Summer Study Abroad in Kemet 2018: Day Two

“The lessons in this text [the Book of Khety]—like the lessons in Ptahhotep, like the lessons in all of thesewehemy mesewtexts—are eternal lessons...I have identified six (most recent) generations, and then contemporary groups, and I just want to sort of suggest how we can look at these generations…Richard Allen and Prince Hall…David Walker and Maria Stewart…Henry Highland Garnet…Martin Delany…Henry McNeal Turner…Drusilla Dunjee Houston…Arthur Schomburg…John Henrik Clarke…Ben Jochannan…Anderson Thompson and Asa Hilliard…Cheikh Anta Diop…Which means that we, you know, have to stop putting on our dashikis and geles and bubas once a year and coming to Detroit, Atlanta, and Harlem, and looking pretty, and saying ‘Hotep!”—I mean, it’s good to say “hotep” because, fifty years ago, we didn’t’ know what “hotep” meant! But it’s not a joyride; it’s a place to go work.”

-- Dr. Jacob Hudson Carruthers, Jr. (Djedi Shemsu Djehuty), Djed Wat N Ankh [Endurance/Resurrection]: The Road to Life, 16thAnnual ASCAC Conference, Detroit, Michigan, March 19, 1999

“Do not be arrogant with what you have learned, but speak with the ignorant as with the wise. The limits of skill are not reached, and no one is born wise. Good speech (Mdw Nrf) is more rare than green stone and can [even] be found among the young women pounding grain.”

--Ptah Hotep, Vizier to Djedkare Issi, Kemetic Old Kingdom Fifth Dynasty (c. 2400 bce)

Our first day of #HUStudyAbroadKemet2018 field exploration and discussion began on the Giza plateau overlooking modern Greater Cairo, a North African city swiftly approaching two dozen million people. We had come to consider the formation and genealogy of the Kemetic state, like China a civilizational state (as distinct from modern settler colonies turned states of the “Western” Hemisphere or the artificial states produced in the wake of western-style colonialism in the “Eastern” Hemisphere).  Our group is primarily students from college sophomores to PhD candidates and faculty and staff from two Historically Black Colleges and Universities. The youngest traveler, my 15 year old nephew, Ellington Fuller, is a rising high school junior. 

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Ellington Fuller, 5 months, with Jacob Carruthers and the author, 21st Association for the Study of Classical African Civilizations Conference, Tennessee State University, March 2003. 

Ellington was five months old in March, 2003 when Dr. Jacob Carruthers (Djedi Shemsu Djehuty, or “The One Who Speaks is a Follower of Djehuty,” Founding President of the Association for the Study of Classical African Civilizations (ASCAC) held and spoke to him in a penultimate act of intergenerational dialogue. Baba Jedi made transition shortly after.  Now Ellington, a late adolescent scholar athlete with his mother’s wit, his father’s demeanor and his grandfather (my father)’s peaceful and introspective spirit, has been entrusted to us for his first trip to Africa.


On March 17, 1995 at the 12th annual ASCAC conference in Detroit, Michigan, Dr. Carruthers delivered a major address, “The Elder’s Staff,” where he took the ASCAC “study group of the whole” through a passage from the sebayt (teachings) of Ptahhotep, called by Asa Hilliard, Nia Damali and Larry Obadele Williams “the oldest book in the world.” Ptah Hotep begins the sebaytby enumerating the ailments of old age, including loss of energy and memory. He then asks the Late Fifth Dynasty Per Uah[“Great House”, now called “Pharaoh”] Issi, if he might be allowed to take an apprentice and make of him a “mdw iaw,” or “speech (staff) of old age,” to whom he might then transfer “the speeches of those who have heard”: The collective memories and distilled wisdom of the Ancestors.

Dr. Carruthers, the first African American scholar to master the study and teaching of Middle Egyptian (the high form of Egyptian Hieroglpyhs, or Mdw Ntr(Divine Speech)), began his remarks by identifying the function of elders in a community. “If you’re old,” he asked, “what are you hanging around for?”  He gave the answer that Ptahhotep outlined in the oldest surviving document on the subject of the role of teaching and learning in human society: “you’re hanging around to teach.”  

The Sebayt of Ptahhotep was used to train schoolchildren in reading, writing and ethics in the Kemetic nation over the course of two millennia. Ptahhotep’s unfinished tomb, in the Kemetic national burial complex of Saqqara, is near that of Kagemni, author of another majory sebayt; Teti, an early Sixth Dynasty Per Uah whose pyramid contains prayers of the corpus referred to collectively as the “Pyramid Texts,” and Mereruka, Teti’s Vizier, one itme Senior Judge of the sprawling network of regional and national Kemetic courts, over fifty-one centuries before U.S. Chief Justice John Marshall delivered his opinion in Marbury v. Madison, burnishing and extending the myth of what Pauline Kael has called the “American Scripture” of the U.S. Constitution. 

In anchoring the in-situ dimension of our intellectual work with problematics of nation building as presented in the remains of the Kemetic nation in Saqqara and on the Giza Plateau, we considered several first order questions at the day’s beginning and in hours of our evening class after returning from our visits: How do societies preserve and convey the best of what they have learned to future generations? How has Africa and how do Africans achieve this objective, on our own terms, across time and space?  How, in fact, did the Africans with the longest recorded experience of building and sustaining civilization think of time and space and the place of humanity in the cosmos?

