UBUNTU: Oral-Aesthetic Motif
Bantu culture has been cited by Robert Farris Thompson and other scholars of note as being the predominant presence in the African-American cultural identity, as such making it the strongest African civilizing force in America. As Joseph E. Holloway concludes from his evidence supporting this viewpoint:
“Once the Bantu reached America they were able to retain much of their cultural identity. Enforced isolation of these Africans by plantation owners allowed them to retain their religion, philosophy, culture, folklore, folkways, folk beliefs, folk tales, storytelling, naming practices, home economics, arts, kinship, and music. These Africanisms were shared and adopted by the various African ethnic groups of the field slave community, and they gradually developed into African-American cooking (soul food), music (jazz, blues, spirituals, gospels), language, religion, philosophy, customs, and arts.” [ from Africanisms in American Culture, p. 36-37]
This recognition has profound implications regarding the course of human affairs, given the transformative impact in the global village of Africa’s oral-aesthetic modes of communication. Corroborating evidence of this African cultural agency abounds markedly in pop music. The formal language of music appreciation has often fallen short in its capacity to identify these African modes of discourse that have influenced the evolution of music from its traditional African roots to the popular and humanizing levels enjoyed throughout the global village, often diminishing it as mere entertainment against such yardsticks as Western classical music.
The UBUNTU worldview and mission-statement, summarized by John S. Mbiti as “I am because we are, and since we are, therefore I am” has relied greatly on the success of its oral-aesthetic communication mechanisms to cultivate human imagination and ultimately usher in more holistic and humanistic individual and societal well-being to the global village. UBUNTU neither proselytizes nor disenfranchises. It expresses dynamically, consciously and transformatively as art-for-life’s-sake.
Desmond Tutu describes it this way: “Africans believe in something that is difficult to render in English. We call it UBUNTU… It means the essence of being human. You know when it is there and when it is absent. It speaks about humaneness, gentleness, hospitality, putting yourself out on behalf of others, being vulnerable. It embraces compassion and toughness. It recognizes that my humanity is bound up in yours, for we can only be human together.”
The aesthetic dimension is a universe of forces in Bantu thought… a quantum field. Force and matter have never been apart in this African worldview, and therefore all being is necessarily conceived of as energy or force, to which their material aspect is secondary. The physical aspect is therefore not regarded as the “being” itself, but perhaps more correctly as the medium and vehicle through which being manifests or is expressed. This “being” is referred to in Bantu philosophy as Ntu and is conceived of in four categories that together reflect the universe of forces:
1. Muntu/Bantu (plural) refers to human beings (living and ancestral) who, because of their endowment of intelligence, also have exclusive control of Nommo (the generative power of the word).
2. Kintu refers to forces which cannot act for themselves – e.g. plants, animals, minerals, tools, and other objects – and await the command of Muntu.
3. Hantu refers to the forces of time and space, localizing spatial and temporal concepts around the respective questions of “when” and “where”.
4. Kuntu is the modal force that centralizes all notions related to modification of a being in itself (quantity, quality, aesthetic beauty…) or vis-à-vis other beings (relation, position, disposition, possession, action, passion…).
Ntu expresses the “being” rather than the “effect” of these four manifestations. Although Ntu is the Creator-principle residing in and unifying all forms of existence in the universe, it is not fitted to be the object of worship. Ntu operates on principles of harmony and coherence between forces that interact, explain, necessitate, and thus complement each other in the Bantu universe. Hence the understanding:
“I am because we are, and since we are, therefore I am.” OR, as King of Pop Michael Jackson / Captain EO sings, “You’re just another part of me.” As an emissary to the global village, he used his leadership platform to cultivate the popular imagination and lift the humanizing ethos of ubuntu even higher. As the Bantu might say, “The force was with him!”
NOMMO = WORD! = SEED
“In the beginning was the Word…”
Nommo… The power to aesthetize, or to summon the phenomenal realm into existence through the spoken Word, thus bridging the visible and invisible realms, is widespread in Africa’s oral cultures.
This generative power belongs to people/Bantu (“those of the Creator”). Ntu is the Creator principle within which all forces, visible and invisible, are unified.
Nommo’s efficacy is dependent on the successful organic interplay between masculine and feminine – representing complementary creational forces that explain and necessitate each other and collectively inform the structure and harmonious functioning of the universe. (“I am because we are, and since we are, therefore I am.”) The idea of Nature as Author(ity) and Teacher is deeply held in African sacred wisdom, as evident in the Proverbs from the Luxor Temple of Amun-Mut-Montu, the African sacred trinity known as “The Triad of Waset” (“…Thebes” in Greek).
In ancient Egyptian mythology, Djehuti/Thoth (in Greek) – the goddess Ma-at’s male counterpart – caused four twin elements or male/female twin gods to arise out of the primeval waters (feminine) by the words he spoke, and thus created the world by. The original ancestors of the Dogon of Mali who are said to have emerged from the fullness of Nommo were similarly paired and numbered.
