Summer Study Abroad in Kemet 2018: Day One

"This writing was copied out anew by his majesty in the House of his father Ptah-South-of-his-Wall, for his majesty found it to be a work of the ancestors which was worm-eaten, so that it could not be understood from beginning to end. His majesty copied it anew so that it might become better than it had been before, in order that his name might endure and his monument last in the House of his father Ptah-South-of-his-Wall throughout eternity, as a work done by the son of Re, Shabaka, for his father Ptah-Tatenen, so that he might live forever."

--Preface to The Memphite Theology on the order of Shabaka, Per Uah of the 25th Kemetic Dynasty, 710 b.c.e.

"Cherish study, avoid the dance, so you'll become an excellent official. Do not yearn after outdoor pleasures, hunting and fishing; shun boomerang throwing and the chase. Write diligently by day; recite at night. Let your friends be the papyrus roll and the scribal palette; such work is sweeter than wine. Indeed writing, for one who knows it, is far better than all other professions, pleasanter than bread and beer, more delightful than clothes and perfumed ointments, more precious than a legacy in Kemet, than a tomb in the West."

--Neb-Maa-Re Nakht, Royal Scribe (Sesh Nesw), 20th Kemetic Dynasty, c. 1500 b.c.e.

The legendary W.E.B. DuBois was known for his passionate moderation. In bed daily by eleven p.m. A remarkably disciplined reader and writer who planned research agendas with daily tasks over years and kept to them with low tolerance for interruption. A literal human metronome of consistency and intellectual productivity.

In writing about the Reconstruction period in U.S. history, Dr. DuBois captured a strikingly similar combination of intellectual passion, consistency and productivity as he marked the determination of "an entire race" to go to school in the wake of the end of the U.S. Civil War. As Mary Bethune would remark before Congress in 1939, within several generations, a people who had been pressed into functional illiteracy in the reading and writing of the English language had produced generations of students who had mastered the language and set out to dismantle the system that had required their miseducation.

Encyclopedia of the Negro.jpg

Ms. Bethune and Dr. DuBois (pictured here in the famous 1936 photograph taken on the steps of Howard University's Carnegie Library Building with Adelaide Cromwell, Monroe Work, Charles Wesley, James Weldon Johnson, Alain Locke, Arturo Schomburg and Mordecai Wyatt Johnson, among others as they worked on the landmark Encyclopedia of the Negro) were only two among the ranks of pioneering scholar-educators who traced the institutional memory of the African quest for education in the United States.

Yesterday, nineteen Howard University students, faculty and staff as well as educators and students from Chicago and Houston departed on the latest Howard Summer Study Abroad in Kemet. The first of these study tours began in 2008, one year after the women and men of the Association for the Study of Classical African Civilization and Trinity United Church of Christ mourned the transition of the legendary Asa G. Hilliard III [Nana Baffour Amankwatia II] in the Nile Valley.  A review of the work that led up to that initial and subsequent HU Study Abroad: Kemet journeys can be found here. This group extends direct intellectual genealogies that begin in classical Africa, extend throughout the African continent, were repurposed into weapons of resistance and survival during enslavement and colonialism, and serve as what Jacob Caruthers called "the deep well" of knowledge and experience that African thinkers and others search out to create (re)new(ed) human meaning.

At some point in the next two weeks, our group will, as our cohorts have done in previous years, in a line for line reading and translations of two of the most famous texts in Kemetic literature, the consideration of the origins of reality in the so-called Memphite Theology and a mediation on the field and functionof intellectual life as distinct from all other field of labor entitled The Instructions of Dua-Khety (more commonly known as The Satire of the Trades). In doing so, our students will open a deep and energized consideration of the fact that the African-American quest for education has its roots in the dawn of the human experience.

Ja at Saqqara.JPG

Jazelle Hunt, HU Study Abroad Kemet 2009, Saqqara

At the center of Africana intellectual work is respect for the process of reading and writing and the determination to provide methods for collective learning. The notion of the group "learning community" has its origins in Kemet. From Kemetic sites of scholarly instruction (known as the "Per Ankh" or "House of Life") to evidence of scholarly achievement ranging from the step pyramid (shown here behind Jazelle Hunt) and the stone structures of Imhotep that enclose it through the great convenings of scholars trained in Arabic, Songhai and other scripts at the great centers of learning at Timbuktu and Jenne in the 16th and 17th centuries; straight through the rites of intergenerational learning in Western and Eastern Africa that inspired Lord Baden-Powell to return to England and found The Explorers (the model for the subsequent Boy and Girl Scouts); to the collective struggle of Africans to retain the high skills and crafts of their home societies and to learn enough of each other's languages and skills to survive and resist enslavement while ship-bound; through the genius of their descendants to inherit those cultural markers and to pour them into educational institutions called Abakua, Poro and Maroon or Mason, Order of Eastern Star and Mutual Aid and Relief Society. 

