"I Am Connected to that Continent"
Robert Snead is not a college professor or a student, but he's been studying history from an Afrocentric point of view for years. For Snead, Afrocentricity is more than an academic discipline; it has become, he says, a central and stabilizing force in his life.Snead is an active member of the Heritage Project, an organization founded by David Anderson-Sankofa, professor of African-American studies at St. John Fisher College. Snead is currently researching the history of African Americans in Wayne County, New York, where he grew up, for the organization.Snead, Anderson-Sankofa, and other members of the Heritage Project visited the Cobb Laboratory at Howard University last year to view African Americans' remains recovered from an 18th-century African burial ground in lower Manhattan. Construction workers found the remains as they began work on a federal building at the site in 1991. Although it's believed that more than 20,000 people -- enslaved and free -- were buried there, the remains of only 427 were recovered, and then only as the result of public outcry.The lab tour was conducted by director Mark Mack, who explained the history of the remains and what could be determined from them -- the physical stress they had endured, their diet, possible cause of death, age, sex."Dr. Mack is a storyteller par excellence," Snead says. "He really wove a history, stories about individuals. There was this one site where they found what appears to have been what some people would call a heart on the coffin."Over the years, they've discovered it's not actually a heart; it's an Andinkra symbol, a Sankofa, a symbol of looking back, a looking back to where these folks had come from. And they believe, because of the work and the time that had gone into it, this individual may have been a priest, or at least someone of high standing."After viewing the remains, members of the Heritage Project held their own memorial service for all those buried at the site. It was an emotional but gratifying experience, Snead says:"I really felt a sense of -- oh boy. I wanted to go because of history, trying to relate the history of Africans in the Northern U.S. to myself.""My family's been in the New York since 1957, '58," says Snead. "Growing up, we never heard about black people in the North. We heard about the Louisiana Purchase, we heard about Seward, we heard about Dewey and all those folks, but you never really got any idea that blacks had contributed, or that blacks were an integral part of Northern history. So just doing that, knowing that the bones were there and being able to hear the stories of the bones...."As Cobb Laboratory director Mack talked, "I was just amazed," says Snead. "I was amazed that so much could be determined from these remnants. Then, I guess, I just felt -- thankful; I guess that is the best word. Listening to the stories that he wove from the bones in New York City, it kind of gave me an idea that blacks have really, really laid a foundation for us today that we lack. We've become lax in continuing to build."It's a reminder that each generation has an obligation to do a little bit more -- or if you're not going build, at least don't tear down."In a recent interview, Snead described how he became interested in Afrocentricity, and how it has changed his life. What follows are excerpts from that interview; taken together, they constitute an oral essay on Afrocentricity:Imagine this: imagine that you were taken to Argentina. Totally different culture, totally different language. Now, you don't lose what you are. You're going to have to adapt, you're going to have to do the things you got to do so that you can live and flourish. But who you are is necessarily going to be transmitted to your children, and then to the folks around you.Even though your culture, your ideas, may be pushed down, they don't disappear. It doesn't go away. It's part of your makeup. It's part of you. Afrocentricity doesn't mean worse, better, or anything in between -- it only means it is different.I grew up in a white world. I was in the vast, vast, vast minority. I knew I was black, everyone else knew I was black, but that wasn't acknowledged, so I was raised as a European.Imagine: this is something I had to mentally and spiritually go through. I was black. That was an obvious fact. But I was raised as a European, with a Eurocentric outlook, a Eurocentric historical perspective -- that Columbus came in 1492, sailed the ocean blue. All those little things that people never think about, but are culturally based.You can't say it's just historical fact, because there are many, many things that are historical fact that you could have chosen other than those things. Those things are promoted over and over and over again. It becomes the boundary.Growing up in the minority, you don't even question: "Well, have blacks ever done anything?" All you heard about was Africa being the dark continent, nothing of consequence ever coming out of Africa, savages, Tarzan -- those were the images. And those images were accepted. It becomes the norm.There were some blacks who grew up in the town. I grew up in the country. But the blacks who grew up in the town, who associated more with white people, were double whammied, because not only was their educational environment white, their social environment was white. At least just my education environment was white. My social environment -- the church I went to, the people I hung around with after school -- were all black.And, again, the church became an element of the Eurocentricity. Imagine: you're going to church, you're praying to God, and when you look up, you see a white Jesus holding up the cross and saying "Come to me." Imagine! Think about that! Psychologically: Jesus is God's son, so God must be white -- because not too many black fathers have white children. Yes, sexism plays a part here, too. The white male dominates this culture. The white male image is the dominant image of power in this culture.A lot of the practices of black churches were imitative of what they saw white churches do, what white preachers do -- because we were so limited in our expression. You do hear about the churches in the woods, where Africans were able to do the ring shouts -- yes, like in [novelist Toni Morrison's] Beloved, like Baby Suggs. Now, that was a hold-over -- but keep in mind the black Baptists or Methodist Episcopals: those were basically Eurocentric churches that black folks fed into and then were limited by what was acceptable. So that joy [seen in today's black churches] may be African, but the actual way it comes out is Eurocentric.You know what that joy is to me? The genetic, the cultural remembrances. African folks, I believe, have a joy of life and a way of expressing themselves that is verbal, oral, through song and through dance. That's a given. Now, even though you go into a church, you don't stop doing that. You simply express it through the limitations of the church.I don't go to church much now, and that's another thing. The churches did do a lot of good when were young here. We needed them, and they were actually centers of refuge, and centers of education, and centers of a community.But after awhile, rigor mortis sets in. Now the churches have a vested interest themselves, and