A space for Africana creative expressions and explorations.
A Four-Part Series of Short Stories by Serie McDougal III
Obaba: A Conversation with the Ancestors on Progress
“I didn’t know what to say. It was clear she wanted to believe that things are much better, and her eyes were so bright. Who am I to make a student feel uninspired about the current state of things?” I explained to my girlfriend, describing my reaction to a comment made by a student in my class earlier that day. The student had innocently asked me, “Professor, haven’t we made progress? Haven’t Black people made a lot of progress?” I responded that Black people had certainly made progress in a great many respects, but at the same time, we are confronted with many of the same challenges and the progress we have made relative to that of other racial groups in society has been much more modest. A deeply uncomfortable feeling came over me as I said these words. Was I contradicting myself? When I told my girlfriend what had happened, she responded, “You have to tell her the truth!”
“And exactly what is that?” I responded. Then she played her conversational big joker part by responding, “I don’t know; you are the Africana studies professor.”
That night, after taking a deep breath, I let myself fall onto the bed and went to sleep staring at the ceiling, wondering how I had managed to finish graduate school and get a job as a professor without being able to answer such a simple question. What the hell was progress anyway? The word was as slippery as a wet bar of soap. I don’t know how long it took, but after I went to sleep, I remember feeling very heavy. I felt like I was in danger of falling through the mattress and perhaps even damaging the wooden floors in my apartment. The next thing I knew, I was sitting in Botswana, visiting my old South African friend Kea’s aunt’s office. Her aunt was a Sangoma (a diviner and healer), as well as an Inyanga (an herbalist and healer). She was a great healer whom I had met more than twelve years before. Now she was in my dream and I was sitting in her home. She said to me, “You are here for a meeting that will start soon.” Shortly after, she disappeared and I found myself sitting at a long, shiny wooden table, which was populated with several formally dressed old Black men. My vision was foggy but clearing up slowly. I started to recognize their faces. Oh my God, it’s Marcus Garvey sitting across from me at the center of the table, I realized. He was wearing a chocolate brown suit, the same color tie, a fedora, and a white button-down shirt. I wanted to get up and bow before him out of respect, but I could not move. To Garvey’s right was a similarly dressed Black man with a short afro. I recognized the marks below his eyes—it was Frantz Fanon. Leaning forward, he stared at me, his elbows resting on the table with his fingertips pressed together as if he were praying. They both seemed to be waiting for me to clear my head. To Fanon’s right sat another man with a familiar sharp nose and large eyes. He wore a blue and white gown that appeared to be a West African-style print. As my vision began to clear up, I recognized that the man sitting to Mr. Garvey’s left was unmistakably Martin Luther King, Jr., wearing a black suit and tie, his skin glistening, his fingers folded, staring intently at me. To his left was Dr. Kobi Kambon, who had recently passed away, transitioning to the realm of the ancestors. I recognized his signature shag, with glasses and a white dashiki. To his left were Malcolm X and Minister Louis Farrakhan. Both were dressed in black suits and drinking coffee, their eyes were fixed on me, yet from the corners of their mouths, they appeared to be talking with one another. I couldn’t make out what they were saying. I was not surprised at Minister Farrakhan’s presence since Mr. Garvey said to me, “Do you know why you are here? I think you already have a clue, but do you know specifically why you are here?” As he spoke, my eyes jumped back to him.
I was nervous and unsure of what to say. I had no clue why I was there. Was I in trouble? Trouble with the ancestors? Dr. Fanon seemed amused at my confusion. He looked at me with a half smirk, then turned to Mr. Garvey. In a low tone, he leaned across the table and said to me, “You are a teacher. You may have discovered your mission in life, but you are here so we can help you learn to fulfill it.” I thought to myself, “Well, they say when the student is ready, the teacher will appear. Maybe that’s what this is”
Mr. Garvey looked to his left and right, slapped his hands on the table three times, and spoke firmly as if he were leading a business meeting. “Let’s talk about progress, since that’s what’s on your mind. Progress is important; it is what wins a people respect. Brother Kwame,” he continued, “do you want to begin?”
Kwame Ture addressed me quickly and directly, saying, “Well, Mac, one thing is for certain—White people cannot measure our progress for us. We must be the ones to say when progress has occurred. In fact, a part of progress for us is getting them off our backs, so they cannot be the ones to measure our progress,” he added, laughing. The fast pace of his speech caught my attention. He spoke to me as if only he and I were sitting there. Moreover, he knew my childhood family name, Mac. I fully agreed with his point, it was one of the major reasons I became interested in Africana Studies as an academic discipline. Yet I appreciated his comment, coming from him, it took on new meaning. Besides, I so often find myself needing reminders of what I think I know.
