Sources of African American Religious Traditions: Understanding the Nature of Validity - Part I
Written by Paul Easterling
One of the more egregious misconceptions concerning the study of African religion and philosophy is that there are not enough written sources to sufficiently analyze the culture of Africa. This is just simply not true. Apart from the oral traditions of Africa (which are bountiful but because of their unwritten nature they are often looked at with a large measure of incongruity) there are many written sources that have not had the benefit of the critical academic eye. Ancient Egypt’s MDW NTR, translated as divine speech, for instance, has many written sources which display the dynamic nature of African culture, despite the fact that many have tried to write Egypt off of the African continent. Further, Timbuktu, the once great capital of Mali in West Africa also has a large bank of written sources that also deserves critical and cultural examination. However, there are other “written” sources which may have been over-looked, like the Adinkra symbols of the Akan people of Ghana. These symbols are very old and give life to the cultural understandings of the Akan people in a way that mere words might not be able to fully grasp.
Other symbols and/or symbolic expressions that are replete and ubiquitous throughout the continent of Africa have deep symbolic meaning beyond mere words, i.e., kente cloth, kwa zulu symbols, masks and other articles of clothing from across the continent. The symbols in each of these methods of communication form an alphabet of literary development and promote philosophic understanding that has not fully gained the deserved understanding and analysis of academics. Adinkra symbols may be the most familiar to African-centered academics because of the efforts the Ghanaian people and their government have taken to welcome back diasporic Africans who wish to return to their culture roots.
To compare symbols, their use and philosophy, I will briefly examine the letter “A” in comparison to the “Gye Nyame” adinkra symbol (meaning “except God” which speaks to the Ghanaian understanding of God’s omnipotence) as the primary foundation for philosophic understandings in America and Ghana respectively. To clarify: “A” is not only the first letter of the Latin inspired alphabet of English speakers, it also carries philosophic weight. For example, the letter “A” is used to symbolize that students are doing well in their education; it is also used by businesses to symbolize the quality of their work or product. This same process can be witnessed in Ghana using the Gye Nyame symbol for business, services and products. Both are examples of the use of cultural symbols to convey a particular message of the quality of products and/or services to patrons in very different cultural atmospheres. Further, both are examples of a particular philosophy behind the symbols a culture makes use of. The point here is that the philosophy of a given culture may be a bit closer at hand than what may have been previously understood in the form of symbols. In the case of Ghanaian people, their Adinkra symbols demonstrate in a deep and meaningful way, the philosophy of the Ghanaian people, their understanding of their sense of being as well as their connection to the rest of humanity.
This point is to suggest that African philosophy can be witnessed in thick and complex ways, if one only knew where to look. This is also to suggest that symbolic analysis may be a method of getting at the complex nature of African philosophy. Meaning, researchers must examine the symbols as well as the symbolic language African culture offers to get at the girth of African philosophy. To elaborate in another way, Chinua Achebe states, “among the Igbo the art of conversation is regarded very highly, and proverbs are the palm-oil with which words are eaten.” Within proverbs (symbolic language) as well is the philosophy of the culture from which they emerge. That is to say, if one wishes to understand a culture’s philosophy, proverbs or symbolic language are a good place to begin examination. The nature of symbolic language is such that philosophic wisdom is couched within.
To bring this back to the problem of the sources of African philosophy, the issue that may escape those who are not well versed in Africa culture, is not to look for the libraries of books which may contain philosophic writing, but look to the symbols and symbolic phenomena which may contain philosophic expression. This is not to overlook the value of the written word, but instead to challenge the western notion that gives it value over oral and/or symbolic expression. Such assumptions of hierarchy only magnify the problem of ethnocentrism. As well such assumptions can/do create large gaps of cultural misunderstanding which can lead to the problem of dehumanization by diminishing the very foundation of what can be termed as knowledge. That is to say, knowledge and the forms it takes can be different from culture-to-culture which means that researchers must: 1) be flexible, as opposed to rigid, in their definitions of the sources of religion and philosophy; 2) be creative, as opposed to insipid, in their searches for sources of a given culture; and 3) be mindful, as opposed to obtuse, of the different ways a culture might express itself religiously and philosophically.
Examination of African philosophy may also require researchers to look beyond what is written, drawn or sculpted. Meaning that people often speak without words using their eyes, hands and hips to send certain messages to those astute enough to tune into the language. The sucking of teeth, rolling of eyes and wagging of fingers are methods of human communication that also deserve philosophic examination. These points require deeper and lengthier examination than what this essay can offer; however, the point remains that the sources of philosophy in general and African philosophy in particular are all around us. Look not only to the books or written sources but also to the symbols, voices, and movements of the people who live the culture and experience the philosophy. The precision of human language may not always be consistent, any child who has played the game Telephone can attest to that. However, the philosophy of African people and the sources of that philosophy are always close at hand, couched in the lives of the people themselves.
 Jacob Carruthers. MDW NTR: Divine Speech: A Historiographic Reflection of African Deep Thought from the Time of the Pharoahs to Present. (Kanak House Publishers, 1995).
 The word “written” is in quotations because a more precise word may be “drawn.”
 Gye Nyame here is being compared to the letter “A” because it is a symbol that is ubiquitous in Ghanaian culture as the letter “A” is in American culture.
 A single letter or character which is ubiquitous in a given cultural environment will display and demonstrate that culture’s philosophy and their understanding of their place in the world.
 A quick google search using the characters “A” and “+” will demonstrate this point, covering everything from auto repair services to prostitution.
 “Gye Nyame African Braids” is one such advertisement the author witnessed in Kumasi, Ghana.
 Chinua Achebe. Things Fall Apart. (Anchor Publishers, 1994).
 African proverb: “When an elder dies a library is burned to the ground.” – Alex Haley