have become less the center, and more of the problem -- promoting themselves, as opposed to progressiveness. Like the unions: when they first came out, they were on the front line. But once they became accepted by the powers that be, they became part of the problem.For me, Afrocentricity is using African precepts and African concepts as the center of your being. As the way you make decisions.You know that saying, "What would Jesus do?" Well, Afrocentricity says: What would an African do, who's conscious and aware? Asante [Molefi Asante, the Temple University professor who coined the term "Afrocentricity"] says there are Africans on the continent of Africa who are not Afrocentric. They have been so colonized mentally that in their home, in their own country, they do not behave with Africa as their center; they go to England, they go to Italy, to the colonizing country, and they come back as black French, black Italians, black English, and they're not Afrocentric.So again, it's having an outlook. It's different. It's not bad, or worse, or better. It's just saying, "I am African. I have a tradition. I have a history. I have a culture that is different than the European American."It causes confusion. That's why you see people who don't know who or what they are. It's not just black people. I work for the Social Services department, and I interview all types of people from all walks of life. I have seen people that are obviously Asian, with Anglo-Saxon names. Essentially, it's confusion when you call, "John Smith," and this Asian person comes.I'm not saying they should change their name, but I'm saying there is obviously a culture that has been whitewashed, washed away. And for this person to truly come to grips with who they are, they're going to need to go back.Native Americans have done the same thing. Hispanics have done the same thing.All cultures, I think, have to go back, because part of the issue, part of the problem in America is not that it's a melting pot, it's that it's an effacer. It's an effacer of all cultures except the dominant English-European cultures.I've got African friends from Kenya and Nigeria, and they told me that they thought there were no black people in the United States, because all the images that they saw were of Europeans.You cannot wipe it away completely. It's like water. It will find a way out. And even though the manifestation may not appear Afrocentric, it is, because it's rooted in it. That's the source. Even though it comes out in a different guise, the African root is there.It started for me when I moved out to Dallas in 1981. I worked at a place called Half Price Books, Records, and Magazines. Their slogan was: Everything printed or recorded except for yesterday's newspapers.I had been interested [in Afrocentricity], but I had gotten away from reading. When I got that job, being around all of those books -- the first book I read there was Black Moses, the story of Marcus Garvey and the UNIA [the Universal Negro Improvement Association] movement.It was a very negative book on Garvey. It was a put-down of Garvey. But it energized me to say: this guy wrote it, it's a negative -- there's got to be some things out there that are positive. It got me back into reading; it got me back into thinking.I got into study groups, started studying Egypt. We would read; we would discuss. Reading things like How Europe Underdeveloped Africa by Walter Riley. Stolen Legacy by George GM James. The Wonderful Ethiopians by Drusilla Dunjee Houston.And I read Afrocentricity by Asante. All those things converged to give me a rootedness. I became very comfortable with myself. I began to see that a lot of the reason I would feel uncomfortable in groups was because of the way I was thinking. I got into more of a metaphysical... I got into Kafka.Franz Kafka is my favorite writer. I just love his things, because they're so off the wall. I guess that's a good example: even though I consider myself Afrocentric, I can say very comfortably to you that my favorite writer is a Hungarian. It's not that I hate anyone else. It's simply that I know myself well enough to know that's the writer that has most influenced me.I love James Baldwin. I love Richard Wright. I love Zora Neale Hurston. But the writer who does it for me is Franz Kafka.Asante says you should always have African images around your home. My sons were raised in it. And that for me is the best part. They were raised seeing pictures of black folks, pictures of Martin Luther King, the Delaneys. It's a part of them. It's not even like they consciously see it as different until they go into someone else's home, and they see pictures of other people in a black home. That's when they say, "Oh; our home is different."The biggest difference between my upbringing and theirs is the Afrocentricity. My parents have said they didn't want to change anything about the way they were raised and the way we were raised, except that we would get a better education. We got the better education, even though it was Eurocentric.I wouldn't want to change anything about the way I was raised and the way I want to raise my children, except that they know who they culturally and historically are. That was the piece that was missing when I was growing up.They [the Snead sons] take it for granted. Like anything else, familiarity breeds contempt. They just kind of see it as the norm, even to the point of, "Oh, no, Dad, we don't have to read that again; you don't have to talk about that again." Because they're so used to it, it just comes out of them without them thinking about it.That's what I wanted. That was the whole purpose. I didn't want them to go through the cultural shock of what I went through, the almost mental hell, the mental warfare that I had to go through to regain a feeling of connectedness.My parents? Oh, they went through a stage of, "You're who? You what?"I'm also a vegetarian. And when I started that, they said, "You don't eat what? You raised on pork chops!" They see me as the kind of person who goes through those things, and so they just say, "Oh that's just him."There was a period of time when my parents would not verbally acknowledge that they were of African descent. Imagine! That's the whole thing. Your culture teaches you that you can completely dis-identify yourself with Africa because Africa is a negative, Africa is dark, African has never done anything.So the generation before me, my parents, didn't have -- my dad went to third grade, my mom went to tenth -- because they didn't have the ability to do the research or the reading themselves, they just accepted the images they saw on the TV and the movies.Who wants to be associated with Africans running through the jungle, half-naked, woo-woo-woo-woo? Nobody.Who wants to be associated with a whole continent that has never done a thing in the world? So their response was, "I'm not African, I'm black. My history starts during slavery and after."And it's just in these last 15, 20, 25 years that they can acknowledge: Yes, I am of African descent. Yes, I know now that I am connected to that continent -- only because we've shown them that Africans did contribute much to history, that Africans didn't support Tarzan, they guided Tarzan.We were a little bit more than the arms and legs that got things done.