Rites of Passage Programs as Cultural Science

Story Transcript

AMA NYAMEKE: Well, first I would say my experience with Rites of Passage per se is more so in terms of studying and doing actual research hands on, probably starting off with undergrad as a student organizer coming to understanding of what it means to be African and deciding that, okay, we’re going to focus on instilling what it means to be an African woman and an African man.

[I was] a part of a student organization who started out community organizing on campus and then saying we need to have something more structured. So, starting off from there and what our first elders were, from Liberia, and then my study and research in going to southern Africa, South Africa, Zimbabwe, Nigeria, Ghana, Peru, Mauritania and other places on the southern part of Africa as well as West Africa, in terms actually studying and talking to traditional healers who are a crucial part of Rites of Passage.

And then, with my own involvement from undergrad, Tuskegee University [inaud.] Clark Atlanta University being part of a Rites of Passage program and then also applying the rites within the community for young girls, even on up to now working with rites in terms of with youth, adolescents and young women as well.

AYIZE SABATER: Yes, I’ve been blessed to work with and experience a Rites of Passage process myself. I’m a member of Kemet Asen, formerly Kemet Fraternity, and so in undergraduate school at Morehouse College I went through a initiation process into the brotherhood of Kemet. Kemet literally is an ancient name for Egypt. Some would say it translates into land of the Black, and Kemet is known, our asen or our fraternity is known as one of the first African fraternities established here in these United States of America, and we were founded in Atlanta, Georgia at Morehouse college, and just as you have a consciousness in the air, during the ’80s there was a certain consciousness in the air.

When I went down to Morehouse I was fortunate to have Carter G. Woodson, “Miseducation of the Negro” was actually put in our freshman week pack and it just blew my mind. And after reading Carter G. Woodson some of my colleagues said, oh man, if you’re really interested in that you need to pick up this other piece, so I picked up Assata Shakur’s autobiography, and then a brother put, I didn’t bring Malcolm’s, but then he put Malcolm’s autobiography in my hand and my mind was blown. And at that point, even in the ’80s, I had recently watched Spike Lee’s “School Daze” and, you know, he had all of these Greek-letter fraternities, and I can remember, right before I went to Morehouse I said, oh, man, a Black Greek. That’s an oxymoronic term, and so I’m definitely not going to do any mess with Black Greek-dom.

And so, at this time Kemet was founded and so some of my colleagues said, Ayize, you know, if you’re interested in, you know, Assata and Malcolm and “Miseducation,” you need to check out this African fraternity called Kemet. And so I was fortunate to go through a Rites of Passage process. Our process was maybe three month in duration, and really it was just a mind blowing experience to build a relationship with brothers who were likeminded and who were interested in helping to transform African communities not only here but in the diaspora.

We had brothers in the asen that are coming from [inaud.] diaspora, and so we had a chance to read some of the works of Dr. Diop, had a chance to check out some of the works of, you know, Dr. Walter Rodney, so these are the types of things that we were consuming, that we were reading and we were dialoguing on, had a chance to read “Stolen Legacy,” and so these are the ideas that were fresh, popping in our mind, and so we said there has to be a better way, and so we then actually had a chance to even hear and interact with Dr. Asa Hilliard.

So, Dr. Hilliard has a number of books. This one definitely helped to shift paradigms in terms of how we conceive of African manhood, and so for me a Rites of Passage process is essential because it helps to provide ideas, concepts. Again, a whole paradigm shift on what is Africanity and so, you know, when you have a chance to sit down with Dr. Na’im Akbar and you are reading “Visions for Black Men,” then you realize that a new society that can be erected for your people.

And so, one of the tag lines for Kemet Arsen is, building men, transforming African communities, and so we are in the process of helping to transform the minds of Black men throughout the diaspora to realize a resurgence of African manhood, and through Kemet we then set up a Rites of Passage process for young adolescent boys. We call it a [Kinti], which is, a [Kinti] is one of the, I guess the guides on the path coming out of the Kemetian mystery system, one of the guides through the initiation process, and so [Kinti] is the name of one of those guides.

