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Among the running jokes in the Black communities: the amusement and amazement we share watching a recording artist who makes music about violence, sex, and drugs receiving an award on television and saying, "I want to thank God." The contradiction seems glaringly obvious. How could a person who glamorizes greed, misogyny, and violence be religious or spiritual? We are all sitting there at home wondering, "How can the same person whose lifestyle and artistic expression emphasizes hatred, materialism, and raw intimidation, be standing there onstage wearing a diamond-encrusted crucifix?"
Actually, this phenomenon provides an important insight into the complexity of Black male spirituality. The disconnection between what this individual practices and what he preaches (or believes) is not difficult to recognize. But recognizing a man who, regardless of his flaws, yearns to experience the unconditional love that only a higher power can supply may be more challenging. The source of this apparent contradiction can be traced to the way in which many of us are first introduced to religion and spirituality.
We are encouraged to worship from early in our development. But few of us are introduced to the concept of character development as an expression of spirituality. Some of us have become so focused on our particular religion that we lose sight of achieving spirituality. Religion is the set of rituals and practices used to recognize, worship, and seek communion with God. Spirituality is the manifestation of this divine connection in one's daily life. Think of religion as the vehicle and spirituality the destination. The destination is the ability to see aspects of God in our lives and to exhibit this awareness as we interact with our environment.
Although it may be easy for us to detect the contradiction in what a musician on an awards show does and says, it is often difficult to recognize it in our own lives. I first became aware of my personal contradictions at age fifteen. I was a fiery, up-and-coming Black Nationalist who thought he could change the conditions of Black life by overpowering people with Black facts. Iremember recounting a ciphering (informal discussion) session that I had in the school cafeteria to one of my mentors. I was excited to explain to him how I had "blasted" all the brothers and sisters with my knowledge, and how stupid I made them look. He simply asked me, "What do we call each other?" I replied, "Brother and Sister." My mentor then asked me whether my actions seemed truly "brotherly." Without further discussion, I got the point. Just intellectualizing or articulating a concept wasn't enough. I also had to demonstrate it in my behavior. There it was staring me in the face: I was talking about being a "brother" but living out the life of a sarcastic smart-ass. It's not enough to talk the talk, you've got to walk the walk. From that point on I've used the same test as a measure for self-criticism and for my evaluation of society -- especially religion.
I was not raised in a religious household. Growing up between Los Angeles and Long Beach, California, my family attended church primarily on two occasions: funerals and Easter. Unfortunately I attended my fair share of funerals. During the 1980s, Los Angeles was becoming the gangbanging and drug-slinging capital of the world. I had a father, uncle, aunt, and cousins involved in street life and they exposed me to some of the worst that the world has to offer.
Having these people in my life helped me to understand how young entertainers could embrace a lifestyle reflecting hatred while simultaneously professing a love for God. My family members were neither monsters nor soulless, uncaring people. They may have been into the streets neck deep, but they still wanted to be loved unconditionally. The love they received from family members was conditional and usually peppered with destructive criticism. But even in the midst of a destructive lifestyle, they turned to God for unconditional love.
But even as brothers seek this divine unconditional love, they who experience all the ugliness in the world still have issues with God. This is why so many Black males are absent from the church. Numerous articles, books, and community forums are held to address this matter. Truth is, some of these brothers are angry with God. Some are wondering where God was when they suffered abuse as little boys, or when they were mistreated as teenagers, or even now, when they are dismissed as shiftless adults -- regardless of their personal struggles and/or successes. Others wonder where God was when they were being racially profiled by police, discriminated against in the workplace, or even when they found out their lover was cheating on them.
We know this anger exists because of the way Black men murder one another without a second thought, the way Black males abuse girls and women, and the way we self-medicate with everything from alcohol to codeine-laced cough syrup, marijuana, and crack. The anger is manifest in our perpetual petty beefs, our judgmental attitudes toward other Black men, and our inability to constructively resolve conflicts among one another. The anger expresses itself in various other ways, too. Some Black men echo our oppressors and accuse fellow Black males of using racism as a crutch. Some may have enduring patience with other people who abuse and mistreat them, but have a short fuse when dealing with our Black brothers. These same attitudes can be found in men whether they were raised as Christian, Muslim, Hebrew, Buddhist, Humanist, African Spiritualist, or something in between. Indeed, this spiritual crisis is not merely a reflection of their character, but also of the religions and spiritual systems and institutions that claim to offer solutions to their problems.
In my own search for balance and centeredness I have rounded the bases of the world's most popular religions. At age fourteen, I left home plate and headed for Christianity as first base, joining a nondenominational storefront church congregation after attending services with an aunt. Like most young Black men, I wanted to have a strong relationship with God. During the devotional part of the service it was made clear that unless "you know, that you know, that you know" that if you died that instant you were saved and on the path to heaven, you risked burning in the fires of hell for eternity by not joining the church. I was not certain, so I joined. I went to new members classes and participated in youth activities. But, ultimately I found the experience to be unfulfilling.
I loved the fellowship and the message of hope the church preached and, yes, the music was incredible. I found an emotional release in the midst of community worship, but the generic sermonizing about God's power, grace, and vengeance missed me for the most part. As much as the pastor attempted to make biblical stories relevant to our daily lives, I still felt like he was talking about a time and place far removed from the reality I faced every day. Some brothers have issues with the church because of politics or other philosophical differences; I was too young to make those connections. I rather longed for something that spoke directly to my struggle as a young Black male trying to define my manhood, my Blackness, and my relationship with God in a constructive way.