The Historically Black College and University has inherited these Maroon sensibilities and the traditions of communal, collective learning that they represent. In the U.S., schools began to convene in hush harbors and one room cabins, far different than the imposing stone structures we have borne witness to so far in Kemet. Yet some things have remained the same: the determination to right that which is wrong; to rebuild anew, better than before. To shape the future in ways that respect the contributions of the past in ways that do not deify the ancestors while listening to the wisdom that their experiences provide.

Ptah Hotep Tomb 2010.png

HU Study Abroad Kemet, 2010, Tomb of Ptah Hotep


Tomorrow morning, we will begin our journey in Kemet's "Old Kingdom," traveling from Ptah Hotep's tomb to the pyramids of Khufu, Khafre and Menkaure to Min Nefer (Memphis), ancient capital of classical antiquity's greatest nation, to Saqqara, the world's largest and oldest national cemetery. In my next entry, I hope to continue this discussion of how our collective efforts continue connects to the tone and tenor of Africana approaches to intellectual work.

Wakanda and the HBCU: Fantasies and Realities

Wakanda Atlanta.jpg

Each spring, thousands of young students and their elders descend on Howard and our sister institutions in the glorious annual rite of the HBCU college tour. Wide-eyed prospectives from fifth through twelfth grades from cities across the country make annual pilgrimage to my classes.  Our Howard University Alumni Club of Atlanta family, riffing off of a mid-February Howard  Twitter account declaration, presented me with a t-shirt at the close of their visit emblazoned with the phrase: “Howard is Our Wakanda."


Instead of “Wakanda Forever,” Chad Boseman, the Marvel’s Cinematic Universe’s Black Panther, declaimed “Howard Forever!” at his Alma Mater’s 150th commencement ceremony. Beginning his 27 minute speech by evoking the genealogy of teachers, most now Ancestors, who trained him in the craft that has made him famous globally, the 40 year old Boseman presented a powerful mediation on the value of place, community and standing in truth. 

Most of the attendees (and most moviegoers), untutored in T’Challa’s 52 year comics history and long-arc storylines involving Thanos, Infinity Gauntlets, “Secret Wars,” Kree-Skrull battles and other epic saga sources of Marvel’s movie machinations, are still reeling from unexpected traumas of Black Hero Death in “Infinity Wars: Part I.” Fear not: Having attracted a billion dollars of a heretofore undertapped Black demographic’s money into the MCU, Marvel will not soon allow T’Challa, Heimdall, Falcon, Nick Fury, Gamora and kin to go gently into that good cinematic night. 


Future months of agony and speculation should, however, remind us of Howard 1978 Honorary Doctor of Humanities recipient Stevie Wonder’s line in his 1972 song “Superstition”: “When you believe in things you don’t understand, then you suffer.” There are bright lines between fantasy and reality. As inevitable and imaginative showers of ironic, acerbic and comedic replies to the Twitter “Howard is arguably collegiate Wakanda” declaration reminded us, Howard is not Wakanda. No HBCU is. How could we be?


An Afro-futurist Wakanda flows from a central question in our subaltern imaginary: What might Africa be had it never been colonized?  Howard students enrolled at a univeristy shaped by and preoccupied with finding answers to help forestall or negate perpetual existential threats to Africans, far too rarely ask—much less imagine layered answers—to such a question.  The transformative natural resource of Wakanda is the Vibranium mound. Howard’s transformative resource is, and will always be, its people.


As I wrote in the afterword to Todd Burroughs’s book “Marvel’s Black Panther: A Comic Book Biography, ” Wakanda is an American African fantasy. HBCUs are not Wakandas, any more than the African Diaspora or post-colonial Africa are Wakandas. As Black Panther comic writers from Don McGregor to Christopher Priest, Reginald Hudlin and Ta-Nehisi Coates have shown us, Wakanda represents a place to complicate questions of an African utopia, literally an African no place.


The responsibilities of Howard and our sister institutions are greater than those of any imaginary Africas. Memories, dreams and visions of generations of future Africans seek us as real destination repositories and sites of possibility, not imaginary ones. Comparing Howard to Wakanda reveals that desire. It is not a desire defined by soaring SAT scores and grade point averages but by demonstrations of heart and will that are far more relevant barometers of African and broader human possibility. 


