Chief Fela Sowande, Traditional African Culture and the Black Studies Movement: A Student Remembers

Article excerpt

African-Americans must ensure each new generation the existence of a sound knowledge base that informs and elucidates the history and experiences of black people.... This is the continuing role of Black Studies programs as they struggle to exist in an era of advanced technology, with rapidly changing social patterns and limited resources. The promise of Black Studies ... lies in the ability to provide the foundation that supports and enriches; to nourish the vision and motivation of present and future generations; and to reaffirm the continuity between past, present and future. (1)

Introduction

In a very real sense, this paper is my way to say "thank you," and to acknowledge, in a formal way, my own understanding of the teachings of Nigerian musician and philosopher Chief Fela Sowande; a mentor whose work has been a major influence, not only on my development as an artist and an educator, but also as a human being. Chief Sowande's teachings allow me to appreciate the comments of Delores P. Aldridge and Carlene Young quoted above, which, in light of the crucial theme of the 2007 SIRAS conference, "Links and Relationships: Africans and the African Americans in the 21st Century," express timely points of view.

As a faculty member teaching in a Department of Pan-African Studies, I am confronted by the challenge of making "Black Studies" relevant in a rapidly changing 21st century. I often find myself frustrated and depressed at each day's end as I am forced to accept the fact that too many students do not know how to process the information we impart to them in our classes. Our students come to us with virtually no knowledge or sense of their history and heritage as Americans of African descent; that there might be "links and relationships" between Africans and African-Americans in the 21st century is not a thought on their personal radar screens.

In this paper, I will discuss the teachings and perceptions of Chief Sowande in an effort to assess his recommended approach to teaching Black or Africana Studies; an approach many now call "Afrocentric" or "African Centered." Individual Black Studies units, be they degree granting departments or academic programs, must necessarily provide curriculum offerings designed to help faculty, staff, students and community stakeholders move from genuine African centered theory to practice.

Sowande presented the global African community with a viable blueprint for action that offers a healthy cultural vision both Africans in Africa and peoples of African descent living in the Diaspora can embrace. Given the legacy of colonialism in Africa and racial discrimination in the US, Sowande's work is also instructive because we are now living in an era when "being or thinking African" is no longer solely a function of one's origin of birth. My travels in West Africa--through Nigeria, Ghana and Senegal--have made it abundantly clear that many Africans in Africa, today, are in need of a fundamental reintroduction to their own "Old World" traditions. Too many of us have become more British than the British or more French than the French or more American than the Americans. We must finally resolve our collective identity crisis before we can improve the quality of life for our people anywhere we might find ourselves living in today's world.

I will focus attention on selected works given to me by Chief Sowande during the 1970s: The Africanization of Black Studies: From the Circumference to the Center; African Studies and the Black American in 1968; The Way of Life of Peoples of African Descent and The Learning Process, Part One. I will use these now seminal writings to explore the philosophical center Sowande established to guide our investigation into what he preferred to call traditional African "Lifestyle." I will consider Sowande's ideas in relation to those expressed in Molefi Asante's Afrocentricity (1980) and Kemet, Afrocentricity and Knowledge (1990), Malidoma Patrice Some's Ritual: Power, Healing and Community (1993), and Asa Hilliard's African Power: Affirming African Indigenous Socialization in the Face of the Culture Wars (2002). …