem to face just as deadly as an adversary as ever, with no end in sight to the problems of poverty, police brutality and incarceration.
The point can be made that African people must look further into their cultural history to harness the power of African deities for present and future struggles. Unfortunately, however, there is very little evidence that African deities are any better for African people than European deities are. Ogun, Osun and Obatala have allowed African people to suffer just as Jesus and Muhammad have.[iv] A sankofa like replacing of European deities with African ones has not alleviated any suffering of African people.[v] So the question still looms, what is the necessity of God, African or otherwise? The issue of whose deities are most suitable for African people is extremely debatable, particularly since African people across the globe are being oppressed, it is easiest to conclude that neither African, European nor Arabic deities have served people of African descent well.
Regarding Christian doctrine, theologian William Jones focuses on the problem of theism in the text, Is God a White Racist?[vi] In this work, he argues, using history as the primary teacher, the essential goodness of God specifically and humanity in general must be called into question, given many examples of humans being the principal threat to other humans. This is an important point for theist and atheist alike. Humanity in a very general sense has not demonstrated its’ “goodness” or that humans have their own best interests at heart as a collective. In Jones’ text he focuses on the notion of divine racism. He argues that the first proposition of divine racism is the division of human kind into “in” and “out” groups. This, he says, leads to an imbalance of suffering of the “out” group. However, if this argument could be cleared up by taking the notion of the divine out of the equation, then an understanding of where this imbalance comes from becomes more clear, as it is not the divine that creates this discrepancy but humanity. Because if God is truly omnipotent and omniscient, then the suffering experienced by humans, regardless of the circumstances, is in accordance to His will.[vii] But if God is stricken from the conversation, then the only will that is being served is humanity’s. That is to say, racism and all other forms of hate and human division are human creations and therefore human problems to solve. When human problems are left to the whims of the divine then humans have very little say in solving their own problems. However, if human problems are brought down to the mortal level rather than the impulses of the divine then it is within the power and abilities of humans to solve. There is no need to wait for the movement and endorsement of the divine.
This issue brings up the problem of human nature. What is the essential nature of human beings, evil, good or something a little grayer? Maulana Karenga addresses issues of human nature in his text Ma’at which speaks on the essentiality of humanity’s goodness. He states, “perfectibility are also conceptually reinforced by the assumption that human nature… is essentially good.”[viii] The notion that human beings and their nature are essentially good is something that must be demonstrated before it is accepted. This is only to say, that perhaps the problem is not with the divine but those who created the divine: humanity. And it cannot be taken for granted that the nature of humanity, African or otherwise, is essentially good without taking note of patterns which suggest the opposite.
Simply put, it is important to be careful and critical of all things. Just because something is African in origin, tone and texture does not always mean it is best suited for the current circumstances of African people. Meaning, the African-centered approach requires that African people look within themselves and their culture, however, perhaps African people need to look deeper still into the very notion of what it means to be human. Focusing on humanity as the beginning and end of human problems eliminates the need to be focused with divine concerns, which leaves more space to be focused only with human concerns. This is perhaps the most African centered posture possible because the focus is on what African people can do for themselves without any outside aid, divine or otherwise. The African centered focus on African deities, regardless of how culturally correct it may be, is still to focus on beings that are outside of the time and space in which African people and their problems exist. That is to say, they (African deities) are outside of our present reality, therefore they do not have to deal with human problems like racism, poverty, sexism, heterosexism, and so forth. But we humans who are alive in this present day and time do have to deal with them, therefore we are best equipped to solve these problems and any other problems that may arise.
This is also not to suggest or call for a complete dismissal of all things theistic, particularly on a personal level. Everyone must be allowed to work within their given space of comfort. However, this is to suggest that as we work on a communal level we work as Malcolm X suggested which is “to leave our Gods at home,” and not to not allow ourselves to get bogged down with the weight of belief and to therefore stay within the parameters of human necessity and dignity.[ix] Humans will likely always have religious/spiritual belief, it is how we make sense out of what does not make sense, nevertheless something so personal need not be the weight that pushes us past the tipping point of common sense and cultural congruence. It is more critical to our struggle that the basic needs of human survival and dignity are met than to meet the needs of a deity or theistic form that is outside of our time and space.
[i] Molefi Asante and Kariamu Welsh. African Culture: Rhythms of Unity. (Trenton, New Jersey: Africa World Press, INC., 1996). Molefi Asante and Ama Mazama. Encyclopedia of African Religion. (London: Sage Publications, 2009).
[ii] Will Coleman. Tribal Talk: Black Theology, Hermeneutics and African/African American Ways of “Telling the Story”. (University Park: The University of Pennsylvania Press, 2000). Josiah Young. Black and African Theologies: Siblings or Distant Cousins? (New York: Orbis Book, 1986).
[iii] The author is referring to African American Islamic organizations that came after the Moorish Science Temple of America: Nation of Islam and the Nation of Gods and Earth, specifically.
[iv] Yvonne P. Chireau. Black Magic: Religion and the African American Conjuring Tradition. (Berkeley: University of California Press, 2003).
[v] The Sankofa bird is a symbol which is replete throughout Ghana, West Africa. It is a bird which has its’ head turned backward to symbolize the notion that African people must return to their cultural and historic roots.
[vi] William R. Jones. Is God A White Racist?: A Preamble to Black Theology. (Boston: Beacon Press, 1998).
[vii] The word “His” has been italicized because of the gender specific weight that has been placed on the word.
[viii] Maulana Karenga. MAAT: The Moral Ideal in Ancient Egypt. (University of Sankore Press: Los Angeles, 2006), 233.
[ix] Malcolm X. Speech entitled: “The Negro Revolt – What Comes Next?”