A space for Africana creative expressions and explorations.
A four-part series of short stories by Serie McDougal III
Unity, and the Come-Unity Line
On the Southside of Chicago, we sat relaxing at a poetry set. The room was dimly lit, and every inhale and exhale of air included the smell of sandalwood incense. The sounds of a coffee machine and baristas quietly taking orders and preparing drinks made up the collage of background noises that blended together to create the atmosphere. The sounds of a poetry set became so regular and expected that they weren’t the slightest bit disruptive to me. Instead, they were calming. The shouts of audience members at the poets were not rude, they were affirmations. These are the things that separate poetry performances from poetry sets. One is just an event highlighting the talents of individuals for a crowd of people. The other is more of a mutual creation, an exchange of energy orchestrated by one person or group, yes, but also co-constructed by everything from the baristas, the drummer, the attendees, the smells, and audience participation, from the sounds of happy and crying babies and their mothers and fathers trying hush them to the sobering, oppressive reminders of reality invoked by the occasional police sirens. Truth be told, I get the same spiritual feeling from certain Southside Chicago poetry sets as I got when I used to attend church regularly, an argument I wasn’t prepared to make to anyone, since I wanted to avoid being looked at sideways for suggesting that the two were comparable.
With the soft sounds of conga drums in the background, the smooth voice of the featured poet began…
Come you to me and
let’s build community
My friend leaned over to my ear and said softly, “Seriously, is that line still supposed to be deep, my dude?” He added, “That line is so old, I get bored after the third ‘community.’” I closed my mouth and tried not to laugh. It was difficult, and the noise I made sounded more like an obnoxiously loud snort than an actual laugh. He and I had both been regulars at poetry sets across the city, and we had seen several poets use the same line on many occasions, so often that is was almost impossible to tell who the originator was. However, the line always appealed to the audience. It was the essence of the message: the appeal to unity, which fed the soul. My thinking was that speaking the language of community quenched the collective thirst of the all-Black attendees, even if it was only an emotional or spiritual fulfillment that lasted the brief and fleeting length of a single poem at a poetry set.
But, as it turned out, the moment was not so fleeting at all.
After the set was over and we all went our separate ways, I went home and continued to think about the “come-unity” line and its popularity. I thought, is it possible for a thing to get old if it hasn’t yet become a reality? From the opposite perspective, racist White people often respond to Black people’s descriptions of racism as “old.” The suggestion is that a thing should not be mentioned too many times. But what if it’s still happening? What if it’s still a problem? What if it still needs to be solved? What if it’s still a need? A Dead Prez song came to mind, particularly one line: “It ain’t over till the problem solved, getcha back up off the wall.”
As I sat at home, I noticed that I had just been sitting there, alone, thinking about unity for nearly an hour. I continued, since it was better than going on a YouTube bender. I had my back against one of the four walls in my studio apartment, and the other three were covered by bookcases. As I sat against the empty wall, I could see the titles of the books on each shelf. With unity on my mind, certain books jumped out at me, until I could see the authors surrounding my bed.
I’d had strong waking dreams like this many times before, but there was always something in me that resisted falling too deep into the dream. I dismissed them as daydreaming, a waste of time. I would tighten my muscles to avoid losing control at these times out of fear of what unknown state my mind might enter. This time, however, I let go; I let whatever was happening happen.
What happened was that the Obaba surrounded me, the ancestral presences of Marcus Garvey, Frantz Fanon, Kwame Ture, Wade Nobles, Martin Luther King, Louis Farrakhan, and Malcolm X. I was frozen in shock! I felt inappropriate in every way: mentally unprepared, underdressed. I didn’t even have any shoes on…in the presence of Malcolm X, for crying out loud.
Of all things, I was wondering how Dr. Nobles and Minister Farrakhan could be there, since they were still alive. I looked around my bed in awe at their faces looking back at me. But then, I was taken aback by the fact that Fanon was staring at me with one eye half-closed and the other wide open. Good lord! Was this man trying to look into my soul? He seemed to have a stronger connection to me than the others at that moment. Fanon sat with his legs crossed and his hands folded over his knee. Still looking directly at me, he said, “He’s wondering about Brother Wade and Minister Farrakhan.” He was right.
Dr. Nobles spoke next, saying, “You teach Africana Studies correct? Don’t you know we are all spirit in a physical body, having a human experience? Have I not taught you that I can spiritually be in more than one place at the same time?”
He was right! Ancestral souls return all the time in newborns, yet they don’t lose their place in the ancestral realm. What was I thinking? It made sense.
