Returning to the Nile Valley: A Prelude

It has been sixty four months since the so-called "Arab Spring" erupted, interrupting our regular journeys to Egypt with students in order to conduct on-site study of early African Nile Valley society. Nearly six years since the last time we've taken students from Howard and, in our 2010 journey, Chicago State University, Miles College and Northeastern Illinois Universities as well.  This is the longest I have gone since my first journey to Egypt in 1996 without being surrounded by the tombs, stelae, pyramids, temples, study chambers, statuary and the literal human remains of the world's most influential ancient civilization. 

Sitting in Manhattan before heading to JFK, I decided to write my first blog post in quite some time as a downpayment to help chronicle why what we are doing at Howard, with ASCAC and with a developing constellation of scholars at HBCUs is vitally important in a moment when streets are flooding with the energy of people working to #StayWoke and declaring decisively that #BlackLivesMatter .

Tomorrow, three dozen students and faculty from Howard University will arrive in Cairo to resume our work of glimpsing far African antiquity on something of its own terms. Although our Department of Afro-American Studies' regular journeys to the African continent--which now include Ghana and South Africa in addition to Egypt--are formally labeled "study abroad," they also have a gloss of "study domestic" for students of African descent.  There is a discernible African residue in the cultural DNA of global Africana, as well as in the grafted cultural DNA of every settler society in North, Caribbean and South America into which we were introduced. Animus among Africans toward searching these DNA in any deliberate way for connecting rhythms, impulses and influences is one more unfortunate side effect of the traumatic hierarchical racialization that enabled modern, European-centered world systems. When forced to consider that traumatization by the fundamental question posed by Malcolm X ("who taught you to hate yourself?"), prevarications from even our most eloquent thinkers too often amount, as W.E.B. Du Bois famously remarked in the context of the problematic of Black life in White worlds, to "seldom a word."

As I have tried to explain elsewhere, any disciplinary thrust of "Africana Studies" must be fed by deliberate attempts to imagine possibilities for fashioning new human possibilities by searching these residue intellectual traces for lessons.  In his book Of Africa, Wole Soyinka calls the traces to be found in the modalities and texts of Africa its "dynamic possessions," potential commodities of exchange as-or-more valuable than any material resource.  Recovering these traces and repurposing them can lead, according to Ngugi wa Thiongo in his book Something Torn and New, to "the decolonization of modernity."  Ayi Kwei Armah, considered by some the continental African writer most committed to imagining the intellectual and social possibilities of a deep historical African "re-membering," refers to the process for undertaking such work in his book The Eloquence of the Scribes as "the dance of inspiration."

Such work is not an exercise in "fomenting race pride," but something that transcends the stifling, losing game of "race." Asking Africa fundamental questions in our search for human meaning shatters externally-imposed labels by finding contributions to human understanding from one's own people, throughout time and space. Learning a language is the well-accepted port of entry for beginning to think about how people imagine themselves, their worlds, and human possibilities. While more and more students of Africana have begun studying the languages of contemporary Africa as part of this process, the number of Africans who have studied older African languages in order to ask deep African antiquity questions is, in the words of Armah, "uncomfortably close to zero." 

As doctoral apprentices of the eminent Egyptologist and Linguist Theophile Obenga , a handful of students at Temple University in the mid 1990s were able to learn the fundamentals of Middle Egyptian, the most influential iteration of Egyptian Hieroglyphs, as the first necessary step of engaging the most influential period discovered-to-date of African antiquity.  With that foundation, I completed a (probably) overly-ambitious dissertation that investigated how select 19th and 20th century African thinkers and activists imagined the process of interrogating African pasts as "dynamic possessions."

The work of searching for what Obenga called "philosophies of history" in African antiquity while tracing how diasporic African thinkers attempted the same commingled two streams in my training and experience as a scholar.  My first lessons in Egyptian hieroglyphs had come before Obenga, in the late 1980s, from the work of Jacob H. Caruthers, Jr. [Djedi Shemsu Djehuty], his comrades at the Kemetic Institute of Chicago and their federation of researchers, activists and institution builders under the federation called The Association for the Study of Classical African Civilizations (ASCAC). I became aware of Carruthers's work after my first year of law school, when I read his book Essays in Ancient Egyptian Studies, along with Manning Marable's How Capitalism Underdeveloped Black America, Molefi Asante's Afrocentricity and Harold Cruse's Plural But Equal.

I went to law school to  master the possibilities of Title VI of the Civil Rights Act of 1964, among other weapons, and then fight for the preservation and growth of Historically Black Colleges and Universities like my undergraduate alma mater, Tennessee State University.  Thinking like a lawyer requires a severe, unforgiving analysis of language in the perpetual search for weaknesses of logic and argument. I found, and have tried to teach my students in subsequent years to search for, such strengths and weaknesses in texts. Carruthers's work combined the structural analysis of a social scientist with the expertise and cultural insight of a linguist.  He remains one of the least-known and most brilliant thinkers I have ever read, listened to and come to know.  When he told me he was one of the segregation-busting law school classmates of Heman Marion Sweatt at the University of Texas, I felt as if the Ancestors had guided me to a kindred spirit. 

