African Diaspora: Demonization and Suppression of African Expressions
By Ras Tyehimba
June 23, 2004
A little over a year ago, I attended an Orisha festival in 'deep south', Trinidad,, near Princes' Town. This festival was entitled Egungun- A Celebration of the Ancestors. I thoroughly enjoyed this experience, families were present and men and women, young and old, were dressed in beautiful African garbs. Tony Martin, the esteemed Garveyite scholar delivered a speech about the importance of history. Part of the program involved African songs, dance, and of course drumming. Processions of characters representing ancestors paraded and danced in the main area to the powerful rhythms of the African drums. Beautiful voices filled the air, singing praises to the ancestors and remembering the days of old. The tempo increased, and some people particularly females began to 'ketch the power'. Oshun the feminine deity who governs the river manifested in one female in particular, and she began to dance with amazing grace. She was a dark-skinned woman, bare feet, head wrapped, and dressed in long patterned material. She strikingly reminded me of someone I knew. I watched in awe as she moved, smooth as water, in perfect harmony with the pulsating rhythms. Never have I seen a dance so graceful, beautiful and sensual. Interestingly, a friend was supposed to meet me at the festival, but at the last moment she decided not to attend: her family had serious concerns about her being involved in 'devil thing'.
Around the time of this festival, some friends and I, about four of us went for a swim in a river near where I reside. On our way back from the river, there was a group of Orisha people conducting a ceremony by the river. Attracted by the drumming and singing one friend and I went closer and observed what was going on. My other two friends, one who grew up in a Christian environment and the other a self-confessed atheist, refused to even come anywhere near where we were, remaining some distance away. This fear stemmed from their perception that Orisha practices and by extension African based religions involve devil worship, or evil spirits. Interestingly enough, in the Orisha cosmogony, like most African beliefs and practices, there is no concept of a Devil as in the Christian scriptures. Many Europeans and Westerners have even misinterpreted the Orisha deity Eshu (also known as Elegba) to be the Devil most likely because he is sometimes depicted with horns. Despite this distortion, Eshu is the gatekeeper, or the guardian of the crossroads, emphasizing the importance of choice. Eshu is the trickster: those with bad intentions, he tricks and punishes them. Eshu represents the divine messenger, the spiritual connection between man and divinity....Eshu is a mirror of us. He embodies all the forces, positive and negative and has the power to manipulate or free someone.
Furthermore, in the civilizations along the river Nile there also was a noted absence of a Devil entity. There was however the character of Set or Seth from which the Christian word 'Satan' evolved from. Set however did not represent the devil but rather represents mankind's lower self, that is fears, passions and emotions, and if these were to control a person (instead of one's higher faculties such as reason and logic), then imbalance (evil) would result. Balance would come about when Seth (our fears, passions, and emotions) is subordinated to our higher self (our reasoning capabilities). This duality is reflected in mankind who has the capacity to be both divine and evil. This wisdom of ancient indigenous people who are often labeled primitive, backward and barbaric explains why ancient African societies placed so much importance on integrity and moral conduct.
Given the limited information that people are exposed to, it is not surprising that many cannot see the connection between the 'demonization' and suppression of African expressions and the increasing problems of rising crime, racism, corruption, and social decay. Without properly addressing the factors that have shaped the way we think and behave, all attempts to bring about meaningful change are doomed to fail. It must be realized that it was not only people who were colonized, but also that history and other information was distorted and manipulated to reinforce European domination. While some East Indians and Africans have joined the ranks of the elite, and attained political control, the European ideal and concepts with the concomitant oppression and elitism have remained imbedded in our society. White and light skin privilege still largely influences the nature of social, economic and political interactions. There has been no serious attempt to deal with the effects of our colonial legacy in the mainstream, far less to understand the Africa's role in shaping civilization before the colonial period. Any attempt to address history in the mainstream is instinctively labelled as 'dwelling in the past'. Ironically, these attitudes themselves are rooted in our colonial past.
When enslaved Africans were on the plantations in the New World, the colonial rulers used a variety of brutality, torture, indoctrination, and psychology to 'break in' the fresh captives, so that they would forget their history, their traditions, and values, and thus become less resistant and more obedient, passive and servile. This 'breaking in' process would make the practices of the sadistic American soldiers against Iraqi prisoners look like child- play. At the center of any rebellion, or uprising in the New World were the spiritual beliefs of the enslaved Africans. In Haiti, voodun was an essential ingredient in forging the successful overthrow of the White colonial rulers. Realizing the power of African spiritual beliefs and its relationship to African resistance, the colonial rulers went to great lengths to destroy, demonize and discredit these beliefs. African languages, drums, clothes and practices were banned, and European names were given to everyone, and those that behaved like 'good' passive Christians were often rewarded and given a position as a house slave or a slave driver. African captives caught practicing their traditional beliefs were tortured, killed and hung in the open as an example to others. By practising their beliefs in secret and by hiding them in Christianity, they managed to preserve them. Unfortunately, the colonial attitudes and myths have also survived.
