Cultural Unity of Africa

"A people's historical consciousness, once liberated and energized, is a sure driving force in the human struggle for life."

It was the dawn of my teenage years and mom decided to ship me off to rural Ohio for the summer. I went alone though I was the middle of three sons. My oldest brother refused to go. The other was too young.

After growing up in Cleveland, Chicago, Detroit and Buffalo, the small town culture was quite a culture shock. Looking back on that time, I realize that it was, in effect, a reintroduction to African culture.

Like the majority of African Americans throughout the U.S., I experienced African culture everyday of my life, though like most I was unaware of it. In fact, growing up, how would I even know that many of the cultural aspects of daily life had a strong foundation in Africa despite being obscured by repression, time and geography.

Some of these aspects included the prevalence of an extended family, material solidarity (economic reliance on one another), idealism and optimism (even in the face of daunting social, political and economic oppression), and language (Black talk derives in part from the adaptation of English to African languages and pronunciation, morphology and syntax).

The first day I arrived in rural Ohio, I took a walk around the area close to my relatives’ small house. I remember the expansive, grassy fields, abundance of trees, and quiet. Houses had lots of land between them. When I passed the first house, someone shouted out from the porch, “Where you going, boy?” When I continued to walk past without a reply, the speaker chastised me, saying “You too good to speak?” During my walk, some form of greeting emanated from nearly every porch or doorway. Not wanting to evoke the ire of the speaker, I learned quickly to respond. Many people followed up their greeting with questions about my well being and that of my family. I felt as though people knew I was coming and were waiting for me. The walk turned out to be a lot longer than I could have imagined.

That summer I experienced dynamics that I would encounter many years later when I first visited Africa and lived in a rural community in Northern Nigeria. I have subsequently revisited those experiences in many African communities, in addition to the Caribbean and rural U.S. South. The expectation of extensive social interaction and engagement, even with strangers, is a strong, African cultural trait. African people engage in extended greetings that encompass inquiries about family and well-being. I am often reminded that visiting African communities, especially in rural areas, is very much like visiting down south.

Cheikh Anta Diop, one of the greatest scholars and intellectuals of the twentieth century, wrote a book, The Cultural Unity of Africa. In it, he described the cultural paradigms that distinguish African culture from the Mediterranean to the Cape of Good Hope. Diop asserted that the African peoples shared a common set of cultural characteristics, among them language roots, and patterns of social relationships.

African cultures are diverse and reflect the vastness of the continent, requiring us to exercise considerable restraint when making generalizations or stereotypes. The same applies when discussing the impact of African cultural traditions on the people of the African Diaspora, including North, Central and South America, and the Caribbean.

However, when Africans were enslaved and brought to this hemisphere, they didn’t suddenly lose their cultures, including language. They adapted to survive. The cultures did not die but evolved, often in subtle ways, and took on new manifestations that are still reflected in our communities today. We can see the vestiges of this evolution in extended family, the prevalence of fictive kin (play cousins, uncles and aunties not related by blood), economic co-dependency, language (such as Gullah and Creole, and what some scholars call Ebonics and others African American Vernacular English), patterns of behavior (rap as an easy and natural reflection of one’s standing out as an individual but within the context of the group; call and response reflected in church and spiritual music).

Segregation, whether voluntary or involuntary has been (and is) the engine that has sustained these influences over time, though the origins of African American culture may have been forgotten.

Diop’s work has raised a good deal of controversy, both during his lifetime and up to the present. The ideas espoused by Diop about African cultural unity are relevant today, especially in light of the constant assaults on the integrity of African cultures and efforts to denigrate Africa and reduce the important role that the continent continues to play.

In an obituary following the death of Cheikh Anta Diop in 1986, Babacar Sall wrote, “By highlighting the historical continuity beneath the cultural achievements of black African societies, and by emphasizing among other realities, the cultural unity of the black peoples and our civilizations, Africa's schools of history will restore to Africans at home and abroad our lost historical consciousness. Such a historical consciousness is an indispensable defense against cultural assimilation, against social alienation, against the now pervasive threat of fatalistic resignation, against the drift into anomie. In sum, a people's historical consciousness, once liberated and energized, is a sure driving force in the human struggle for life. (June 2, 1986 edition of West Africa (pp. 1160-1162).

Michael Webb