Leaning back, his fingertips touching the handle of his coffee cup, Malcolm X added “It is not their place, Brother Kwame, but they are very involved in the meaning of progress among Black people,” He leaned forward and placed his closed fist under his chin and rested his elbow on the table. He continued, “But no progress made by Black people has come from the good will of this country.”
I could not help interjecting, “Yes, and when Barack Obama was in office as the first Black president, compared to Whites, Black people were two times more likely to be unemployed, three times more likely to live in poverty, and six times more likely to be incarcerated.” They all turned their eyes toward me, but I wanted to hear them continue.
I wanted to ask a question, but I didn’t know how to address them all. Should I call them a council? Ancestors? Brothers? I remembered a Zulu word, obaba, which means “many fathers” or “multiple fathers.” I said to them, “Obaba, how do you all think society goes about selling us this illusion of progress?” Malcolm X replied almost before I finished my question, saying, “They use so-called successful Negroes to give the illusion of progress.”
As Malcolm commented on the role of Negroes, Min. Farrakhan said “yesss brother.” With a furrowed brow, clearly passionate about the dilemma, Min. Farrakhan said, “It is truly a wicked thing when you think about it, young brother. They use Black people who have obtained some success as manikins to sell a lie about Black progress, while the masses are suffering. But you cannot judge the conditions of an entire group of people based on the economic success of a few. The problem is that those who have done well have not pooled their resources to help lift the masses.” Malcolm nodded his head while looking down at the table in deep thought.
Mr. Garvey again commanded everyone’s attention. “I am glad you have finally brought it up. I was beginning to think none of you were going to address the role that Negroes themselves have played in this illusion Min. Malcolm mentioned. I would say that Negroes have also played a direct role in sabotaging Black progress. My experience teaches me that the enemies are not so much from without, as from within the race. Mark my words, they will organize to destroy progress.”
Malcolm X seemed to tilt his head to the side and squint his eyes at the comment. “Yes, Mr. Garvey, but they are just puppets in the grand scheme,” Min. Malcolm responded, “and we can’t blame the puppets; we must blame the puppeteer.” Garvey nodded in response. I couldn’t tell whether he was nodding in agreement or acknowledgment.
Garvey replied, “Gentlemen, it has dawned on me that we have not answered this young man’s question, ‘What is progress?’” He paused. All seemed to nod their heads in agreement with him. “I will begin by saying that progress is moving toward liberty, unfettered freedom, democracy, a free Africa, and a national government for African people. Our people need a country of their own, and we do that by restoring Africa to her glory. That is progress.”
Kwame Ture pounded his fist on the table, nodding his head in agreement, then he pointed his finger at me, saying “I would add to that; progress for African people is every step we make toward collective power. Like Mr. Garvey, I know that we must free Africa; in fact, progress is our movement toward the unification of Africa under a socialist government. But in the U.S., the goal must also be to take control of local Black communities, assume our cultural sovereignty, and keep our sights set on shifting the power base in the world. Black people in the U.S. must run their own affairs and force representatives to speak to the needs of Black communities.”
Frantz Fanon interjected, “Power is the objective, but we must not be confused by the bourgeoisie. They want the concessions offered by the oppressor. In fact, they want to take their place, but the masses want power, so we must hold the line—power is the progress.” Dr. Fanon’s voice was very calm but seemed almost contradicted by the strength of the words he chose and the message he was sending. “The goal,” Malcolm X added, “is to be self-sufficient enough to meet the needs of our communities, and that’s Black nationalism: gaining control of the politics of our communities.”
“Obaba, how are these goals achieved?” I asked. Dr. Fanon said, “The pathway to freedom and liberation is violence. America owes its existence to bloodshed and celebrates it; that nation has actually taught Black people that the path to freedom and liberation is violence.”
Kwame Ture agreed. “Oh, there will be blood—bloodshed in the fight for African liberation will be the bloodiest in the world.” He and Dr. Fanon seemed to be in lockstep on the matter.
“The only way to get it is bloodshed, and we hurt each other far too much,” Malcolm said. “We need to hurt the enemy in defense of our communities, particularly when the government cannot or is unwilling to protect them. Remember, freedom is not given; it is taken.” Malcolm X’s words seemed to be carefully chosen compared to the others.
“Minister Malcolm, it does not seem that you are advocating for an aggressive violence—is this right?” I asked.
He replied, “I never advocate for that kind of violence; I advocate for self-defense.”
