The Executive and steering committee of the Inauguration of the 11th President of Morehouse College, Dr. John Silvanus Wilson. Photo is courtesy of Phil McCollum.
The Executive and steering committee of the Inauguration of the 11th President of Morehouse College, Dr. John Silvanus Wilson. Photo is courtesy of Phil McCollum.
It is a strange freedom to be adrift in the world of men without a sense of anchor anywhere. Always there will be the need of mooring, the need for the firm grip on something that is rooted and will not give. The urge to be accountable to someone, to know that beyond the individual himself there is an answer that must be given, cannot be denied. The deed a man performs must be weighed in a balance held by another’s hand. The very spirit of a man tends to panic from the desolation of going nameless up and down the streets of other minds where no salutation greets and no friendly recognition makes secure. It is a strange freedom to be adrift in the world of men.
- Howard Washington Thurman
A Strange Freedom: The Best of Howard Thurman on Religious Experience and Public Life, 1999 pg. vii
I my quest to find the most constructive ways to make the most of my time here, I’ve come across two distinct – yet, intimately related – experiences that have led to this musing.
In early December 2013 I attended a life changing lecture by Dr. Gregory Ellison of Candler School of Theology at Emory University. The lecture was titled “Cut Dead, But Still Alive: Caring for Marginalized Populations,” and the goal of this lecture was to set forth the sort of lecture that one might experience as a student at Candler. The primary goal of this lecture was to highlight the key issues one may face in looking to serve those who are essentially “Cut Dead, But Alive,” moving in a world that yields them no true means of consciousness and a means to identify who they are and actualize who they aspire to become. Now, I’ve been in conversation with several admissions officers from Candler, and as my name is – Khalfani – is Swahili meaning destined to rule, therefore foreign insofar as the normative naming practices in the Western world are concerned, it managed to ring a bell loud enough for one admissions officer to mention to Dr. Ellison that a gentleman by the name of Khalfani, a brother in a brown body, hair that stands out, possibly with a pick in it, is planning to be in attendance.
As I greeted the two graduate assistants at the door I took up my name tag, greeted a few familiar faces, and immediately I was pulled aside by a gentleman who I correctly assumed was Dr. Ellison. “Young brother, I need a favor of you” he asks. Well, “Of course,” I say prematurely. The following request that Dr. Ellison made of me was to play the role of a young black male, working on his G.E.D., looking to make something better of himself, but is constantly disengaged with the world due to the World’s proven track record of nullifying his voice having acted out it’s presuppositions and preconceived notions about this young gentleman. I was to remain closed, sitting in the corner of the room, disinterested in what was to be said that evening, and unresponsive to anyone until I received word from Dr. Ellison.
This task was both easy and difficult, a binary relationship that is easy to understand if one can wrap their heads around what it means to be a brother in a brown body in the American project. Easy, insofar as all that had to be done on my end was to revert to the practices I’ve adopted and since abandoned as a product of East Atlanta, the predominantly African-American environment from which I derive that the world knows little, if anything of. This task was difficult, insofar as what Dr. Ellison requested of me forced me to set aside the useful – almost necessary if one is to function in a world as “the other” – skill of code switching and show the disdain that a great majority of the “other” world engages with the liberal, wet eyed, sentimentalist’s efforts of looking to fix and instruct without listening, if even for a moment, to the objects of their missionary charity.
This discussion lasted for roughly an hour, and it was very (very) difficult to maintain. However, it was an eye-opening to listen to individuals who have gathered seeking to eradicate the issues of thingification, ostracizing, and ignoring those who are to be the objects of charity do precisely what they are speaking about not doing. This highlights a missionary and schizophrenic reality that bodies in need of help tend to engage with on both an institutional and individual level where assisting others is concerned.
Below is video of the whole affair, please view it at your convenience. The reaction of my colleagues is priceless:
Now, more recently, I’ve been working with a group of Kids for the past several months at Mt. Bethel United Methodist Church in Marietta, Georgia. These kids are precisely who Frantz Fanon had in mind as he penned in Les Damnes De La Terre, ‘the wretched of the earth’. They have dealt with some the most difficult events you can deal with in life, they come from the places that the privileged world has convinced itself goes ‘bump in the night.’ A struggle that makes them no less human than those of us who have had an ounce of luck in developing some sense of agency in our lives, in this case, every request that has been made of me by those who have the disadvantage of having never touched difficulty in life aside from choosing to do so has been to preach to the disinherited. No request has been made to listen, be patient, and give these kids a space to examine for themselves – with guidance – where it is they come from, develop an understanding of what that means (what it has meant) in a broader context than that which is in one’s immediate vicinity, and seek to reconcile their present reality with wherever it may be they would like to go in life. These are the important questions, if our project is a substantive one.
Upon the second request that I lead the discussion, we had this conversation on January 9th, beloved. No matter how necessary it was, it was awkward nonetheless. However, in a matter of five minutes the kids opened up and we began to have a dialogue around the very reason why we’ve congregated in the first place, finally – how can we begin to open up the floor for them to network, dialogue, and perhaps make the best use of the opportunities that they have.
I find an interesting connection in both experiences. Again, it highlights why I feel the need for brown bodies to begin filling the spaces of charitable work. If anyone knows what it is like to be marginalized, it is us. For centuries we have worked to place the African-American narrative in the much broader conversation of American history. What is of primary importance, If we are to truly assist those who are cut dead, but still alive, is that we invite the disinherited to the conversation and allow the guilt of privilege at the expense of others to remain silent long enough to listen.
There is in every person something that waits and listens for the sound of the genuine in herself…
There is in you something that waits and listens for the sound of the genuine in yourself. Nobody like you has ever been born and no one like you will ever be born again – you are the only one. And if you miss the sound of the genuine in you, you will be a cripple all the rest of your life, because you will never be able to get a scent on who you are.
- Howard Washington Thurman
Baccalaureate Address – Spelman College, May 4, 1980
Returning from Philadelphia, the city of brotherly love, the hub of the American project’s origins, and a current symbol of it’s trajectory, has left me in a place where the silence of introspection that has sought to find a place in my life post graduation has finally – after all this time – found itself realized.
Throughout the duration of my final year in undergraduate, involvement in multiple student organizations, multiple/simultaneous places of employment, rugby, academia – both in class and extracurricular, working on my first publication, and traveling for conferences kept me very (very) busy. Though being busy is not a sure indicator of productivity, and I’m not sure enough of it’s merit to defend busyness as a prerequisite of productivity, I was surely busy. The primary reason being that I was playing “catch-up,” insofar as when it came to my younger years, the beginning of undergraduate, the time spent on introspection with the goal of tangible success was lacking, immensely.
Of the consortium of students that the school system deemed worthy of investing it’s limited resources in, most of us began to find ourselves fiscally, academically, and maturity-wise, lacking in the ability to function in a way that lends itself to sustainable success in the classroom. The good number of us that made it through undergraduate made it through just barely by the skin of our teeth. This can be said of a great number young adults, but, unlike those who have the space to recoup from mistakes they make in school and in life, most of which being the price to be paid for growing into adulthood, those of us who come from underserved communities tend to recede to the very environment and behaviors one was said to have been working to transcend. This sort of recidivism, the sort that intersects between the socio-economic and cultural realms, is to be unpacked another time. What is significant here for our purposes is the importance of a moment of reflection. From my small corner of East Atlanta, the inability for those who do not have the resources to take the time, our most valuable resource, to be still and reflect, is not easily found.
There is wealth in the time spent in examining the great wilderness of one’s inner-self in light of one’s responsibility to creating a more human dwelling place. By way of divine mathematics, life has led me to a space where this sort of introspection is possible, however foreign, due to the busyness of life. This has been no easy journey, beloved.
From the academic mill, it has been a very long time since I have been challenged, fundamentally. Yes, examining the lack of “horizontal” definitions, of epistemes of the work of Michel Foucault, sifting through with accuracy Walter Rodney’s perspectives on the underdevelopment of Africa and the development of the Western World, or producing an academic musing on the role of James Baldwin in the contemporary classroom are all challenging. Each of the aforementioned tasks are undoubtedly trying work, but they are, and should be, the sort of inquiries and productions that serve as the effect of ones examination rather than the cause. And for me, it is true that these challenges serve as the cause of a more fundamental challenge: that of examining why, how, and for whom the project of one’s life is of both personal and communal value. The danger in functioning otherwise is the potential placement of importance on work, with disregard to the vacuous work or not. What we do, the works that we are called to do, must be at all times tied to the deep well of introspection in the hopes that we can produce a substantive life project. In undergraduate, upon being blessed with the resources to flourish, I functioned in a space where I was afforded the opportunity to examine and expound on my interests without having to necessarily specialize.