Imagination driven by hearts and will caused Black students of the 1960s, inspired by Malcolm X and Black Power self-determination, to award Howard its most enduring honorific: “The Mecca.” An earlier nickname, "The Capstone" (from Howard's Jim Crow-era honorific as "The Capstone of Negro Education") re-inscribes an arc of contested HBCU hierarchy that reinforces each celebrant's fierce devotion to their chosen school. "The Mecca" nickname, however, emerged at a moment in Howard's history when a struggle to create curriculum and community linkages befitting "The Black University" widened ongoing schisms between its integrationist and nationalist intellectual thrusts. Howard emerged from that moment somewhat transformed and no less determined to retain its mythical crown as the leader of the HBCUs, albeit now with a more overtly Black cultural gloss. As Ta-Nehisi Coates writes in Between the World and Me, The Mecca cannot be reduced to Howard University’s test scores and grades, and is rather “a machine, crafted to capture and concentrate the dark energy of All African peoples and inject it directly into the student body.”


The most current threat to the fuel for such a machine for the imaginary is a self-celebratory academic and popular culture that threatens to replace substantive effort with glosses of effort. As Wakanda’s Shuri’s cultural-scientific mastery reminds us, Wakanda’s genius is a cultivated one. When we do not seek hearts and wills of collective purpose as students, faculty or staff, we run the risk of conflating institutional excellence with the fragile appearance of individual mastery. Our Killmongers, stripped even of Michael B. Jordan’s righteous indignation, become masters first in damnable alchemies of finesse.


Mastery work is slow and accretive. At Black Universities, it must never be disassociated with thinking work for collective liberation. Wakandans would never celebrate the to-be-expected as exemplary. Neither should we. Proxy Wakandas in the Global HBCU firmament emerged out of liberation struggles, from Legon, Makerere, Ibadan and Fort Hare to the Caribbean’s UWI system.  Black students who occupied Cornell and Columbia in 1968 and 1969 and who called for Black Studies and Black Cultural Centers at Brandeis, Oberlin, Ohio State, San Francisco State, Northwestern and elsewhere carved liberated Black spaces out of which to imagine and plan new Black worlds. And desegregation has further complicated liberation desires of HBCU students and Black students at HWCUs.  Lines of debates between nationalism and assimilation captured in Laurence C. Morse’s brilliant 1986 novel of life at Howard and HBCUs, Sundial, are much more blurred now, birthing new possibilities for new thinking.


Still, unlike what dreams of individual achievement youngsters on annual HBCU college tours might expect of HWCUs, Howard and our sister institutions are living Wakandas. They look to us for a larger common purpose. Unlike the home of T’Challa, Okoye, Shuri, M’Baku and their imaginary kin, these young people need fear no existential threat from Thanos or anyone else. Unlike the comics, they seek the places where we have everything we need to link our incomparable African pasts to our glorious African futures. The honorifics, from Capstone to Mecca to Wakanda to what will invariably come next out of Black creative imaginaries, are one school's generational labels among others to be found at all our our HBCUs, objects of that thankfully unquenched desire. 

Black Movements in America and Student Activism: Harmonies and Dissonances

[Note:  The following essay was published in the print and electronic versions of the Howard University student newspaper, The Hilltop, on Friday, March 30. I have chosen to publish it here, unchanged, from that version. As a former HBCU student body president (Tennessee State University, 1985-86) who also helped lead student movements as a law and graduate student at The Ohio State University and Temple University and who lives and works primarily in Black educational spaces, I am well familiar with the range of reasons that Black students feel compelled to take collective stands, as well as how those choices affect everyone left in their wake. As Fred Douglass reminded us, if there is no struggle, there is no progress. Each of us is faced with a daily choice of how best to make a difference to create a better world. For the children of Africa, that daily choice is punctuated with enhanced risk. At critical moments like this, we must recognize that and find courage in ourselves and in each other]. 

[Friday, March 30, 2018]: The death of Linda Brown at 75 on March 25 in Topeka, Kansas reminds us of the Black student role in modern American freedom struggles. Brown’s parents joined 12 other families from 5 states in filing the anti-school segregation lawsuits collectively known as Brown v. Board of Education. She spent the rest of her life advocating for social change.  Students came to symbolize possibilities of Black progress in this settler state, anchored in hopes that study and sacrifice would equip generations to make transformative changes, within and beyond Black communities.


Black movements in America, according to Cedric Robinson, emerged from enslavement with two distinctive and alternative political, economic and cultural orientations. Black elites shaped their resistance to dominant social and economic patterns, seeking removal of discriminatory bars to entry and elevation in a broader emerging American socioeconomic order. The Black masses shaped their resistance to more inwardly-oriented, collective aspirations, seeing collective opposition to permanent white racial terrorism as a structural feature of an over-arching white settler state.


