African Cultural Calendar

Time in Our Image

Songhai 29, 505 otd

Making of the African Cultural Calendar

I have always felt that time could be an ally or a foe in a people’s struggle for freedom. It is easy to look at the past, look at the oppression and destruction of African societies and say it has been that way for five hundred years and it will always be that way. It is easy to look at the Arab invasion of Africa and the imposition of their form of oppression and say it has been so for hundreds of years and ask why fight against it? We can even say that since the Punic wars, the forces of the world had been against us, cumulating in the enslavement of our people and in the partition of our homeland. Looking at our history even if you are aware enough to recognize that not one of us has ever decided to go without a fight, you could still be overwhelmed by the length of time that we have been fighting. I have always sensed that time is a factor in our oppression. I believe that it could be either an ally or a foe. As a result, I had an ear for time. I listened for how people talked about it. I noticed when it’s mentioned and I paid closer attention when people discussed how it flows – is it linear or circular?

I sensed that our people had their own concept of time. I would hear adults express time with simple phrases “just now” or they would use the phrase “soon come” to mean I will be back or I will be there. With no specific reference to time, those phrases leave it to the listener to decide on their meaning in time. One year, at a New Year’s Eve party the hostess turned on the TV to count down to the new year with Dick Clark, only to find that we had missed it. Every clock in her house was running slow, far from being disappointed, her guests waited until her clocks said 10 seconds to midnight and started counting down to the new year. The people at the party, all Africans, thought that was the way it should be because Black people have their own time. That was an eye opener for me. I was already midwifing the African Cultural Calendar and that added fuel to the fire.

The Idea of the African Cultural Calendar:

I had lots of thoughts about time before I thought of the African Cultural Calendar. The idea of the African Cultural Calendar first occurred to me while I was reading a Martin Luther King Jr.’s (MLK) speech. In the speech, MLK made a comment about Jesus. He said that Jesus was so powerful that he divided time into two. I have since tried to find the speech and have been unsuccessful. So, it is entirely possible that I misread MLK’s words. Regardless, that’s where the idea started. When I read the line about Jesus dividing time, I paused and wondered, if MLK were speaking about African people, what would he had said cause time to be divided into two.

Almost immediately after that was the question of why. Why would it matter if something in the history of African people had divided time into two? At that point in my life, I already had many conversations with people, which indicated that they were overwhelmed by time. They would say things like “Kwanzaa was created in the 1960s.” I would say, so? They would respond with “Christmas has been around for 2 thousand years.” I could not make the connection they had made. I could not understand why time would make one more important than the other. It implied that if their time in history was two thousand years ago, Christmas would be as unimportant to them as Kwanzaa. Comments like that forced me to think that time was now an ally for Christmas. In a similar way, it could also be an ally for oppression. Time could be used to support either collective awareness of the oppressed or to support their continued oppression. I wanted time to be an ally for the collective awareness of African people. That meant that when we measure time, we would be referencing our own conditions. If something in our history divided time into two, that could be our point of departure, our starting place to make time into an ally. We could use that event to support our collective awareness and contribute to our victory. That was the beginning of trying to determine, what, if anything in the lives of Africans has been so powerful that it divided time.

I would posed the question to people; what would you say had split time into two for Africans? I would often use the Jesus example from MLK. The answer that most people, who understood the question, gave me was that slavery had split time into two. Some people would add that after slavery we were everywhere. It was almost like it was act of god. Slavery was my immediate answer too. There was certainly a time before slavery and a time after it. I knew that in the time before slavery, the time when we were not found everywhere, we were full human beings. People who stood on their own foundation, who shaped the world in their image and saw it from their perspective. I understood that time could be like that as well.

That was the early 1980’s, perhaps, 1982 or 1983. For the first few years, I kept the idea of the African Cultural Calendar to myself. It was hard to explain it to people in terms that they could understand. The question that I would asked, what split time into two seemed difficult enough but it was harder to explain to others, how time could be an instrument of oppression. Some people thought the idea was silly because time was neutral and color blind. They thought that time was outside the realm of history and culture; it treats everyone in the same way. So, I kept the idea close to my chest until I was absolutely certain that time can contribute to our consciousness. If something in our history and culture split time into two, then perhaps we can start to count 10 seconds to midnight from our perspective. With our perspective, time or the length of time the journey had taken would not seem overwhelming. Whether time is linear or circular, our perspective could make it clear that we are more than halfway to victory.

I got a great boost in confidence when I realized that if I combined the words “Africa” with “Calendar” it could form the word “Africalendar”. The idea not only had a purpose but also it had a name, it could be called Africalendar. This became the way of referring to the African Cultural Calendar but I still could not fully explain how time could be made to serve us, to awake and reinforce our collective consciousness. Then, in the late 1980’s I purchased a copy of “Afrocentricity”. Molefi Asante, a professor, a man with the word doctor in front of his name actually had the same idea. Suddenly, the idea had a place in a broader African centred theory. I thought that in an African centred world, time would reflect the history and cultures of African people. The single paragraph in “Afrocentricity” is all that was needed to move me from wondering if the African Cultural Calendar should be pursued, to how can the African Cultural Calendar be developed.