The manipulation and perpetuation of colonial myths, distortions, and misinformation by the mainstream media, religions, politicians and the education system have served to maintain the status quo. Part of this includes a parochial definition of culture that in particular undermines Africans' contribution to the development of a national consciousness. African culture is seen mostly as performance or entertainment arts, and thus the context in which these artforms developed and the ideas and philosophies behind them are neglected. Thus it is the norm to include only the non-threatening entertainment aspects of African culture and ignore the philosophies behind them. The main consequence of this is the systemic exclusion of those who represent and stand up for the interests of the African segment of the population. In the print media, there is no one that writes from a perspective of African traditional beliefs, while there is a large assortment of Christians, Hindus, and Muslims who espouse their perspectives to the populace. It is good that Indians, Christians etc have mediums through which they can share their perspectives. I fully support this, but unless African religions and expressions are allowed adequate space, all attempts at solving crime will fail. Unless it is seen that the suppression of the African perspective is a main factor that contributes to the present social ills, no progress can be made and all attempts to bring about social change without addressing this is like 'spinning top in mud'.
The neglect and underdevelopment of certain racial, ethnic and geographical portions of the society has not been without dire implications for the general population. . The social decay, crime and violence highlight the failure of European and Christian ideals and concepts to deal with the uniqueness of Trinidadian society. Many people particularly the ones that control the economic and political spheres fail to realize that the decadent state of society is as a direct result of the false values, racism, and gender discrimination that they themselves contribute to, in day-to-day activities. Even taking into account the general level of ignorance, it is still amazing how many cannot realize that the police service cannot really reduce crime, the seeds of which were planted hundreds of years ago, and watered by many who now live in deep fear of the fruit of their own actions. In a workshop recently, I put forth that social structures and process were created by white European males, and thus we need to re-evaluate and re-structure this society and shape it into a state that is more reflective of our collective history and our unique mix of people. Sad to say, but some persons could not even agree on the fact that this society is very Eurocentric in its processes, ideals and structures.
It should be made clear that although many Blacks have attained high social status and positions, this is absolutely not a sign of Black empowerment, as to get to that point, many have had to conform to the plethora of false values and standards that severely retard their ability to challenge the status quo. This situation is akin to that of the house slave on the plantation system. The house slave was dangerous for two main reasons. Firstly, his desire for his masters praise lead him to short-circuit and betray any resistance or movement towards changing the oppressor/oppressed relationship. Secondly, to show his loyalty, the house slave would beat the field slaves more savagely than even the slave master would. Implicit in this is a deep sense of inferiority, which renders the individual unable to do anything other than imitate his perceived superiors in any possible way. Frantz Fanon in his classic Black Skin White Mask captured this elegantly '"It is apparent to me that the effective disalienation of the black man entails an immediate recognition of social and economic realities. If there is an inferiority complex it is the outcome of a double process, primarily economic, subsequently, the internalization.. of the inferiority ..... The problem of colonialism includes not only the interrelations of objective historical conditions, but also human attitudes towards these conditions."
Given the relationship between the suppression of the African perspective and the present corrupt state of society characterized by crime, violence and injustice, it is imperative that genuine African voices be aired alongside the Indian, Hindu, Christian and Muslim ones. By drawing upon a wider range of perspectives, people will be able to get a better sense of self, and eventually elect leaders that are better informed than the present corrupt demagogic crop.
Towards this end, informed people should lobby for the inclusion of African programs on State media. It should be realized that state media belongs to the people and therefore should be reflective of the people. The privately owned media corporations are under no obligation to broadcast perspectives that are representative of the population. Presently the only time African people can really talk about their concepts and beliefs in mainstream media, state-owned or not, is around the celebration of Emancipation day. The disparity that exist presently in terms of people being exposed to different perspectives is shown by the fact that there are at least 5 East Indian radio station, one of which is State run, which are dedicated towards Indian programming. There is not one genuine African Radio Station in Trinidad and Tobago and this disconnects many from the lessons that could be learnt from history as well as from the collective wisdom of the ancestors. One implication of this is that people now have the notion that any expression of the African self is racist and seeks to exclude and oppress all segments of the population that are of other races. Nothing could be further from the truth.
Also, although some suggest that seeking to understand history is 'dwelling in the past', the reason for the world's problems is not that people hold on to history but rather because many are unaware of history. It has been said that 'ignorance of our human origins and evolutionary processes is the primary reason most people do not respect each other'. History, archeology, and science have proven conclusively that all human being originated in Africa. This may cause some people to experience some cognitive dissonance, as the continent Africa and its people which is associated in the mainstream with poverty, primitiveness and revulsion has been proven not only to be the birthplace of humanity, but has also provided the foundation for a lot that western civilization has taken for granted including science, architecture, astronomy, religion, philosophy, medicine and mathematics.