The following year, I took a summer clerkship with the NAACP Legal Defense Fund in New York to immerse myself in Civil Rights law, especially in the area of education. I also took the clerkship so I could spend time with ASCAC scholars and activists like John Henrik Clarke of Harlem's legendary First World Alliance study group. Among many lessons, I learned the value of searching for insight in community with anyone who demonstrates the interest and discipline to study, regardless of licensure, network or position.  After completing the law degree in 1990, and at the advice of Marable, I completed an M.A. in Africana Studies at Ohio State before moving to Temple to take the Ph.D. while absorbing, challenging and learning from the possibilities of Asante's Afrocentric methodology.

Obenga's arrival at Temple in 1994 supercharged my apprenticeship and that of my closest fellow students. Soon, Obenga took up intensive work with Carruthers and ASCAC scholars to achieve a technical proficiency that enabled an unprecedented fusion of scholarship and activism. For these workers, including Armah, the study of "Ancient Egypt" required a mastery of Middle Egyptian Hieroglyphs, which, in the words of Obenga's senior colleague, the late Cheikh Anta Diop, should strip the scholar of any racialized hyperbole, leaving her or him with "the serenity to appreciate the facts as they were." After completing the Ph.D., I decided to spend a brief period immersed in K-12 education. My goal was to work with teachers and administrators to fashion fundamentally different models of intellectual work that would enable young people to develop as scholars able to investigate Africana and use what they learned to transform our communities. 

Over the next fifteen years, beginning in 1999, I selected high-level texts, including the aforementioned texts by Armah, Ngugi and Soyinka as well as Du Bois, Ella Baker, Michael Gomez and many others, to discuss and absorb with teachers, administrators and over a thousand high school students in the School District of Philadelphia as part of our Philadelphia Freedom Schools initiative. Our collective interrogation of the ideas and techniques in those texts fed a flowering that shaped Lessons in Africana Studies, the curriculum framework for the District's African-American History course. The attraction of joining my K-12 work for the District to a faculty position at Howard in 2000 was the possibility of joining the deeply undervalued HBCU scholarly community that had shaped me, while simultaneously taking on the challenge of collecting a community of scholars in Africana Studies and related disciplines to link genealogies of what Carruthers had called "African deep thought" to the highest standards of teaching and research in service of social transformation.  

By 2013, we had collected one of (if not the) country's largest contingent of Ph.D.s in Africana Studies in one small department. With the support of the College of Arts and Sciences and the University at large, we have been able to develop curriculum innovations that have resulted in singularly unique learning experiences in the American academy.  

For example, our Freshman Seminar/Common Text program has, over the last five years, used the study of texts (and Scholar-in-Residence visits) by Ngugi and Soyinka to fashion first-year research projects aimed at translating engagements with long-view genealogies of Africana into contemporary problem solving.  In 2014, the year after Soyinka's engagement, over one thousand freshmen used W.E.B. Du Bois's severely under-utilized set of essays, The Education of Black People, to produce projects aimed at influencing American K-12 and undergraduate education. Last year, another thousand-plus Howard freshmen read Ta-Nehisi Coates's Between the World and Me and Claudia Rankine's Citizen, using them to interrogate the meaning of citizenship in the modern world.  Both authors came for Scholars-in-Residency.  In Coates's case, it was a return home for the Howard alum, and the launch of his book tour, taking place on the eve of the announcement of his MacArthur Foundation award.

What began as an attempt to help shift paradigms in the study of Africana at HBCUs has taken root at Howard in remarkable ways.  In many ways, our study abroad work in South Africa (2004, 2007, 2009) and Egypt (2008, 2009, 2010) has been deliberately grounded in the work of Obenga, Carruthers, Diop and the community-anchored intellectual thrust of ASCAC, which took one thousand African-Americans to the Nile Valley for their third annual conference in 1987. One of our faculty recruits, Dr.  Mario Beatty, is Obenga's finest American-born student, the current President of ASCAC, and the architect of the Egyptian Hieroglyphs program at Howard. Over the last five years, he has implemented a course sequence that has trained hundreds of students in basic Middle Egyptian, Hieratic and Coptic, and identified a small number of students with advanced translation expertise.

Some of them will be landing in Cairo tomorrow to take the next steps in what Ngugi has called the vital work of translation and recovery. As the journey unfolds, the expectation is that we may be on the eve of participating in a quantum leap.  Please feel free to comment so that we can share your observations, questions and insights with the students as our journey unfolds.

Some previous iterations of the Howard Study Abroad in Kemet [Egypt] can be found by clicking the following link: