Ancestral Wisdom, or Tuzingu: Conceptualizing Intellectual Life Cycles of Africana

(paper presented at Association for the Study of Classical African Civilizations, 31st Annual Kemetic Studies Conference, Essex County College March 15, 2014)

Let me begin by reiterating something not lost on anyone here. Or at least should not be. And that is: the development of an African world history remains a key objective of the Association for the Study of Classical African Civilizations (ASCAC). Unlike any other project, the African World History Project is consciously premised on a theoretical and methodological approach that abandons Western historiography. Bigger than an academic project, the AWHP is a project premised on intellectual freedom toward African liberation. In the latest edition of the ASCAC Study Guide, our recent ancestor Queen Nzinga Ratibisha Heru reminds us, that the AWHP is indeed, one of two key objectives of the organization, the other being the development and construction of regional study groups.[1] At the core of this objective is the need to examine and rethink the central methodological issues that lie at the heart of historical inquiry, that is, philosophy of history; as well as to consciously connect with our intellectual history, examining those historical attempts to do what we are attempting to do in this contemporary moment.

Academic Contexts

Recent trends in the field of intellectual history have suggested that normative models of inquiry within Western historical practice can be applied to non-Western subjects, thereby putatively enlarging the scope of human ideas.[2] Of course, these trends can also be found in the liberal reimaginings and the expansion of the purviews of any range of Western disciplines in the humanities and social sciences.[3] Some thinkers have celebrated these achievements, content to reduce Black memory to Western institutional and intellectual whims. But be clear and do not be fooled. These are at best half-hearted attempts to apologize for centuries of exclusion and at worst, academically sanctioned, neoliberal market-driven, minstrelized versions of African deep thought. They only concern us, insofar as such endeavors might creep into the conversations that ASCAC has traditionally hosted and distract us from our work. For instance, in the fairly recent introduction to Renewing Black Intellectual History (2010), editors Adolph Reed and Kenneth Warren dismiss attempts to generate non-American centered frames for understanding Black thought as “thin,” “naïve,” and/or “facile.”[4] For them Black studies—and the foundations of African American thought—are best reduced to what they consider their most important context, the United States. They even go so far as to suggest that the era of the Jim Crow provides perhaps the most important temporal marker for what we might consider Black thought.[5]  The tragic irony of the academic approach to Black life, is that even those diasporic paradigms they dismiss fail to give credence to the form and functions of African Deep thought, preferring instead to the internationalize Western paradigms for assessing the meaning of Black ideas.[6] ASCAC continues to offer perhaps the most coherent frames for understanding what Anderson Thompson calls “the old scrappers.” Thompson, Carruthers, and other ASCAC scholars’ approach embodies the idea that African thinkers and their ideas exist in an unbroken relationship to those of their intellectual-ancestral precursors. Our approach does not give as much credence to the interruptions, the times of trouble, thus endorsing the very real possibility that contemporary Black ideas can exist in larger conceptual worlds than modernity.[7]

African Deep Thought and the Bakongo

The recent transition of Kimbwandende Kia Bunseki Fu-Kiau has given us an opportunity to reflect anew on the ways in which we might carry out this particular agenda. In his seminal African Cosmology of the Bantu-Kongo (2001), Fu-Kiau offers among many ideas, the idea that intellectual history is best structured as “rolls of life” by the Bakongo. These rolls, known as tuzingu, carry the memory of the group, or the history of their ideas. As such, they implicitly offer a methodological solution to answer Jacob Carruthers’ imperative, offered at the 1995 African World History Project planning meeting, of applying a philosophy of history that was tied to African ways of knowing.[8] In exploring the intellectual synergies between tuzingu and ancient Kemetic philosophies of history, we might develop an approach to conceptualizing and writing African world history, even how the “modern,” too can be understood, indeed contextualized with an approach to intellectual history enlivened by the deep thought of the Bakongo. Engaging with the broad conceptual frame denoted by intellectual history from an African center necessarily transcends the ways in which Western disciplinary intellectual history situates (when it does not ignore) the ideas of African people, and is a way to escape the limiting and debilitating frames that seem to constantly emerge from academia.

