Toward a New Way of Being Black in the World
We hope you are staying safe in these challenging days, dear family.
Last issue, we talked about CHN’s mission to help cultivate a renewed understanding of the African vision of humanity as a way to save Black people from the European vision driven by the idea that some human beings are worthy and others are worthless. I invited you to stay tuned as we deepened the conversation with featured interviews on the subject.
Then COVID-19 hit in full force—just about grinding everything to a halt and causing a great deal of anguish.
We hope you have been spared the deepest pains. But if you have not, please know that we stand in solidarity with you.
COVID-19 has underlined the importance and urgency of our work of fostering the development of people and communities dedicated to reviving the African vision.
Last year, during our Global Truth Campaign and Tour stop in Omaha, Nebraska, Dr. Nikitah Okembe-ra Imani hit a powerful note in his remarks at our Community Healer Awards reception. He said: “We [Black people] embody in our very incarnation the struggle for the definition of what it means to be human.”
Anti-Black racism is about more than the degradation of African human beings. It is also about the degradation of life-giving African values which stand in stark contrast to the European idea. It is that African vision of humanity that the West has been working to destroy for more than 600 years.
In this moment of anguish, we see the opportunity for an urgently needed proliferation of African values. So we are pressing on from where we left off last month.
As Maya Angelou, founding chair of CHN’s Board of Advisors said, “every storm runs out of rain.” When we emerge from this storm, we want to have done our part to equip Black people to begin to live more fully the values that reflect the African view of the human person. There are different understandings of Ubuntu and what it means to be an African, and we want to explore as many as we can.
Here’s our first interview––with David Robinson-Morris, Ph.D., and author of Ubuntu and Buddhism in Higher Education: An Ontological (Re)thinking. a “we” oriented educator, philosopher, social justice and human rights advocate-activist, educator, philanthropist, and community organizer.
Brother David is the founding director of The Center for Equity, Justice, and the Human Spirit at Xavier University of Louisiana; Director of Corporate and Foundation Relations; and Assistant Professor, Division of Education and Counseling.
I am deeply grateful to David for the thoughtfulness and beauty with which he grappled with my questions—giving us a deep well from which to draw as we seek to enrich our understanding of who and whose we are as the children of Africa.
These interview answers reflect the views of the interviewee and are not necessarily those of the Community Healing Network or its staff or Board.
FWB: What is the Ubuntu concept of humanity and of the human being?
DRM: Ubuntu is an African onto-epistemological cosmo-cultural philosophical notion, an ethic, and the foundation on which the life of an African and those of us in the diaspora rests. As African scholar, Michael Eze declares, “ubuntu is in fact, essentially what it means to be an African.” Similarly, South African philosopher Mogobe Ramose (2002) asserts that Ubuntu is understood to be “the root of African philosophy” (p. 203); so much so, he exclaims, “the being of an African in the universe is inseparably anchored upon ubuntu” (p. 230).
Ubuntu is the short form of a Xhosa proverb “umuntu ngumuntu ngabantu” or a human being is a human being only through and in relationship with other human beings. Ubuntu is most commonly understood as ‘I am because we are’ or that a person is a person through other people. As I write in Ubuntu and Buddhism in Higher Education: An Ontological (Re)Thinking, “Ubuntu is both the abstract and concrete manifestation of human interdependence and interconnectedness that defines the culture and lives of southern Africans,” in concept across the continent and for those of us in the diaspora. It is a recognition that no one comes into the world fully formed but we are formed only through a relationship with others. We need other human beings in order to become human.
The Ubuntu conception of humanity defines the individual in the context of relationship to others toward an engendering of harmony, respect, and compassion not only for other human beings, but for all sentient beings, nature, and the unseen, namely, the Ancestors. While it can be described as African humanism, Ubuntu does not necessarily center the human. In an African cosmology, we appearing in human form in the present moment are just one component of a grand cosmological ecosystem. Ubuntu hued understandings of what it means to be human and allows us the ability to understand that humanity is a quality we owe one another.
In one word, Ubuntu is community. It is a communal orientation that places primacy on the well-being of all, but not at the expense of any. It is an embodied knowing, a philosophy, an ethic, a way of being-doing in the world that recognizes difference as generative and that each being is caught up the in the cosmological dance of creation and of sustaining this otherness creation. Ubuntu is an active enshrinement of our interconnectedness and our shared being as human.