But, as we know, there is much work to be done, and to be in tune with both what is and what one believes should be is to be in constant awareness that there must be progress from now to some point, seeable or unforeseeable, in the future. I know the world that I come from. I had to leave it to see it in a different light to begin contextualizing what I knew, somewhat akin to the way one must step back from a painting in order to view it in a different context from that which is native to the viewer.
The catalyst behind this musing is a conversation between Dr. Shaun Harper and myself at the graduate School of Education at University of Pennsylvania. Though he is on sabbatical, he agreed to meet with me for several hours, only taking a break to discuss the more tangible aspects of the programs I’m interested in, and It was one of the most fruitful academic experiences I’ve had in since my last day of my Major Figures in Philosophy course with Dr. Gabriel Soldatenko this past May. It was a well needed and lively discussion, because there are few people among those I have met who have the ability inquire in a way that evokes a critique in a way that makes space for constructive self-examination, Dr. Shaun Harper is one of the few. I’ve been charged to undertake that forever-necessary assignment of self examination. There is work to be done. I cannot wait to see what I come up with, but in the meantime, while I reflect, I’ll be working on my application. Penn feels as if it is the place that I should be, so what I plan to do is set forth the best bid and leave the rest in the hands of God. But, I must specialize, and this is the wealthy conundrum I look to examine over the next several weeks (that I’ve been fastened in for the past several months).
In closing, It is the genuine intrinsic nexus between one’s self-examination and the one’s self-actualization that give one’s work substantive meaning in life. With all of the work that must be done, especially in the field(s) which I have spent so much time watching, learning, and engaging with, It is time to do that which is most difficult, for me: find my niche within academia, the kind that is tied to my interests and the greater good of the people I wish to serve. There will always be the sound of the authentic whether or not one is able, or willing, to step down from the outer chaos to inspect the chaos. There must always be the understanding that we must actively pursue that which is genuine in us, and be genuine in our efforts to do so.
“Atlanta’s well-to-do Negroes never take buses, for they all have cars. The section in which they live is quite far away from the poor Negro section. They own, or at least are paying for, their own homes. They drive to work and back, and have cocktails and dinner with each other. They see very little of the white world; but they are cut off from the black world, too.
Now, of course, this last statement is not literally true. The teachers teach Negroes, the lawyers defend them. The ministers preach to them and bury them, and others insure their lives, pull their teeth, and cure their ailments. Some of the lawyers work with the NAACP and help push test cases through the courts. (If anything, by the way, disproves the charge of “extremism” which has so often been made against this organization, it is the fantastic care and patience such legal efforts demand.) Many of the teachers work very hard to bolster the morale of their students to prepare them for their new responsibilities; nor did those I met fool themselves about the hideous system under which they work. So when I say that they are cut off from the black world, I am not sneering, which, indeed, I scarcely have any right to do. I am talking about their position as a class - if they are a class – and their role in a very complex and shaky social structure.
The wealthier Negroes are, at the moment, very useful for the administration of the city of Atlanta, for they represent the potential, at least of interracial communication, That this phrase is a euphemism, in Atlanta as elsewhere, becomes clear when one considers how astonishingly little has been communicated in all these generations. What the phrase almost always has reference to is the fact that, in a given time and place, the Negro vote is sufficient value to force politicians to bargain for it. What interracial communication also refers to is that Atlanta is really growing and thriving, and because it wants to make even more money, it would like to prevent incidents that disturb the peace, discourage investments, and permit test cases, which the city of Atlanta would certainly lose, to come to the courts. Once this happens, as it certainly will one day, the state of Georgia will be up in arms and the present administration of the city will be out of power. I did not meet a soul in Atlanta (I naturally did not meet any members of the White Citizen’s Council, not, anyway, to talk to) who did not pray that the current mayor would be reelected. Not that they loved him particularly, but it is his administration which holds off the holocaust.