And we then work with young boys, ages 12 to 15, about 12 to 16, to help them to, again, engage in discussion, dialogue on what it is to be a Black man, an upright Black man, to think about concepts of being manly, honest, sincere, being grounded and committed to African peoples throughout the diaspora, and so we’ve worked with hundreds of adolescent, Black boys, primarily in the DC area as well as in Georgia, and we actually have a branch of Kemet in Nashville, Tennessee, and so we are working in the communities where we are based to help transform the minds of African men, college-aged but even, you know, older, as well as working with adolescent boys, and I think it’s crucial at this time to work with those populations.

JEFF MENSIZE (MENAQAMURR NEFERKHAR): All right, so officially I wasn’t initiated until I was like 20 years old. I got my Rites of Passage as an adult, actually with the Ausar Auset Society. I was at Howard working on my PhD in clinical psychology during the daytime, and at nighttime I was up there at the [inaud.] learning the spiritual sciences and becoming initiated as a priesthood within their organization. Through that process and, you know, through my mediation and my work since then, I’ve realized that Rites of Passages occur in all levels, and the earliest one that I’ve been able to gather was when you was that sperm cell traveling, you know, and that egg simultaneously traveling to join each other. To me that seems to be one of the earliest physical Rites of Passage that every human being has actually gone through.

But since then, I’ve actually been working with Progressive Life Center with their Rites of Passage program while working, I actually did that for my doctoral dissertation.

[TEXT: Defining the Rites of Passage]

NYAMEKE: Well, one, I would have to start off by saying, in reference to Rites of Passage, one it’s in terms of how we even came to know it out of European anthropologists observing indigenous people and saying, this is a rite of passage. So, if you were to look at on the continent, they might not say this is a rite of passage, per se. This is a way in which you socialize a group of people, so Rites of Passage marks significant points in our life to further bind us to the natural order.

As African people, or as indigenous people, because Africans aren’t the only ones that have rights of passage. Native Americans also have them. East Asians or East Indians, most indigenous cultures have Rites of Passage, and it seeks to mark particular times in our life, be it birth, be it adolescence, adulthood, marriage, ancestry or death, and that continuum, but it seeks to connect us back or connect us to our mission, to our destiny. Everybody’s born with a destiny. The individual has a destiny. The group has a destiny. A family has as a destiny and a nation has a destiny. So Rites of Passage seeks to keep us in alignment with the order, in alignment with our mission, so in a general sense that’s what I would say I would define Rites of Passage. And it’s als oa way of maintaining and instilling social harmony amongst the group, nation or race.

SABATER: So, in cultures around the world they have a coming of age ceremony where they are trying to expose some of their adolescents to concepts on what it is to be a man, what it is to be a woman, and helping them to grapple with the whole identity issue, helping them to grapple with manhood, womanhood, and so Rites of Passage is a process that is designed based on a particular cultural paradigm to help children, usually children, but it could be young men, young women, to come to understand what it is to be a man or a woman in that particular society, and so that is what a Rites of Passage is.

Our process tries to focus on physical, mental, spiritual aspects of what it is to be a man. So, therein folk would have almost physical trials. They might have some mental trials. They might have to explore what spirituality is, coming from an African perspective, and so Rites of Passage would usually provide those who are being initiated with a series of, I don’t know if I want to say tests, but experiences coming from Africanity, from those particular vantage points, physically, mentally, spiritually, emotionally, how you have to build with, you know, your brother, your sister.

In our process we actually had to live together, and so if you can imagine, you know, college aged Black men, folk coming from all across the world trying to live together and understand what that reality is of being a Black man in this time is all about. And so, from my experience it was a tremendous experience that had a tremendous impact on my life. Again, definitely helped to shift my mindset, was given an African name, and so most folk now call me Ayize, the name that I was given through the Rites of Passage process, and coming from the African tradition many times they would give you a name based on what folks perceive of your nature or something that they see or envision for you to grow into. And so Ayize, which means we gave praises and he came, or let it come, because they said I was a headstrong, go after what I believed in person.

And so, many times you go through a Rites of Passage process so that you might help to come to a realization to help you to know yourself and know what your commitment is to your community at that particular time. And so many of my brothers, I think also it had an indelible impact upon their lives. Even the young students that we work with as adolescents, I think it helps to shift their paradigm when they start to look at what their responsibility, what their commitment is to African peoples throughout the diaspora, so a tremendous impact.