During the post-Enslavement period of de facto segregation, these two social movement orientations combined to fight both racial discrimination and legally sanctioned and enhanced racial violence. From segregated schools, churches, businesses and social/cultural institutions, Africans joined forces to topple the most obvious discriminatory barriers to collective advancement. This movement reached its apogee in the 1960s with the passage of major federal civil rights legislation that ostensibly reinforced the “Civil War Amendments” passed a century earlier.


Since that time, Black elites have used the Civil Rights movement to struggle to maintain their precarious individual class status while Black masses have suffered increasing local and collective social and economic insecurity in the wake of the convulsions of late global capitalism. Narratives of African liberation have been largely absorbed into American settler state mythology, wherein individual Black achievement is conflated with/celebrated as group advancement in the fight against discrimination, negating the anti-Black physical, economic and political violence that frames the lived reality of the vast majority of Black America. Education, long embraced as “the great equalizer,” fits comfortably into that narrative of individual achievement as proxy for collective advancement against structural, group-based oppression.


Black student activism has always troubled the relationship between Robinson’s two alternative orientations. Frequently fueled by youthful energy and courage, students in segregated schools organized against inequitably distributed resources, conservative curricula and instruction and racial terror. These movements stretch from the emergence of common school, normal school and college and university education during the First U.S. Reconstruction through the Civil Rights movement of the Second U.S. Reconstruction. By the late 1960s, however, the Black Power Movement revealed irreconcilable fissures between the two orientations.


At the university level, calls for Black Studies were re-launched at HBCUs before taking flight at HWCUs. Fifty years ago this month, Howard students demanded that the university become a “Black University,” defined in part as one that became “relevant” to the needs of “the Black community” in scholarship and service. Some faculty were recruited to Howard with that specific mission, which brought them into deep debate and negotiated truces with others who did not see this as their mission. Black students at Howard and in other Black institutions attempting to determine how to both represent and advance the interests of Black communities were introduced to and became the most salient embodiment of these greater and lesser dissonances.


In the fifty years since the emergence of full-throated global calls for Black Power, Pan-African Internationalism, and even for The Black University, Howard, like every other institution in Black America, has worked—and failed—to reconcile discordant strains of the two alternative class orientations. This American inharmonic may be only a localized manifestation of African experience in the larger racial capitalist world system.  Following in the footsteps of their predecessors in the 1960s, 70s, 80s, 90s and 00s, a new generation of Howard students question that system and its local impact on everything from basic human needs (food, shelter, healthcare) and related human activity (education, employment) to what Black Arts Movement theoretician Larry Neal would call “visions of a liberated future.


HBCUs led in transformative social activism due to circumstances. Legal genius architects of Brown v Board were trapped by segregation at Howard. Student activism blended with this artificial, Apartheid-contained racial class of Black America to force collective action. Common interests began to fracture during the post-desegregation 1960s, and calls for The Black University came at the very moment when the Black elite was perched to escape close association with Black masses in search of aspirational escape.


Ironically, whereas Black University-oriented thinkers from W.E.B. Du Bois and Vincent Harding to Andrew Billingsley, Eleanor Traylor and Ron Walters once worked at HBCUs, great calls for radical restructuring of higher education are more recognized now when made by Black (and other) academics perched at elite White institutions, whose cherry-picked concepts of “diversity” hardly impede their colonization of surrounding areas and re-inscribing of existing social orders.


As Paula Giddings noted in her 2018 Charter Day Convocation remarks, however, student movements at Howard, like movement at other HBCUs, commingle love for a people and an institution with deep disappointments and demands of better. Love is the element that makes the often-discordant strains cohere.  From distance of age, both progress and retreat can be glimpsed, celebrated and bemoaned.  Meanwhile, the larger society continues to attack Black bodies from every class as a frightened coming white minority doubles down on hatred, hyper nationalism and self-immolating isolationism.


As Jules Harrell reminds us, a university is the faculty and students, with attendant support. What is the role of student activism in those enterprises, especially as ruptured and restructured literacies remake the nature of learning and HBCUs remain deaf to Du Bois’s call to define themselves in a post-segregation, post-industrial world? What is the role of faculty teaching, learning and research?  What is the role of administrative support of those enterprises in this world?


One of our collective roles is to always remind ourselves that love is the element that binds us together. That love cannot, must not, evade frequently painful collective work. We must always also remember that anti-Black settler state violence is our permanent common enemy, and that deep study and multi-literate collective action must frame our distinct missions as Black institutions. The choice to act collectively to contain the dissonances and search for harmonic resolution remains, for the time being, ours.