The African-American Adinkra Project
The aim of the African-American Cultural Development Project (AACDP) is to develop a paradigm and framework for a shared African-American culture across the United States. For our purposes, culture stands on these four pillars: history, creative-motif, cos-mythology and ethos. In this brief discussion we will focus on one aspect ofcreative-motif and that is symbolism. The purpose of this essay is to introduce one aspect of the cultural development project and that is the creation of our own African-American signs and symbols that function, in many ways, like the Adinkra symbols among the Akan of Ghana.
A creative-motif is a vehicle by which cultural narratives, its themes and values are conveyed. This can be an object, idea, place or a statement and is usually expressed through symbols. Our aim is to create an inventory of icons that represent the rich heritage and values of African-Americans (whom I call the Bakala). These would be symbols that reaffirm our commitment to our ideals, our right to self-determination and acts as an extension of the Bakala art of speech (the Word).
With that said, I have taken the liberty of designing our first symbol for this national project. In the near future, when the AACDP is in full swing, we will have a more formal “call for entries” where the larger African-American community can submit ideas and icons for our set of “Adinkra” symbols (for a lack of a better term currently) which will be voted on by the community. We will take this a step further and develop our own, an African-American, writing script. But that is to come in the near future.
The name of the symbol I have created is called Malelela. Malelela is a Tshiluba-Bantu word which means “fraternity, love, and friendship.” I have designed the symbol to be a simplified drawing which depicts two people greeting and embracing each other in the African-American form of greeting. This pose, however, is more typical between males. If you can kind of put on your abstract lens for a moment, you will be able to see the expression in the icon.
The icon is an aerial view from which you can see the two “people” in a greeting embrace. The symbols resemble two G’s in a kind of Ying/Yang formation. If you have ever paid attention to two African-American men who have deep admiration for each other, who are long-time friends, embrace after not seeing each other in “ages,” (walk into any Alpha Phi Alpha function) you will notice that they come together grasping each other’s right hands, while the left arm and hand circles around the friend’s right shoulder.
From an aerial view, the formation of each person looks like a letter G –with the line coming into the ‘half-circle’ representing the right arm/hand in front of the adoman, and the half-circle shape representing the left arm which embraces the friend. I have included a video clip below of an example of this process. If you don’t want to watch the whole thing (which you should), just skip to 8:00 into the video and you can see what I am talking about.
As noted in the clip by Dr. Joy Leary, one of the defining characteristics of African-American people is the notion that relationships matter. We value relationships more than anything and this is part of the reason that if an African-American business does not treat us well, we take it more personally than say if an establishment, run and operated by non-African Americans, were not to give us exceptional customer service. For us it’s an issue of relationship because we expect to be treated more like family with each other, than with any other group of people. This is also a problem for African-American businesses who are victims of the “hook-up” mentality expected from a good number of African-American customers. We can discuss the problematics at a later time.
The important thing to note is that greeting in the African-American community is more than a greeting: it is a ritual and is ceremonial. It is a ritual that communicates one’s love, and acknowledges one’s friendship and fraternal (familial) bonds. In large part, African people like the sense of touch. To be touched in the African community is to be loved and it is why touch is such an integral part of child development (see Fu-Kiau’s Kindezi: The Kongo Art of Babysitting). This sense of closeness to another human being is at the heart of African-American relations and how we embrace each other.
When the Bakala (African-Americans) embrace, we transmit to each other the cosmic power locked in the person or the vitality the embrace conveys. It is a vitalizing gesture and it acknowledges the other person’s humanness (what I call Ukala). This is why I wanted to start the project off with this symbol (what I call Malelela) as a foundation and vehicle in which to ‘touch’ the African-American community. If you believe in the ideals, then you can utilize the symbol in ‘virtually’ any way one chooses. The Akan Adinkra symbols are used on pretty much anything, especially clothing, to communicate certain messages. These symbols have become synonymous with Akan culture and I foresee the same with our set of symbols once developed. To see the Adinkra symbols and their meanings, CLICK HERE.
The African-American set of symbols (our “Adinkras”) will allow US to speak to US about US; to tell each other who WE are, what life means to US and what WE live for. They will be echoes of the spirit of African-American people and will be used as mnemonic devices, that when activated, will help to renew and revitalize our culture. These icons will be forms of speech which will instruct generations to come on how to create and maintain a society in which the person shall be seen and enabled to make the best possible use of his/her life in the light of his/her abilities.
This society can only be realized within an environment that is conducive to life. We ensure this by continually strengthening the fraternal (familial) bonds—rooted in our commitment to high moral values, wisdom, love and friendship—within our community. More details of the project will be conveyed in the near future. If this sparks some ideas in your head, please don’t wait on me. “Let em use you!” as the church folk say, and develop your symbol to be used by the community and share it. I will upload the raw Adobe Illustrator file (.ai, .eps) in the near future.
As a recap, the definition of the symbol, for us, will hold the following meanings: Malelela – friendship, love, fraternity, (Malelele) to be touched (nourished), to be uplifted, to be embraced, to be a part of a loving community, to bless, to keep, to treasure and to cherish.
Malelela, GO! Talk about yourself to others and be a spark in the bush.
Mujilu Mukatapa (Asar Imhotep)
African-American Adinkra symbol titled "Dual Citizenship." This symbol represents the knowing and fulfilling of our responsibilities as children of the earth and children of the stars. We assume our responsibility as children of the earth by taking out the lesser hunger without going beyond the boundaries that define the appetites on earth. We assume our responsibilities as children of eternity (the stars) by looking for ways to take out the greater hunger (a search for wisdom). It is in satisfying the two hungers that we reach the state of perfection (the fulfillment of our purpose).