Dr. King responded, “Careful, men, you cannot achieve a good end through an evil means like violence, for what does it profit a man to gain the world if he must lose his soul in the process?” I knew it could only have been a matter of time before Dr. King made his voice heard regarding the matter of violence, bloodshed, and warfare.
Garvey responded, “Yes, there can be no doubt that war is justified when freedom is denied. We must prepare for blood to redeem Africa, but it is hardly the first step. If you want freedom, you must think in terms of blood. But let’s not lose focus; we achieve progress through unity of purpose and unity of effort. To do that, we must free ourselves—mentally, spiritually, and politically.” He continued, “I know many of our people are very religious, Dr. King, but prayer alone won’t do it either; progress comes from self-help and self-reliance.” Mr. Garvey smiled at Dr. King as he said these words.
Dr. King replied, smiling back at Mr. Garvey, “Oh, Mr. Garvey, don’t you start with me. We absolutely must pray, but you know I believe we must be active. We cannot wait submissively on the Lord because prayer is no substitute for work and intelligence.”
Kwame Ture proclaimed, “Revolution does not begin with implementation—it begins at the level of conception; it begins with consciousness.” Everyone nodded in agreement, yet Dr. Kambon seemed to lean forward looking for an opportunity to speak.
Dr. Kambon addressed Kwame Ture’s point, adding, “That cannot be just any consciousness, Brother Kwame; that consciousness must include a recognition of our collective African identity and cultural heritage; a prioritization of African survival, liberation, and proactive development; engagement in specific activity related to collective self-knowledge, self-affirmation, and institution building; and lastly, a posture of resistance against anti-African forces and threats to African survival. This is the African self-consciousness we must socialize our people to adopt.”
“Gentlemen,” Garvey interjected, “my warning to those of you who are speaking of building institutions here in America is that the progress you speak of will be built on a foundation of sand because we cannot protect it—it can be taken away. We are regarded as a hindrance here, a threat to White supremacy, and we are outnumbered. The odds would be against us here, and I do not want to set our people up for failure. It hurt my heart to see what happened to Black Wall Street. But if we raise a nation in Africa, we can support our populations abroad from a base of power.”
“Well, Mr. Garvey,” Malcolm X responded, “in my humble opinion, the long-term solution may be complete separation and a return to Africa, but right now, 40 million Black people in the U.S. need food, clothing, housing, education, and jobs immediately. I believe what we can and must do here and now is return to Africa culturally and philosophically as Black Nationalists and Pan Africanists, forming mutually supportive relationships with our brothers and sisters in Africa.”
Kwame Ture seemed to inhale deeply after considering both Mr. Garvey and Min. Malcolm’s comments. “You are both right,” Kwame Ture declared. “We need an international perspective, such as Pan Africanism, to fight on an international level. African people need to build power bases all over the world and unite culturally, politically, and economically.”
“Obaba,” I said, “I want to thank you for this conversation. The word progress can be disarming to the unsuspecting ear. Progress is assumed to inherently mean better and even inevitable. But African people’s history teaches us that we have been subjected to oppressive forces that attempted to get us to abandon our languages and cultural practices in the name of this sneaky word. It appears that it is growing more and more associated with acceptance of Euro American values, ideals, normative practices, and institutions.”
“Young Mac, I believe it is time you return and fulfill your mission,” said Dr. Fanon. My vision began to grow foggy again. I heard my friend’s aunt’s voice say to me, “Your dad is proud of you, and he says you must continue to commune with your ancestors.”
What was I supposed to do now? Was I supposed to summarize this discussion in class? That would create a whole new curriculum! I’d have to talk to that student during office hours, I thought. I wanted to schedule a new meeting right away, but then I remembered what my elder Dr. Wade Nobles once told me: When the student is ready, the teacher will appear. Darn, I’d have to wait. I then woke up in bed, before I could utter the words, “Wait, what?”
Carmichael, Stokely, and Mumia Abu-Jamal. Stokely Speaks: From Black Power to Pan-Africanism. 2007. Print.
Fanon, Frantz. The Wretched of the Earth. New York: Grove, 1965. Print.
Garvey, Marcus. Marcus Garvey Speaks. Durham, NC: BlaCast Entertainment, 2003. Sound recording.
Kambon, Kobi K. K. African/Black Psychology in the American Context: An African-Centered Approach. Tallahassee, FL: Nubian Nation Publications, 1998. Print.
National Urban League. The State of Black America: Message to the President. Silver Spring, MD: Transaction Publishers, 2009.
X, Malcolm, and George Breitman. Malcolm X Speaks: Selected Speeches and Statements (1st Ed). New York: Grove, 1965. Black Thought and Culture. Web.