Minister Farrakhan, wearing his tinted glasses and a yellow suit, leaned forward to speak. He said, “I know this is a confusing and perhaps even frightening experience in your life, so I greet you in the name of Allah, the beneficent, the merciful. I bear witness that there is no God but Allah and I bear witness that Muhammad is his messenger. Brother…you are here because of the importance of unity; your spirit led you to the question of unity. Dear brother, what the Black people need is not genius; we have plenty of that, as our people are as brilliant as ever. I am not sure it is even money; we have plenty of sources of capital. What we need is to connect the dots. Your spirit is right to focus on unity because our true capabilities cannot be realized without it. And, of course, we cannot depend on the benevolence of others. The responsibility is ours.”
Swaying back and forward in his chair with his eyes half closed, Kwame Ture responded, “Yes, I agree, because I believe that united, people of African descent are the most powerful people in the world. But for a revolutionary, Minister Farrakhan, it is my understanding that the most important part of a revolution is the people’s consciousness as I’ve said before. I say this to you, brothers, because in our talk about unity, I wonder if we are not putting the cart before the horse. This country tries to instill within our people a false consciousness, to make you accept its lies and go about living those lies.”
“That’s true: nationalism happens along with the raising of awareness of consciousness, as you put it, Brother Kwame,” Frantz Fanon interjected. “Unity of consciousness is essential; in fact, individualism must be the first thing to disappear in a revolution. Individualism is the mantra taught by the oppressor, and unity is the antidote to the cancer of individualism. It must be maintained through political education of the masses. This is what you have to do, professor. My only warning is that unity must not become dictatorial or forced, as this will only cause people to reject it and splinter themselves, letting it fade into oblivion.”
Malcolm X responded to Fanon. “Yes, and because our people can sometimes rush to form coalitions, we need to make sure we have internal solidarity before we start the process of expanding this notion of unity in the direction of uniting with others. It is pan-African unity that is most important for people of African descent because there is a conspiracy to keep diasporic Blacks from continental Africans. We need to reach out to them. All Blacks need to be a part of the world’s pan Africanists. This is because White Americans fear our union.”
I could see that Garvey was letting the others speak before he weighed in. He looked to be deep in thought, then said, “This is critical because the evil of internal division is what wrecks us as a people. This is true for Black people everywhere. We can do away with this by uniting toward the common purpose of achieving self-respect and self-determination as a people. Unity is the only thing that can alleviate the conditions we face globally.”
Dr. Nobles declared, “I think you all are missing something important that Brothers Kwame and Fanon brought up: something must happen before this unity we are calling for can arise.”
Malcolm interrupted, “We said pan-African consciousness.” Garvey followed suit by saying, “Global Pan-Africanism.”
“Those are political,” Nobles explained. “I believe, though, that the prerequisite for unity is worldview. Our sense of understanding the unity of everything is what should give us a sense of collective responsibility.”
“But those political distinctions and realities between different Black people are important. Does this cultural question override them Dr. Nobles?” Fanon questioned.
“To focus on politics alone is shortsighted,” Dr. Nobles replied. “The political confusion our people face is a consequence of the disruption of their natural consciousness. Once they are realigned with their cultural realities and they cease to accept White reality without question, they will realize that they should politically unite, affirm, and protect their own. Dr. Fanon, this doesn’t mean failure to recognize difference, it means recognizing the cultural unity underlying our complexities. Understanding our connection to our origins will give us an understanding of our authenticity as African people, which may be a better word than ‘unity.’ This sense of connection or authenticity will prevent us from experiencing alienation, politically or otherwise.”
Martin Luther King added, “What Nobles is saying is that we need to see our true humanness, and it is only a spiritual lens that will allow us to see ourselves beyond the provincialism of political analysis alone and also transform consciousness. McDougal needs to know what this means for him as an academic. Spiritual expression is a social experience that brings people together to affirm their oneness under God. How is that happening in Africana Studies?”
I could not help but ask, “I have always had a deep respect for religion and spirituality in my personal life and African spiritual systems. I have yet to truly integrate them into my role as a scholar, though.”
Malcolm X answered, “For me personally, Islam is a unifying religion that I believe America should get more acquainted with. I think America would rather allow itself to be eaten away by the cancer of racism, though. However, Islam has the capacity to teach people to practice sincere unity and be molded into a vast family.”
“It is a Black spirit I am speaking of,” Nobles clarified. “As an Africana Studies scholar, he must explain to his students the meaning of that consciousness Brother Kwame spoke of. I believe that the consciousness we are trying to get our people to tap into is not just political: it is a vital force we are dealing with. It is the African beingness in us because we are Africans; not because we are born in Africa, but because Africa is born in us. This consciousness is an energy, an awareness, that is merged with spirit. And if this young brother can tap into this awareness, he can access realms of knowing that extend beyond cognition and perception. He can then teach the kind of consciousness that will lead to a lasting unity.”