Afrocentricity and the African Cultural Calendar

I was excited to see the idea in Dr. Asante’s book but I was also disappointed. I had arrived at the African Cultural Calendar because I believed that time could be used to support our collective awareness. I was trying to determine what if anything had caused time to be divided for African people when I read Afrocentricity. Dr. Asante had taken a different path but we both had the same first thought about the event that had caused time to split. We both thought that slavery, or some aspect of slavery, was the event that caused time to split. That was my first thought. After a number of years of thinking and talking about the idea, I was certain that time could be used to support our collective conscious. However, I was no longer certain that slavery was a significant enough event to merit consideration. Dr. Asante too discussed moving towards a collective consciousness in his book but he was not focused on the whole African diaspora, just that part of the diaspora whose ancestors were delivered to United States of America. In his work, Dr. Asante proposed that the event that split time was the delivery of Africans to Jamestown. Jamestown in essence was their Door of No Return. I disagreed with using the Jamestown event to divide time. So, I wrote him, at Temple University, questioning the idea that 1619 should be the year we began again. Dr. Asante had proposed that time was divided into the time “Before the Beginning Again” and “After the Beginning Again”. I liked his concept; it validated my idea that we had began again. I thought that was appropriate but it was not just the Africans in America who had began again. It was all of us, even the Africans at home; we were all beginning again to build on the foundation that our ancestors had lay, to see the world and to live life from our perspective.

The event in Jamestown in 1619 was an important event but it is an Africans in America specific date. If we were going to use slavery as the event, that year was certainly not the year slavery began. One of the individuals who was sold in 1619 signalling the start of slavery in the USA was named “Rose”. Her name implied that she was already enslaved elsewhere. If slavery was the event that split time for Africans, 1619 was too late. Secondly, as a budding Garveyite I did not recognized any differences among African people due to where the slave ship delivered them. National labels are no more than tribal labels and they have the same effects as tribalism at home. They are one of the enemies’ tool for dividing us. I was disappointed that Dr. Asante had such a narrow focus. So, I wrote to him and I was surprised when he answered my letter. I still have the letter but I am choosing not to post it because I don’t have Dr. Asante’s permission.

In his response, he suggested that there could be multiple calendars with each segment of the diaspora with its own timeline. The Africans in America could use 1619, Africans in the Caribbean could used an earlier date, etc. That was not what I had envisioned. I saw Africans everywhere as one. I put the focus on where the slave ships picked us up, on what we had in common, not where the slave ships happened to drop us off. I was having trouble trying to determine what could be an appropriate event but I knew that the African Cultural Calendar had to represent Africans everywhere.

A comment in Dr. Asante’s letter caused me to think about what might constitute a time splitting event, differently. By the time I read Afrocentricity I had already decided that slavery was not the event. In his letter, Dr. Asante said that we should not let others by their actions determine when the calendar should start. For that reason, he would agree that 1619 might not be the appropriate date. After Dr. Asante’s letter, I thought about that New Year’s Eve party again. How as African people we did not let Dick Clark dictate to us when the year began. Dr. Asante’s comment allowed me to frame my thoughts around what might be an appropriate event.

Door of No Returns

After communicating with Dr. Molefi Asante I reframed the question. I was no longer asking what could have caused time to split for Africans but started to think about the outcome instead. If there was an event that split time, what would the outcome be? That answer was easy, the outcome would be the diaspora. The spreading of African people around the world. I changed the question I asked people from what event caused time to split, to where did the diaspora begin? The answer that most people gave me was one that I believed was true: it began at the Door of No Return. That also allowed me to put aside the question of when because an event that culminated in the diaspora would take place over a period of time and build as things among the people fall apart. I was certain the Door of No Return was what the ancestors were referring to when they said that they were fighting on arrival. Fighting who, fighting for what were the questions. For a while I focused on what happened at the Door of No Return. That when I realized that what caused the diaspora was when some of our ancestors were convinced that it was better to stand with the enemy than to support their family. A proverb among our ancestors is “when brothers fight, strangers inherit their father’s land”. What happened at the Door of No Return allowed strangers to be everywhere upon our land. The arrival of Africans at the Door of No Return was the event that caused time to split into two. Time split into two when we were pushed through the door. In the African Cultural Calendar that year is called the “Year of the Push and Pull”. It is the first year after time has been split into two; and we, the Africans, began again.

If MLK was referring to Africans when he was speaking about time splitting into two, he might have said that Africans being pushed through the Door of No Return split time into two. Africans were not only push; they were also pulled through the Door. That signalled the beginning of the diaspora and split time into the time “before the diaspora (btd)” and the time “of the diaspora (otd)”. The Door of No Return was our blindness hour. Everything that followed, slavery, partition of our homeland, colonization and our loss of self was only a by-product of what happened at the Door of No Return.

That was the key for the Africalendar. Arriving at the Door of No Return and being pushed and pulled through the Door was the event that split time into two. It was the first time that some of us chose to stand with the enemy and as a result, things fell apart for our ancestors. It led directly to the diaspora and that is the reason, the African Cultural Calendar measured time as either “before the diaspora (btd)” or “of the diaspora (otd)”.