Saturday, May 7, 2011

Seeking My Ancestors' Most Enduring Legacy

It is in some ways ironic that my African slave ancestors landed on America's shores stripped of their dignity, human possessions and in chains.  This is because they did carry along with them an arsenal of such potency that American society would forever be transformed. It was "soul," not in the theological sense, but in the most compelling sense of cultural enrichment. Poet and dramatist, Amiri Baraka, brought the term into popular usage in the 1960s.  However, the true meaning of soul goes back to the West African ancestral past of black Americans.  Sadly, it is often lost in today's consumer-oriented society, in which we turn everything into a commodity for sale.  And it becomes just another marketing campaign for black music CDs, baggy jeans and Aunt Jemima pancakes. Soul in its most authentic sense does not refer to objects at all.

For, it is rather an embracing of creativity, which leads to a continuous process of creation. This deep and abiding reverence for the creative process within each individual and each member of the community created the rich, improvisational qualities of Negro spirituals, jazz and the blues, the inventive richness of the black idiom and the complex drum rhythms of black popular music.

As an educator, I reflect on the ways in which today's overly empirical educational standards -- which emphasize the mastery of facts, figures and the creativity of dead heroes, but seldom focus on the creativity of students themselves -- all too often flatten the soul out of human knowledge. At times, it seems that black and other youngsters who resist this deprogramming are all too quickly labeled cognitively challenged or even culturally deprived.

While searching for new ways to approach education that reflect both my own African-American upbringing and the urgent need of the U.S. workforce for creative problem solvers, I read and re-read the works of my philosopher friend, Ken Wilber.  His writings aim at reconciling science and religion -- or, as he also calls it, sense and soul.  A remarkably astute thinker and observer, Wilber articulates a truly integrated approach to knowledge. He does so by recognizing the ways in which non-Western cultures sometimes emphasize interior knowledge and creativity, in contrast to the West, which often values only material knowledge that can be seen and measured.

The goal, according to Wilber, is not to say that one system is best, but to realize our fullest human potential by honoring and including in our Western understandings the wisdom and traditions that emanate from a more inclusive approach to knowledge.

Now that it is not Black History Month, this may be the most appropriate moment for all of us to reflect in new ways on the contributions of African-Americans to this society. Their gift to society goes far deeper than the now-familiar wall posters depicting Benjamin Banneker, the 18th century almanac writer, and George Washington Carver's 300 uses for the peanut, even though their contributions were monumental.  By taking a broader, more integral, approach to the concept of knowledge, we might even penetrate the facts, figures and pithy sayings of African-American historical figures that form their surface, to touch their most enduring legacy of all: soul.

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