Now this places Atlanta’s wealthy Negroes in a really quite sinister position. Though both they and the mayor are devoted to keeping the peace, their aims and his are not, and cannot be, the same. Many of those lawyers are working day and night on test cases which the mayor is doing his best to keep out of court. The teachers spend their working day attempting to destroy in their students – and it is not too much to say, in themselves – those habits of inferiority which form one of the principal cornerstones of segregation as it is practiced in the South. Many of the parents listen to speeches by people like Senator Russell and find themselves unable to sleep at night. They are in the extraordinary position of being compelled to work for the deconstruction of all they have bought so dearly – their homes, their comfort, the safety of their children. But the safety of their children is merely comparative; it is all that their comparative strength as a class has bought them so far; and they are not really safe, really, as long as the bulk of Atlanta’s Negroes live in such darkness. On any night, in that other part of town, a policeman may beat up one Negro too many, or some Negro or some white man may simply go berserk. This is all it takes to drive so delicately balanced a city mad. And the island on which these Negroes have built their handsome houses will simply disappear.
This is not at all n the interests of Atlanta, and almost everyone there knows it. Left to itself, the city might grudgingly work out compromises designed to reduce the tension and raise the level of Negro life. But it is not left to itself; it belongs to the state of Georgia. The Negro vote has no power in the state, and the governor of Georgia – that “third-rate” man,” Atlantans call him – makes great political capital out of keeping the Negroes in their place. When six Negro ministers attempted to create a test case by ignoring the segregation ordinance on the buses, the governor was ready to declare martial law and hold the ministers incommunicado. It was the mayor who prevented this, who somehow squashed all publicity, treated the minsiters with every outward sign of respect, and it is his office which is preventing the case from coming into court. And remember it was the governor of Arkansas, in an insane bid for political power, who created the present crisis in Little Rock - against the will of most of its citizens and against the will of the mayor.”
- James Baldwin
Nobody Knows My Name
“A Letter from the South”
Partisan Review, Winter 1959
This serves as inspiration for a later piece.
I don’t know how, up until this this point, I missed this essay.
There are fifty two weeks, three hundred sixty five (or six) days, eight thousand seven hundred sixty five hours, five hundred twenty five thousand nine hundred forty eight minutes, and thirty one million five hundred fifty six thousand nine hundred sixteen seconds, give or take a day or two, in a years time. This is an incredible amount of numbers in one setting, and to my understanding it moves at the same pace, with each of us functioning within it, in light of our unforeseen amounts, being held to it’s cold precision. These units are a means to measure with finite accuracy the moment we are in, how many we have left, and how many we have spent. We look to time for our measurements, it is what we assume above all things to be stable under the heavens.
As we press on through this daily humdrum of stability it becomes apparent, if we look to make something of our unforeseen number of moments, that nothing that occurs on the canvas of time – aside from God, if you are willing to concede that this is so – is stable under the heavens. In this world situations are interconnected, this is the “network of inescapable mutuality” that Dr. King speaks of. They are dynamic, shifting, and moving at all moments. Having observed this reality, one is left with one of two obligations. First, is to make something of substance within this movement, to actively engage with it along this canvass of time, provoke a shift in paradigms, and steer this instability in a way that creates an environment of progress. Or, one can delve in the latter, abandoning the call of progress and focus in nearsighted fashion on the immediate and finite.
This sort of inquiry is not a key facet of American culture, from what I have noticed. When tragedy comes about, from threats either domestic/internal or international/external, there tends to be little to no focus on locating the source of angst in light of coming to reconcilable terms with who we are and what we go through. For the brother in a brown body within the American project, it is a matter, among others, to first examine the great wilderness of oneself. Who, where, what, can you contribute your successes to? Is it your own devices? Is it the love of your parentsThe making of men is an endeavor one should never, ever, take lightly. Within the american project functioning – at any capacity, really – as a brother in a brown body is to be constantly in danger of succumbing to the many forces, external and internal, in this universe that beg one to develop, sustain, and maintain a tradition of inferiority.
I had the opportunity recently here, at Morehouse College, to lecture about what it means to be successful in the college classroom at Morehouse College, and it was the first time (as a non-student) that I’ve had my chance to place my intellectual hand on the pulse of the budding aspirations of black men in training. A seat where I once sat (and in many ways, I still sit).
I’ve taught before in several different spaces, but this one was different. I thoroughly enjoyed it and so did the students. I’ve connected with a few outside of class. I can’t wait to do so again. If there is a way to evoke the critical thought necessary within brown bodies in the American project, it is from this platform. A great use of time.