One of the most resonant images in the corpus of Kemetic ideas is the depiction of intellectual genealogy presented in the image of Seti I shown with a young Ramses II studying a listing of the pharaohs at Abydos. Another is the New Kingdom text, Egyptologists have labeled “The Immortality of Writers” where the writer acknowledges the power of the knowledge worker.[9] In both examples, we see the prominence of the idea that ancestral wisdom has everything to do with how we might envision the here and now, but also the notion that we are still connected, and not fundamentally alienated with the ideas that the ancestors, themselves were only able to manifest through connections with the Divine. Life, is indeed a cycle.[10] And as Wole Soyinka put it in his latest, Of Africa, African ideas possess this notion of “an osmotic relationship in which states of consciousness, transformed or influenced by progressive knowledge, flow into one another, taking from and giving back, replenishing the universal store of vitality from which consciousness takes form and motion.”[11] For Africans, “history” became the animating force that determined how we might do something, based on how it was done. It was a system based on ensuring vital connections, as Ayi Kwei Armah might put it.[12]

African conceptions of reality seem to suggest that we not draw too deep a distinction, at least content-wise, between intellectual history and philosophy of history. Both areas are organically related and therefore, seeing ourselves as part of larger visions encompasses the ability to render the history of ideas with tools that make them visibly ours—as Africans. Similar to the Kemetic examples above, the concept of tuzingu offers a useful vehicle for this task. A familiar cultural exemplar[13], Fu-Kiau breaks down this concept as follows. Life, itself is rendered with a cyclical orientation. Life is continuous, what Fu-Kiau terms, “living-dying-living.” Not only is life continuous, it is rendered through four realms; the horizontal, which inhabits the diurnal world, and the vertical which speaks to the world of the unseen.[14] For the Bakongo, life is about achieving the proper balance between these worlds in order to “care, cure, heal, or guide” human beings in all aspects of life. As Fu-Kiau puts it, “Man’s life attention is centered on the n’kisi.”[15] Ancestral wisdom, then, is part of a corpus of various wisdoms that perform the central live-giving functions in society. And for the Bakongo, the wisdom and deeds of ancestors and the history of the nation are conceptualized as rolls of life, tuzingu. Ideas that can literally be “read like a book.”[16] In addition, the tuzingu does not just tell the positive stories, it also is a story of the deeds that did not sustain life, it is a text used in judgment. To read a tuzingu is to literally connect current and future concerns to past memories. It is a guide that connects “who the community is” with “what the community has done,” in order to teach and guide those who will come next. It is not an academic practice, or a concept that can be usefully thought of as just theory or just action.[17] Tuzingu irrupts such binaries.

What we are calling African world history becomes tuzingu when it is linked to the ideas, concepts, and ordering principles that have sustained African and human lives. At the same time it forces into broad relief those ideas which have lead to our cultural and physical deaths, and allows us to call out those activities that have failed to create healthy communities. The stories we tell about ourselves in the world become stories that seek to understand and extend the practices that have guided us toward our best selves, our healthiest selves, our realest selves. To extend methodological weight to a concept like tuzingu is to unquestionably structure our study toward the life-giving and liberatory philosophies inherent in our intellectual work. It allows us to dispense with the distractions of vindicating Black humanity, it makes it moot to consider false binaries foisted upon our definitions of reality, and it allows us the intellectual freedom that has so been so elusive absent the re-membering practice of translation and recovery.[18] Tuzingu, finally, is an African concept that has no European interpreters, and as shown above, a conceptual premise that is largely pan-African. That is, it can be translated across various African cultural spheres, wherever we may find them.

 We live in an era where African ideas have become tied conceptually to supposed universal human ideas, the same ideas that have in other epochs (and in ours) destroyed Black life. This is seemingly lost on these commentators, unable to stand outside of Western theories of knowledge and reality. ASCAC need not and has not replicated this kind of disorientation. We must remind ourselves of this, and at the same time continue to honor the legacy of thinkers like Kimbwandende Kia Bunseki Fu-Kiau whose work offers the knowledge necessary to the construction and maintenance of maroon spaces[19], in many ways our mbongis, that would both eliminate the need to depend on plantation knowledges that are linked to death, but also contribute to an intellectual legacy that tuzingu allows us to clearly see.