Fanon, who was sitting back and watching the others go back and forth like a tennis match, finally raised his eyebrows and said, “Religion can tend to have this characteristic of dividing our people within a single nation, dividing them into spiritual communities and often serving the interests of the colonizers though.”
“That’s right!” Kwame Ture added. “But religions produced by indigenous people all over the world are important. They guide a morally upright life, and no religion is more important than any other religion. It is only European imperialism which uses religion for unjust causes. The missionaries came for our goods, not for our good. They turned our eyes to heaven while they robbed us blind.”
King responded, “I am of the church, the body of Christ. But I do believe sectarianism, too many different spiritual communities divided against one another, is a problem. I also believe that God transcends these differences.” He added, “I want to introduce you to someone. He is a healer. His name is Kaqece.”
Kaqece was a four-foot-tall Black man. He wore a brown cloth around his waist, a white beaded necklace, and a headband with beads hanging from it. All of the other men disappeared while Kaqece was present. He said so me, speaking softly, “I want you to go back to the poetry set. Remember the feeling you had when the poet was talking about unity.”
“Yes,” I responded. “I was thinking...”
Before I could finish, he interrupted me, saying, “Not think, feel. Too much contemplation is distracting. You are a researcher, McDougal; that is your strength because it’s what you practice all the time. But now, it is your greatest weakness. It was no coincidence that it was a poetry set experience that led you here. Poetry gets closer to the meaning behind language compared to what you are used to. You are here with the ancestors because you have finally started to feel. If you continue to soften the heart, you will experience nIom.”
“What is nIom?” I asked.
“Nlom is spirit. It is life force, and you must experience it to understand it. But stop trying to consciously will it; you must feel it.”
“I understand, but how is this related to unity, Kaqece?” I asked.
He replied, looking up at me, “Let me show you the world, Dr. McDougal.” He then reached up and touched my arm. When he touched me, the world went dark. It was as if the circuit breaker had gone out, starting an immediate blackout. There was not even sunlight.
I could still feel Kaqece’s hand on my arm and heard him say, “Don’t be scared.” Then there was light, but the light was coming from a web of golden ropes all over the place. Everything was connected by golden ropes. Animals, humans, and plants were all linked by the golden ropes. Some were glowing, while others were dim or without illumination. Moreover, everything had a rope that extended to the sky.
“This is the world,” Kaqece explained. “I show it to you because we are already united in a limited way, meaning we are already interconnected. We strengthen our bonds by empowering the ropes that connect us. You empower the ropes that connect us by experiencing spirit directly, the way you do in the poetry spot, in church, in the mosque, or when you are teaching, reading, or meditating. But there are more powerful ways to experience nlom. You need to practice ritual. No matter what, White supremacy cannot do anything about the fact that your rope extends to God. Soften the heart and stop trying to be in control when you daydream; sometimes, you must give up power to get a new kind of power.”
Kaqece then disappeared. The light came back, and I was in bed surrounded by the Obaba again. I was confused by this experience and Kaqece’s message to me. I wondered if those ropes were still present and if I just couldn’t see them anymore. I couldn’t help but ask the Obaba surrounding my bed, “Do you all know what just happened to me?”
Dr. King responded, “I have always told you that we are caught up in an inescapable network of mutuality.”
“I thought it was more like a metaphor…not actual ropes,” I replied.
“The question is, do you see it now?” King asked, adding, “This is the structure of reality you have studied. You have called it by many names: cosmology, ontology, worldview, deep structure, etc. It is set up so that we cannot be our best unless we help others be their best, and we can only do that through unity.”
Dr. Nobles said, “He knows it. It’s Ubuntu, Dr. McDougal. You have studied it, and now you have seen it, so you can go back and profess, professor.”
Kwame Ture announced, “Before we send you back, professor, remember that your spiritual awakening must be properly understood in the context of power. If you love your people, you must organize. The objective of our unification is singular: it is to seize power. Religion tells you to live a just life. To uphold justice in this world, remember, you need to seize power. To do this, we must raise the consciousness of the masses. Malcolm, you said history is best qualified to reward the researcher. This, I believe, is a part of how we go about the process of raising our consciousness. This is how we can make ourselves more conscious: because consciousness is about truth, and to be self-conscious we must seek to learn everything there is to know about our people’s history. Now, you may go back to your brothers, your sisters, and your comrades, ready for revolution.”
Garvey spoke quickly after Kwame Ture’s last word, saying, “Meeting adjourned. Professor, we will see you soon, but until then, climb ye to the heights of liberty and cease not in well-doing until you have planted the banner of the Red, the Black, and the Green on the hill-tops of Africa.”