March 7, 2006

Rashidi Stresses African Unity

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“I see myself as an African living in America with just as much right to talk about it as someone born in the Congo,” said Runoko Rashidi, world traveler, writer, public lecturer and expert on international African influence. He gave a keynote presentation yesterday in the Africana Center, titled “The Changing Face of Pan-African Leadership” as part of Afrika Week 2006.

Rashidi said that he speaks to educate people on the need for a united worldwide African community. “I believe the future of Africa lies in linking Africans all over the world in a common cause,” he said. “There are the Africans on the continent and the Africans in a diaspora – Africans who for the most part were taken from Africa against their will.”

This unity needs to be on an international level because, according to Rashidi, birthplace or generations removed from the African continent do not undermine a person’s claim to being African. “I want to give people a sense of pride in who they are and where they came from,” he said.

Lack of self-identification and pride in being of African heritage needs to be changed, Rashidi said. “When it comes to black folk in the Western hemisphere, they are quick to say ‘I am not an African,'” he said. “I had to grow to be this way, before I viewed it as an insult and now it is the greatest compliment you could give me.”

In addition to discussing Africans in Africa and in the United States, Rashidi gave a long list of places, where he has encountered Africans, ranging from Palestine to Brazil to Australia. “In Australia, they are the most spiritual people I’ve ever encountered and the most interesting I’ve ever met,” he said.

Among the Africans he met in Fiji, Rashidi said he found a strong sense of African pride that is largely absent in the United States. “The Fijians all say they come from Africa. You do not have to convince them, they do not need a slide presentation,” he said. “They are proud of where they come from.”

His extensive travel caused Rashidi to question thoughts or opinions he held before. “When you travel, it causes you to confront yourself and look at deeply instilled values you didn’t even know you had,” he said. “History is not just facts or figures out of a book, but the lives of your people.”

Continuing with the theme of identification, Rashidi presented slides of African people and art from all over the world. “One of the best ways to identify ourselves as African is to look at ancient history,” he said.

According to Rashidi, a common misconception is that Egypt is not part of Africa, but part of the Middle East. He said that this confusion detracts from the credit given to the influence of ancient Africa.

“We are instilled with the idea that Africans never did anything and any achievement, like the pyramids, must have been placed by an outsider,” Rashidi said.

He also talked about the importance of women in African culture saying, “In Egypt, the line of descent was traced through the female side of the family.” He added, “There is the saying in America ‘behind every great man, there was a great woman’. We say “Next to every great man was an equally great woman'”.

According to Rashidi, the difference between Western and African cultures manifests itself in art. He showed slides depicting strong African women, as well as an image of a royal couple standing side-by-side, equal in stature.

“In this slide, the man and woman are next to each other and proud to be next to each other,” he said.

“In Europe, and I’ve been 22, 23 times, you rarely see man and woman together.”

He then talked about Europe’s influence on Africa saying, “Europeans have stolen so much out of Africa, not only us, but our artifacts,” he said. “There are three Egyptian museums in Germany alone.”

The European influence on Africa has also changed historical perspectives and ideas. Rashidi displayed an early depiction of Jesus Christ in which Jesus and his disciples are all painted with black faces.

Historical and artistic ideas such as this are often overlooked or ignored in people’s perceptions of Africa, Rashidi said. “When I ask people what they think of in Africa, they do not say kings and queens,” he said. “They say poverty, AIDS, wild animals. We must change the perspective of Africa, it causes low self-esteem.”

This low self-esteem can lead to timidity or reluctance to claim African heritage, according to Rashidi. “Africans have to tell their story from their perspective and not apologize for it,” he said.

Rashidi also shared his opinion on race itself, prefaced by stating his tendency to be politically incorrect. “Color does matter,” he said. “Drive down any street in the bad part of a city, get stopped by a cop and tell me color doesn’t matter. Racism is real. Race is real. Phenotype is a reality we should not try to discard.”

Although impressed with the speech, Sade Imeokparia ’08 did not agree with everything Rashidi said.

“He believes race is real and not socially constructed as an excuse for control and superiority,” she said. “I absolutely think it’s socially constructed, maybe because I’m a sociologist, but I know for myself I’m an African-American. That’s my ethnicity and culture, not my race. It has nothing to do with the fact that my skin is brown. I’m not some a weird racial subspecies.”

According to Rashidi, race and skin color relates to questions of beauty and its varying cultural ideals. “We should not emulate other people’s idealism,” he said. “Beyonce should not be our sole standard of beauty. Let us not try to change our features to fit the standard of people who enslaved us in the U.S. Why do we turn flips and jump through hoops to look like we’re something we are not?”

Rashidi then said that action is necessary to change perceptions and find freedom. “Liberation won’t come because you pray or think wishfully,” he said. “It comes from hard work.”

He said that the first step in achieving liberation and an increased level of peace in Africa is for the international African community to come together. “I think African people have to develop a race-first policy, and African-first philosophy. It does not mean you have to hate anyone else,” he said. “But African people are inclined to love everyone else in the world before we love ourselves.”

According to Rashidi, part of the inactivity on behalf of the African cause is due to the fragmentation of society. “We live in a society where the emphasis is not on the collective, but on the individual,” he said. “Somehow we have to break that down, sit and strategize. We must be patient and love each other.”

He said that patience is especially important because the problems in Africa cannot be resolved quickly. “The most bitter lesson we have to learn is that we can’t resolve the problems in a short period of time,” he said. “We have to build for eternity, for generations after generations. We want simple answers to complex issues and we want it right now.”

Strong leadership is necessary in order to make progress, said Rashidi, adding that people must view themselves as leaders and work together.

“We have to develop courage,” he said. “Courage is not getting bitten by a police dog; it is the courage of conviction, the courage of being a role model and the courage of saying no when everyone else is saying ‘yes.'”

Imeokparia said that she felt Rashidi was a dynamic speaker who made an impact on his audience. “I thought he was great, very provocative,” she said. “I felt that his message wasn’t meant to amuse us, but to actually elicit some kind of action from us.”

One purpose of Rashidi’s presentation, with his combination of art, photography and history was to remind African-Americans of their heritage. “I’d say his dominant message was that we, especially African Americans and Pan-Africans, need to stop being so complacent in allowing our culture and identity to be washed away,” Imeokparia said.

The keynote speech was sponsored by the Coalition of pan-African Scholars.

Archived article by Bekah Grant
Sun Staff Writer