In Africa “music” is more correctly regarded as an enhanced form of speaking (nommo) in contrast to the abstract Eurocentric conceptualization. Speech is encoded in the rhythms, tones, and movements that we play and interact with. “Dance” – an enhanced form of walking – is the physical extension and complement of speech…
“Walking the talk” is a fundamental principle in the oral life-world of maintaining a sense of balance… of being in harmony with life through dialogue between spirit-mind-body. To detach “music” from its “dance” would interfere with the oral aesthetic conceptual process… its patterns of creational order… its integrative and communal imperatives… its governing narratives… and its transcendental passageways. As Robert Farris Thompson puts it:
“Sculpture is not the central art, but neither is the dance, for both depend on words and music and even dreams and divination.”
“Oral expression can exist and mostly has existed without any writing at all, writing never without orality.” ~ Walter Ong
The Word (Nommo) is as a seed, a (masculine) life-force which requires a fertile (feminine) environment to receive, nurture, bring to fruition, and provide ultimate passage to its potential life… thus facilitating its hero’s journey into its greater and higher self… traversing the threshold between the invisible and visible realms in the process.
Before it was used in relation to media, the term “broadcast” originally referred to the literal sowing of seeds by scattering them widely over farms or fields (matriarchal… Planet Earth…)
In The Hero with a Thousand Faces, mythologist Joseph Campbell describes a basic pattern/“monomyth” found in mythological narratives throughout the world whose purpose it is to project a timeless truth which points the way to our ultimate destiny as humans. The pursuit of this destiny is the hero’s journey. We witness the hero’s journey all the time in nature: the seed that is transformed into a fruit-bearing tree or, in the human realm, a beautiful bouncing baby… the caterpillar that transforms into a magnificent butterfly…
The three main phases in the hero’s journey which can also be observed in the evolution of the seed are:
1. Separation/Departure – The hero responds to a call to adventure/the journey… sowing of the seed/nommo.
2. Initiation – The series of trials the hero must undergo (typically involving the testing of the King/Leader, Warrior/Hunter, Magician, and Lover archetypes in the male) which lead to the bestowal of an ultimate boon or blessing… the seed seeking to take root and evolve through weathering adverse growing conditions.
3. Return – The hero is now in a position to significantly benefit humanity with lessons learned and powers gained from the journey, including the resolution of the divine and human, or the invisible and visible realms comprising the Bantu universe of forces… the seed has become a fruit-bearing tree, etc.
Sankofa is a proverbial Akan word from Ghana which refers to the quest/journey to return to the source to fetch that which has been forgotten… lost… stolen… left behind. Its enactment can be recognized in the “north-south” conversations occurring within the Bantu universe, both inside the US and between the northern (US) and southern (Africa) hemispheres from the Maafa to the present day.
The 1960s was a great period of rebirth and pan-African consciousness… a renaissance that was global in its dimensions and boosted by heroes such as President Kwame Nkrumah, Ghana’s first President, who declared his country’s independence from colonial rule in 1957 as “meaningless unless it is linked up with the total liberation of the African…”
Often referred to as the Father of pan-Africanism, Nkrumah was directly influenced by such figures as Marcus Garvey, George Padmore, and W.E.B. DuBois – visionaries of the culturally-assertive 1920s Harlem Renaissance period otherwise known by its oral-aesthetic signature as the Jazz Age during which Lift Every Voice and Sing was officially adopted as the African-American anthem. The subsequent development of the rhythm-and-blues, rock’n’roll, and soul music genres reveals a heroic account of the oral-aesthetic bridge built that connected two significant periods of cultural omnipresence and rebirth in the Bantu universe. Although there was a significant price of disenfranchisement that continued to be paid by Bantu, the popular imagination of the global village became captivated, cultivated, and communally responsive to the conversational call of Black musical expression.
Independence in Africa and Civil Rights in the USA were twins born in separate global hemispheres, but from the same birth pangs during the 1960s period – the southern process following in Ghana’s wake. Nina Simone’s R&B hit about “a lovely, precious dream” – To Be Young, Gifted, and Black – became the Civil Rights anthem of this era in the northern hemisphere where Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. led through non-violent activism. Motown, which played a momentous role in the integration of pop music, became a huge success with its diplomatic impact during a significant transitional period in Bantu affairs.
The 1960s also brought Black Studies to the American academy to assert academic authorship of Africa’s own hero stories, so-to-speak, and to counteract some of the adversarial impact suffered during the heroic and largely humanizing missions that had been successfully deployed through Africa’s cultural channels to date. Dr. Molefi Kete Asante – Professor of African-American Studies at Temple University where he created the first Ph.D. program in 1987 – has provided intellectual leadership in his promotion of Afrocentricity as a culturally-congruent place from which to correctly understand and appreciate African agency in the world. Indeed, as an African proverb states, “Until the lions have their own historians, the history of the hunt will always glorify the hunter”…
Peace and Blessings, Malaika
(posted January 13, 2012 – Malaika Mutere)