As you can tell, it is hard to define. Like time, we know what it is, and we recognize it when we see it, but we have the damnedest time defining it. When pressed further for a concrete definition of Ubuntu, I often say or write: “Ubuntu is comparative to Black Americans recognizing “soul” in other Black Americans; it is deeply felt, marginally describable, and imperceptible to those in which it is not contained.”
FWB: How does Ubuntu differ from the Western view?
DRM: In its orthodox understanding it differs from the Western view in totality; however, like all lands and peoples colonized by the global West’s imperialistic brutality the understanding of Ubuntu has become bastardized by European Christianity. I believe martyred South African Freedom Fighter Steve Biko has illuminated the difference best. In the 1978 book of his selected writings titled, I Write What I Like, Biko writes:
“… [Western society] seems to be very concerned with perfecting their technological know-how while losing out on their spiritual dimension. We believe that in the long run the special contribution to the world by Africa will be in this field of human relationship. The great powers of the world may have done wonders in giving the world an industrial and military look, but the great gift still has to come from Africa giving the world a more human face.”
Ubuntu at its most basic understanding is counter-Western and counter-hegemonic. Every facet of African life, as I appreciate it, is shaped to embrace Ubuntu that is to say it encourages relationships with others, inspires recognition of our shared humanity through communal dialogue and the practice of respect, compassion, and harmony. These tenets are embodied and not inextricably linked to Christian gospel or doctrine unlike in the West.
More pointedly, Ubuntu encourages cooperation rather than capitalistic competition; it engenders acting with others rather than against them; Ubuntu fosters dialogue for understanding toward consensus-building, cooperation, and shared outcomes. The West encourages competition based on our system of economic capitalism, promotes domination and power, and is focused on outcomes that benefit undoubtedly the privileged few while the many struggle. Of course, this is an oversimplification of the difference, but an illustration of the differences, nonetheless.
I think most importantly, Ubuntu has the ability to reorient Western thinking and to turn Descartes’ ego cogito, the basis of Western thinking born of the Enlightenment, on its head. As Archbishop Desmond Tutu reminds, Ubuntu does not say, ‘I think, therefore I am.’ It says rather: ‘I am human because I belong. I participate. I share’. Nothing could be more counter-West than the transformation of an ‘I am’ in to a ‘We are.’
FWB: How might we as Africans avail ourselves of this and other African values in order to escape the European narrative?
DRM: Like most things, Ubuntu is ours for the asking and we already embody it. I argue, in addition to cultural traces, rich sun-soaked skin, and an indomitable spirit, Ubuntu survived the Middle Passage, survived the brutality of slavery, survived a people being scattered in the wind all over the globe. It is an embodied knowing that each of us Africans in the diaspora continue to inspirit, continue to practice, continue to ritualize in our deep sense of community.
The short answer is that we only have to learn to (re)member the things that we have learned to forget, as our sister Dr. Cynthia B. Dillard reminds us. To (re)member we have to rid ourselves of the seduction of being other than who truly are. We live within a Euro-centric, Western narrative but it does not have to live in us.
How do we live within while simultaneously subverting? This will be different for each of us. For me, it is a constant invoking of the Ancestors and a reliance on the trinitarian wholeness of mind-body-spirit. It is recollection of Nana Peazant’s words in Daughters of the Dust, “Must be a bond, a connection between us here and us what are across the sea. A connection, the last of the old, first of the new.”
We have been trained away from ourselves, trained out of ourselves to fit into the mold of European discourse through domination. We must (re)member. We must and can unlearn to the extent that it is possible through a deepening of spiritual practice, through engagement in/with/for community, through a transformed understanding of personhood, collective action, and collective responsibility. Most importantly for me, to escape Eurocentric narratives we must rid ourselves of the fear of questioning, and the discovery of new thoughts and provocations. We must set our own standards for our lives, for our communities in keeping with our shared values.
There is no one way of subverting or transgressing; each of us does it in the ways that work for us. Similarly, there are no singular models for the creation of community, the beingness of being, nor of the process of becoming. I am because we are, and we are because I am. Ubuntu necessitates us accepting the other in the beauty of their otherness and in the process of their becoming—fully.