MENSIZE: Rites of passage in itself denotes overcoming or going from one place to another place, usually with the intention of learning, developing, growing and changing as a result of that experience from going one place to a next. In the African-centered perspective it happens on many levels, you know, mentally, physically and spiritually, and it consists of experiences, tests, trials, obstacles to be overcome that deal with addressing each of those aspects of human being-ness, and so you have physical trials, physical trials that may require some mental applications, you have mental and physical trials that test your spirit. We might actually have to call on certain aspects of your spirit to actually, literally help you overcome that level of obstacle, that level of, you know, trial, tribulation, test, you know, experience, whatever you want to call that part of it.

So, what does it mean for us right now is that it’s kind of part of developmental psychology, if you will. This is [as] important as it is to know what’s the best thing to feed a child as they’re developing. We should also know what the best thing to mentally engage them in to develop certain aspects of their mind. What do spiritually in their environment, what do things in their environment do to them spiritually? In fact, what is their spirit, and how do you intentionally cultivate it in order to unlock the absolute highest potential that it contains?

[TEXT: Why do African youth in the United States and elsewhere need a Rites of Passage?]

NYAMEKE: Well, I would say that, in terms of, for Africans in America, youth, for Africans in America and families, that we have experienced such trauma, such level of disconnect from our identity, from our culture, that there has to be a set system of deprogramming and reprogramming of the spirit, of the psyche, of the behavior. So, what Rites of Passage is doing here, on this side of the waters, is instilling a sense of value, of identity, of culture in a group of people, and I maintain that culture is your life force, is your bloodline, and so we have been bombarded with ideas that say not to look to Africa, not to look to yourself as defining yourself as an African.

And so, Rites of Passage is a means of instilling social responsibility, of instilling what it means to be a young man and what it means to be a young woman in the throes of, in everything that Western culture says that African people are not. You are not valuable, you are not beautiful, you are not smart, you are not intelligent. You cannot do. So, the rites seek to instill a sense of identity in a group of people.

It is the foundation on which you can function. You can’t function in school, how can you possibly understand a lesson if you don’t even know that you are the originators of mathematics, of science, of physics? If you don’t have respect, or know what it means to have respect for your elders, for yourself, or self-love? So it lays the foundation for you to function in the society.

MENSIZE: Well, a lot of the Rites of Passage that we do have here in America are arbitrary. We have arbitrary markers like, for example, 15-year-old, you can get your temporary permit to drive. 16, you can get your driver’s license in most places. Now, 18, you can buy tobacco products. 21 you can buy alcohol. You see, so we have these rites, you know, these goals, you know? These markers that denote changing from one form of being to another, you know?

You have menarche, you know, in women, or the females, and you have first nocturnal emission in males that identify the onset of puberty, but these things aren’t necessarily looked upon as processes of change that involve the entire being. They are just, like I said, they’re arbitrary markers, although some are biological. And because they’re arbitrary then, as I said, they lack the intentionality behind it and they lack the goals of developing the individual into healthy, functional adults.

And so, when you’re here in this particular situation, the culture of the United States, for some, you know, we have a situation where people think that they’re actually an adult now just because they can get into the 21-and-over parties or the 25-and-over parties. They actually think that they’re an adult now. And you have some unhealthy individuals who look to the youth to manipulate their thinking of adulthood, you know, understand they don’t have the experience, the wisdom, the guidance and the preparedness to actually navigate this world as an adult, and so we’re pretty much setting our youth up for failure if we don’t, in some way or another, engage them in a Rites of Passage that prepares them to be an adult in this society.

[TEXT: Who goes through Rites of Passage programs and what impact do they have on them?]

NYAMEKE: Well, who goes through it? Anybody can go through it, but what is most prominent in this country is for adolescents. And one of the things that I have to say, in terms of the impact, it’s more impactful when the family participates equally. My experience has been, oftentimes parents will send their children to a Rites program like saying, here, fix my child. Do something. Here, you have them. It doesn’t work like that. We’re here to support.

And one of the most challenging things is that, to see you work on challenging the identity, particularly young girls, around image of beauty, and then your parents are still promoting the Western concept of beauty. You have to wear your hair naturally. You need to understand what African clothes and culture and the dynamics and what it means, but then, once they go home they have all the Western ideas of beauty, and so it makes it kind of, it makes it very challenging. But it also speaks, I have to say, speaks to, it also shows, the Rites can show the tenacity.

And what I tell young girls and young women is that you are trailblazers. Because, even looking in the media, the images for young girls representing an African identity is minimal. What it is is mixed in with European standards of beauty. Hair, blue contacts. They may have an African miniskirt on, or all these things that have been cultural appropriations that they got from a European interpreting Africa, and then a Black person sees this African culture, identity, and then, I’m going to apply it, and then it becomes very confusing.

So, I think that one of the big things is for, that I’ve seen, is that, for young girls to find their voice, that through the Rites of Passage that they find their voice, their comfortability in being themselves and appreciating each other as sisters. We may do something where we may have the girls give a compliment to your sister. Like, what? And then you can see the light that brightens, that beams from them, just as saying you are beautiful. You are valuable, you know? You make me laugh. You are very intelligent. I learned from you. That simple thing around relationships and community being valued, appreciated, acknowledged and accepted, not just within the Rites but within the whole family. So it’s a benefit.

It’s a necessity for families to be involved as well. You’re not the only person. And that will then challenge our whole notion of Western culture and thought and thinking, so it becomes a whole process, so you’re not looking at it from a segregated and isolated thing, so.

MENSIZE: Like most things in true African culture, it’s twinned. You know, you have the male and the female aspect of everything because everything has a male and female aspect of it, and so it would be almost ludicrous to give an initiation, Rites of Passage to males and not to females, especially because part of the underlying purpose of the Rtes of Passage is to build healthy individuals as a part of your community in order that you may have a healthy community, which then hopefully consists of healthy families, you know, which come from a man and a woman coming together to form a healthy relationship.

And so, absolutely, there are female rights of passage. We have the Sande society as one example. You know, that’s the female correlate to the Poro, you know, in west Africa. And so you have both, our young ladies as well as our young men absolutely both need to experience a Rites of Passage process, because a part of it is understanding what it is to be a male, to be a female, and then the various levels of being a male and the various levels of being a female and eventually become what would be considered a man and a woman, an adult within your communities.

So, I’ve been initiated into three, separate, African spiritual traditions. In addition to that I’ve been initiated as a Prince Hall Freemason as well. African lodge is what it was originally called. And through all of those initiation processes I’ve recognized the underlying similarity of that is that you’re going to tap into who you really are in the process, meaning the good and the bad of who you are. The bad will surface in order for you to correct it, and it may seem that other people are doing things to you, but the only thing that’s happening is that a mirror’s being held up in front of you, and so in each of my processes I had already done a lot of my own personal growth and development where I was able to shed a lot of the baggage, so it wasn’t that difficult from me in any of my processes.

I mean, whether I’m on the continent or off in the bush by myself, the only English-speaking person in the environment getting initiated by folks, I mean all kind of stuff going on in that situation. Or, when I’m here in the United States going through an Ifa initiation in Nashville, Tennessee, it was always a function of where I was in my own growth and development. And so, that’s what happens. In any initiation of Rites of Passage you’re bringing yourself to the table.

You know, as Ayize said earlier, you know, when he was initiated in Kemet he had to live with a bunch of brothers. Any moment of discomfort that he had was because of himself. Somebody was doing something that pushed a button within him, you know, but the action itself wasn’t offensive. It was his perspective or sense of it. And I’m speaking, you know, about his situation, but also talking about my own. That’s typically what life is, and so, when you go through a Rites of Passage, just understand it’s your refinement process. It’s you that’s being refined, and most refinement processes, whether it’s a surgeon cutting out cancer, you know, it’s got to be some pain involved but it’s for the growth purpose, you know? And because we’re so inundated with negativity right now, you know, it’s a lot to work through for a lot of people, especially if we’re coming from the slum or coming from the bottom, trying to get through.

[TEXT: Final thoughts.]

NYAMEKE: Just the importance of Rites of Passage as a means of socialization not just for youth but for families, and that it is a tool for our empowerment. It is a tool for us being able to have a sense of freedom, of peace, of the believing in the possibility that we can actually achieve all that we can as African people. I think it’s very important for, I work primarily with women and females but I have worked with males, and it is so important for young men to have examples and role models and for them to be taught what it means to be a man in this Western culture, in everything that says, if you’re an African male you are less than. So they need the enforcement, the toughening, if you will, being able to be allowed to feel outside of competition, right, and anger, you know?