We began our day by entering the most recognizable structure of human antiquity: The so-called “Great Pyramid” of Khufu, son of Fourth Dynasty founding Per Uah Sneferu, on the Giza Plateau. Dr. Mario Beatty shared a new article with the group reporting findings of an international team of scientists who hypothesize that this pyramid harnesses electromagnetic energy of a fashion conducive to restorative and regenerative benefits for living material. Certainly, this would not be a surprise to African Diasporic artists from Louis Armstrong and Paul and Essie Robeson to Sun Ra and Earth Wind and Fire’s Maurice White, all of who travelled to the pyramid and drew direct inspiration and creative instruction from Kemetic culture. 

Next, we descended the plateau to walk and examine the great ritual hall and pyramid complex conceived in the Third Dynasty (c. 2700 bce) by the famous Imhotep, Vizier to Per Uah Djoser. Discussing Imhotep’s planning and construction of the oldest stone building in world history while standing in and examining it is an experience that forever erases one’s predisposition to believe any prior (mis)educational assaults on the nature of African scientific achievement, giving a (re)newed meaning to the term “STEM”. Before leaving, we visited the Hor-em-Akhet [Horus on the Horizon], colloquially referred to as the "Great Sphinx of Giza," the likely visage of Per Uah Khafre.  In a long-practiced ritual by visiting African people, we compared our physical profiles to that of the Sphinx's head. The idea that these Egyptians were not African people (in the way that we acknowledge the full physiological range of our "modern" existence) is, of course, absurd.


#HUStudyAbroadKemet2018 at the pyramid of Unas, Saqqara. Step Pyramid of Imhotep for Per Uah Djoser in background

We stood in the great expanse of Djoser’s pyramidal courtyard as a desert breeze caressed the mute sands where thousands of Kemetic citizens had beheld the Heb Sedfestivals of Pharaonic ascension twenty seven centuries before the birth of Jesus Christ. Standing in the distance in one direction were huge predecessor pyramids constructed by Sneferu and in the other direction the previously-visited pyramid of his son Khufu, Khufu’s son, Khafre and Khafre’s son, Menkaure (and the women who had birthed them, married them and/or been sisters to them).  Saqqara is the crossroads of Kemetic—and by extension, world—state formation and governance. That it was an African enterprise that lasted over thirty centuries and birthed the foundations for much of what we have received as human knowledge can seem fantastical until one literally stands in the places.

It is not enough, of course, even to travel to Egypt and see these places. At one time, Giza, Saqqara, and the tombs of Ptahotep and his fellow wise elders and advisors teemed with visiting tour busses from around the world. The so-called “Arab Spring” disrupted this steady flood of human curiosity. White Americans have not returned. A sprinking of Europeans and Asians periodically dot the once-crowded ruins, with the balance of visitors being comprised of groups who have been coming to the Nile Valley in large numbers since the 1960s: African-Americans and others from the African Diaspora. 

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Philadelphia's African Genesis Study Tour outside the "Great Pyramid" of Khufu, Giza Plateau

Our flight to Kemet included scores of members of one of these groups, the African Genesis collective from Philadelphia, a group that has been coming to the Nile Valley for nearly thirty years. This year, as in previous years, we take our meals in hotels alongside African Genesis and other groups led by African Americans such as Anthony Browder, Runoko Rashidi, Manu Ampim, James Small among many others. The local tour guides find many of these Africans more knowledgeable than themselves; in fact, the Howard group, led by Dr. Mario Beatty, has rendered local expertise unnecessary, itself a testament to the two century genealogy of contemporary study and instruction referred to by Dr. Carruthers in his 1999 ASCAC lecture, “Endurance/Resurrection: The Road to Life.”

That genealogy, to borrow a phrase from the late Malian scholar Hampate Ba, remains a living tradition, apprenticed from life to life in a fashion that Ptahhotep would no doubt recognize. It is passed from generation to generation, as Carruthers notes, by those who take their intellectual work on behalf of Black communities formed in cauldrons of modernity as articles of faith and responsibility and acts of (re)membering. Like many other life lessons, these sebaytmove along communities of shared blood and/or experience. 

As a part of Howard’s College of Arts and Sciences Freshman Seminar Program in 2015, Dr. Beatty placed Ta-Nehisi Coates’s series of essays to his son Samori (and, by extension, to an American nation consistently deaf and mute to the concerns of its African citizenry) in the context of the classical African explication of intergenerational sebayt. Coates visited Howard later that semester to discuss this now-famous set of letters/essays, Between the World and Me. His name literally means “Black Land” in Middle Egyptian. By replacing Coates’s form in the genealogy out of which, knowingly or unknowingly, it emerged, Beatty revealed and re-membered the African tradition, the world’s oldest. He noted that, as Ta Nehisi’s father, legendary Black Classic Press publisher, Baltimore Black Panther captain and Bibliophile Paul Coates did for him, Ta-Nehisi did for Samori, and African fathers and sons and mothers and daughters have done for millennia.

Ellington Fuller is one among a steady and growing number of next generation Africans being introduced to their similarly-seeking agemates, the apprentices directly in front of them, and the elders who have received the speeches of those who have heard. This collective transcends time and space, drawing instruction and inspiration from Ancestors like Imhotep, Ptahhotep and Kagemni from far antiquity viewed now through disrupted, disputed but also resilient and restorative intellectual genealogies. Our work is not work undertaken a form of exclusionary, elite academic practice. Rather, we seek to restore the intergenerational dialogue, on Africa and Africans’ own terms, so that we might speak to the world from rich perspectives that, if properly understood, can contribute to human transformation.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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

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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.