[1] Nzinga Ratibisha Heru, “ASCAC Historical Profile,” in Association for the Study of Classical African Civilizations: Study Guide: “Building for Eternity” Book 1, ed. ASCAC Foundation (Atlanta, GA: ASCAC Foundation, 2011), 6.

[2] See for instance, Leslie Butler, “From the History of Ideas to Ideas in History,” Modern Intellectual History 9 (April 2012): 158-159.

[3] See inter alia Rhett S. Jones, “A Greater Focus on Methodology in Africana Studies,” The International Journal of Africana Studies 14 (Spring/Summer 2008): 262.

[4] Adolph Reed Jr. and Kenneth Warren, “Introduction,” in Renewing Black Intellectual History: The Ideological and Material Foundations of African American Thought, ed. Idem (Boulder, CO: Paradigm Publishers, 2010), vii.

[5] Ibid, xi.

[6] See some of the discussions in Tejumola Olaniyan and James H. Sweet, eds., The African Diaspora and the Disciplines (Bloomington, IN: Indiana University Press, 2010).

[7] Greg Carr, “What Black Studies is Not: Moving from Crisis to Liberation in Africana Intellectual Work,” Socialism and Democracy 25 (March 2011): 181.

[8] Concepts stemming from Kemetic, Yoruba, and Ki-Swahili have also been offered. See the important conversation around this idea in Greg Kimathi Carr and Valethia Watkins, “Appendix 1: Inaugural Meeting” in The African World History Project: The Preliminary Challenge, ed. Jacob Carruthers and Leon C. Harris (Los Angeles, CA: ASCAC, 1997), 338 and passim.

[9] “The Immortality of Writers,” in Ancient Egyptian Literature: A Book of Readings Volume II: The New Kingdom, ed. Miriam Lichtheim (Berkeley, CA:  University of California Press, 1976), 175-178.

[10] Mario H. Beatty, “To Whom Shall I Speak Today: Kemet and the African Renaissance,” (Paper presented at 28th Annual Meeting of the Association for the Study of Classical African Civilizations, Washington, DC, March 2011).

[11] Wole Soyinka, Of Africa (New Haven, CT: Yale University Press, 2012), 156.

[12] Ayi Kwei Armah, The Eloquence of the Scribes: A Memoir on the Sources and Resources of African Literature (Popenguine, Senegal: Per Ankh Books, 2006), 211-224.

[13] On the cultural familiarities and linkages between Bakongo communities and Diasporan African ones, particularly in the United States, see inter alia, Michael Gomez, Exchanging Our Country Marks: The Transformation of African Identities in the Colonial and Antebellum South (Chapel Hill, NC: UNC Press, 1998), 134-149.

[14] Kimbwandende Kia Bunseki Fu-Kiau, African Cosmology of the Bantu-Kongo (Brooklyn, NY: Athelia Henrietta Press, 2001), 35.

[15] Ibid, 37.

[16] Ibid, 36.

[17] Anyone that has spent considerable time around Africana nationalist or leftist circles has had the idea of thought/theory versus practice/action rendered as “choices.” Such binary oppositions have roots in both a traditionally American context and the older philosophical separation between mind and body rooted in the ideas of Rene Descartes. Unfortunately, these ideas have inhabited African-centered spaces. For a brief essay on the historical genealogy of this “paradox” see Merle Curti, The American Paradox (New Brunswick, NJ: Rutgers University Press, 1956).

[18] Ngugi wa Thiong’o, Something Torn and New: An African Renaissance (New York: Basic Civitas, 2009).

[19] See Asa Hilliard, The Maroon Within Us (Baltimore, MD: Black Classic Press, 1995) and the recent Sylviane Diouf, Slavery’s Exiles: The Story of the American Maroons (New York: NYU Press, 2014).

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