And that it’s important for both, for men to understand, or young men, that there’s more, it’s okay to feel. It’s okay to be sad. It’s okay to be happy. It’s okay to be angry. But the society doesn’t have a way in which to show that. Looking at the toys and the games that we plat as children, young mens are taught what? Cars, machine guns, anything that produces violence. And young women, you’ve got young girls, they have, you’re going to play house, you’re going to dress up. But both of them, still, are somewhat incomplete because it’s not fostering a balance in relationships.

So I think that, you know, it’s important at all levels that we look to how we’re socializing our children and to how we are socialized, and that as the adults, the adults that are coming to Rites of Passage, they are recognizing that we can’t do this unless we go through something ourselves, and when you do that be prepared for the programming. Be prepared to un-peel the onion, if you will, all these different layers of the hurt and pain, but this is all for our healing as African people, so I think Rites of Passage is very necessary.

SABATER: And what I would leave your viewers is the importance of looking to start Rites of Passages universally. So, wherever you are, I’m blessed to be at a church where we have a Rites of Passage program, so there’s no reason why those spaces that are controlled by African people should have a Rites of Passage initiation process so that our young boys and girls, young men and women can truly come to understand who they are, what their commitment is to our people and to the struggle, and so, at Black churches, at independent Black schools I understand some of them have Rites of Passage processes.

And so, again, if you realize that change is needed in our society, I would implore you to consider looking to start a Rites of Passage process for your young children because surely you’re not going to expect the public school system to go ahead and add in, ground your children in their identity and what their responsibility is to our society, and so it is incumbent upon us, we who have eyes that can see, ears that can hear, to go ahead and immerse our children. Malidoma Somé, his book is “Of Water and [the] Spirit,” so we’ve got to go ahead and immerse them in the water and in the spirit of African peoples throughout the diaspora.

MENSIZE: Because we’ve been so thoroughly conditioned against praising, accepting, honoring the value of things that are said to be of an African origin, it makes it difficult for who approach Rites of Passage from an African-centered perspective to gather the support of those who have been conditioned, as I said a minute ago. And so, with that level of conditioning not only do we devalue it, but some people actually actively oppose it, and that’s right, I mean it makes sense to me, because, you know, when you’re conditioned, human beings are designed to avoid punishment and to be attracted towards pleasure, and so when something has been associated with punishment, like our African-ness, you know?

The scene in “Roots” tells the whole story, you know? When Kunta Kinte was being beaten, forced to call himself Toby. That’s the association of pain with anything that’s African. That’s what that illustrates for us, and so over time people are literally beat and ridiculed and punished, you know, mentally, physically, emotionally and other ways for trying to associate with their African-ness. And so, if a grandmother was beat for trying to maintain her African nature and she doesn’t want her child to be beat for the same, then what she will do is teach her child to either mask her African nature, his or her African nature, and/or abandon it altogether to avoid not the African nature but the punishment that’s been associated with that African nature.

And so now we have, you know, decades later, sometimes days later, weeks later, months later depending on what point you want to pick up the trauma at, we have people who are still functioning in a protective way, you know? Protect your children, protect your loved ones from being punished for being an African, you know, but it’s also to their detriment. You know, that’s what we’re dealing with right now. So yeah, it makes it difficult, man, because people avoid punishment, and African-ness has been associated with punishment, especially when we start our history off with the enslavement of African people, as opposed to looking at what happened before that process. Many of think we just come from slaves, anyway.

You know, parents, push your kids into Rites of Passage programs. Make sure that you are intentionally raising your children to identify their purpose, to become strong in their purpose and to actually utilize that purpose to navigate life. And, you know, whatever your picking is, make sure they have some type of intentional growth and development process because it’s necessary. Just because they’re 16, 18, 21 or 25 does not mean they’re growing more into adulthood. It’s the responsibility that they need to be prepared for, you know, and a lot of that is missing right for. So, go for it. Initiate your children. Put them in a Rites of Passage program. Make sure you’re supplementing their public school, private school education with in-home cultural development. We need cultural scientists out here.

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