Calling forth our sister Dr. Dillard, I echo the words of Leela Fernandes (2003):
It is a process which brings you face to face with the boundedness of time, space, and history. It is a process that demands an unimaginable intensity of labor in an endeavor which will always seem unfinished…it is the essence of the unrepresentable, which Western postmodern intellectuals have been paralyzed by only because they have mistaken unrepresentable for unrealizable. It is the only form of power that lived divinity, that can transform and transcend all forms of hierarchy, injustice and repression.
There is no escape, but there can be emancipation through resistance. Our collective freedom is veiled as an invitation to be-do better, be-do deeper, be-do more gently with ourselves and one another. Saturated in love and imbued with an ancient, embodied knowing of who we are; we have always already been the people we have been waiting for. While Ubuntu shapes our vision for relationships, each of us must discover–individually and collectively–the answer to: Why we are here? What is our work? How do we heal?
FWB: What are your thoughts about Ubuntu in light of COVID-19?
DRM: Ubuntu, in light of the global Novel Coronavirus pandemic, gives us much to think on. My thoughts return to Steve Biko’s assertion regarding the political West’s obsession with perfecting technical know-how while failing to give equal credence to the field of human relationships. One only has to turn on the news to hear politicians speak of herd immunity, sacrificing the weak, or prematurely opening commerce without a vaccine or adherence to physical distancing measures to realize how severely we have forgotten that humanity is a quality we owe to one another.
I imagine Biko would be yelling from the rooftops—it is we Africans dispersed throughout the globe, who are called to give the world a more human face, to practice and remember the mutuality and sacredness of our collective humanity. We need the understanding and practice of Ubuntu during this time more than ever.
Now, everything also has a shadow side. One could also speculate, in addition to comorbidities caused by historical and chronic systemic neglect, the inordinate number of deaths among Africans (African
Americans) due to COVID-19 is not due to mistrust or ignorance, but rather is a direct result of our communitarian orientation as a people or tribe. My mind conjures up a scene in the Green Mile where John Coffee is explaining how the murder of the two little girls of which he accused, but wholly innocent occurred. He says, “He killed them with their love. That is how it is every day, all over the world.”
Perhaps, so too it is with the spread of the Novel Corona Virus and the resultant COVID-19 within our communities.
Before you all begin to throw eggs at me, let me state explicitly that this is not an indictment nor is it meant to blame anyone. It is simply a theory. At the same time, now that we are physically distanced, we feel deeply the necessity of community, of practicing an ethic of care, and of recognizing our shared humanity. We also give thanks for our embodied understanding of Ubuntu and pray that the colonizers may come to know the importance of community over commerce, of people over profit, and the well-being of all of humanity over hegemonic settler colonialism.
This planet is forcing us to stop, to recognize that no (wo)man is an island, but that each of us is connected to all that is seen and unseen. Ubuntu, in light of COVID-19, compels us toward wholeness, toward balance, toward care of self, others, and the environment. All over this earth, nature rejoices in the advent of our collective epiphanic awakening steeped in the ethic of Ubuntu.
Finally, I’ll leave you with these words to ponder:
Black face peering out and through and
against a sea of white.
Brilliant mind, innovative thinking enshrined in the magnificence of
humanity’s beginning. White face sees Black hole, Black body not the
human of humanity’s birth.
African soul in Western world.
Hushed whispers in a screaming crowd;
ancient time in a quickening pace.
History repeating before our very eyes; past ever-present.
White faces greet white faces, who claim Black thoughts in a space and
time never created for Black beings to survive nor thrive.
Against all odds, we people of humanity’s birth push through the labor
pains of white face’s prejudice; we bear down with determination to give
life to humanity’s future, to new thoughts, to being differently in,
with, and through love never exhibited or rightly received.
Genius unrecognized and more often denied, majesty at the core of our
being, love our northern star, and grace our true home.
Pay no never mind to naysayers, to the lies of white face.
Their flocking betrays their ignorance, behind their grin
jealously of your Black brilliance, your Black power,
the beautiful hues of humanity’s face.
Black face in white world no more.
Despite the roadblocks, in spite of the prejudices claim this place as your own,
make space for yourself in it,
listen with the ears of the heart to the voices in the stillness of the wind.
Into this world you came set apart.
Ancestors and souls not yet beckon you to your greatness;
call you forth into your purpose. Be still, listen, and know.
Black faces shine in splendor to which only sister Sun can compare.
Hold head high,
glory is nigh.
– “People of Humanity’s Birth”, David W. Robinson-Morris, Ph.D., December 2017
Introduction and interview by Enola G. Aird, CHN President and Founder