At age fifteen, I left the Christian church for second base, the Nation of Islam (NOI). It was not an immediate transition. I spent several months in a kind of spiritual limbo. My experience as a Muslim awakened my spirit and my mind -- not necessarily the theology of the Honorable Elijah Muhammad and Minister Louis Farrakhan -- but with the social and political message of Black self-determination.By this time my mother had relocated us to San Antonio, Texas, in hopes of providing my younger brother and me with a safer environment. As already stated, inner-city Los Angeles in the late 1980s was a war zone and the casualties were predominantly young Black men.
I learned about the Nation via its weekly publication, The Final Call. Prior to reading excerpts of speeches by Minister Farrakhan, I had never heard a Black man mix politics, economics, sociology, and religion into such a digestible cocktail. I responded to the NOI because it was unapologetically Black. The Nation combats the identity issues that plague Black males by telling us that we are "the makers, the owners and cream of the planet earth," and moreover, that Allah (God) is Black and wants us to reclaim our legacy as rulers of the earth. The Fruit of Islam (FOI), the men of the NOI, are structured in a hierarchical quasi-military fashion that fulfills our yearning for belonging to a structured group. The selling of newspapers, bean pies, and other products places Black men in a constructive posture within the community. Not everyone likes bean pies, but whenever they see the young FOI approaching in a suit and bow tie, they nevertheless show respect.
Religiously, I practiced the prayers, attended the services and observed Ramadan (a Muslim time of fasting). The ministers who officiated the Sunday meetings used both the Bible and Qur'an. They made these texts speak to my circumstance by interweaving passages from scripture with Black history, interpretations of economic exploitation, and critiques of contemporary leadership for failing to empower the Black community. I remained an active, faithful Muslim into my freshman year of college.
A combination of forces moved me to the next base and separated me from the Nation of Islam. During the early 1990s, the NOI was going through some administrative and organizational restructuring. I was forced to choose sides: whether to stay with the minister who introduced me to the teachings of the Honorable Elijah Muhammad or to follow through with the changes being implemented by the national headquarters. After some soul-searchingI realized that I was drawn to the NOI's Black empowerment ideology, but not necessarily the religion of Islam. I was becoming more of an independent thinker. I was also becoming interested in ideas, philosophies, and teachings that were not in the tradition of the NOI. And so I respectfully discontinued my active membership in the organization while I continued to hold steadily to the message of self-love and other empowering elements embedded in me by the NOI.
By the age of nineteen. I was off to third base. I had enrolled in Texas State University, and thus began a phase of experimentation and research. I reengaged with the church through the teachings of Black Christian Nationalism. I never joined the Shrine of the Black Madonna Pan-African Orthodox Church (PAOC), but I was intrigued by the concept of Jesus as a "Black Revolutionary Messiah." The PAOC was founded by Jaramogi Abebe Agyeman (formerly Albert Cleage, Jr.), a Black Nationalist preacher from Detroit and a close friend of Malcolm X. The PAOC provided valuable community services through their bookstores, museums, and youth programs. And its focus on self-determination, nation building, and embracing African culture made it very different from my previous church experiences.
Walking into the Houston shrine sanctuary was a truly transformative experience. The entire wall behind the pulpit is a mural of a Black Jesus with an Afro and carrying a walking stick. The PAOC teaches that Jesus was a Black revolutionary combating the social injustices of his time. Therefore, Black Christians are obliged to continue this great legacy of resistance to exploitation and injustice -- using Jesus as the model revolutionary.
As riveting and empowering as the message of the PAOC was, I was beginning to realize that spirituality existed outside the Judeo-Christian and Islamic realms. In baseball terms, I was rounding third and heading home. My visits to the college library exposed me to the wealth of information available -- not only about our African legacy, but also that of other cultures and worldviews. I started to read about Eastern spirituality, especially Zen Buddhism. From these spiritual systems I gathered a better understanding about the importance of taking time to meditate and clear my mind. That is literally what Zen means, to meditate. Meditation helps a person to still their mind and reminds us that our own desires are the source of our suffering. In Buddhism there is no God to be worshipped. The focus is not on paying homage to a creator but rather on each individual attaining enlightenment.
This concept was so empowering to me. It offers a spirituality based on how one behaves, not on what one professes. Demonstrating enlightenment is about walking the walk, not just talking the talk. The ultimate source of power is not external but inside each individual. All of us hold the power to either "do" or "not do." Exposure to these concepts and practices prepared me to be receptive to other life-changing spiritual experiences.
At age twenty-four, two years after graduating from college, I went on an educational tour of Egypt -- or KMT, as the ancient inhabitants called it, meaning "The Black Land." I was motivated by the reading I'd done and lectures I'd attended espousing the fact that Egypt was an ancient African civilization built by Black people. But pictures and speeches did the real thing no justice. Standing in the presence of the Sphinx (Heru-em-akhet), the pyramids, and the temples was truly awe-inspiring. We have a saying in our community of "doing things big." Well, our ancestors did things "colossal." Everything was built to skyscraper scale, and the temples were covered in writings telling some of the earliest stories of spirituality and human consciousness. My Egyptian experience ignited a fire inside me to seek out the key principles of African spiritual systems.
I continued my personal spiritual investigation by exploring African spirituality, primarily the practice of Ifa. My appreciation for Ifa, the religion of the Yoruba people of Nigeria, came in phases. First I attended a ritual on the beach in Galveston, Texas, to pay homage to our ancestors who were brought to the shores of North America as slaves. The event was an interfaith affair with prayers and comments shared by clergy from various religions, but an Ifa priest performed the rituals. I had been in the Black Nationalist community for some time and was familiar with libations from ceremonies like Kwanzaa, but this was different.
The libation (prayer performed while pouring liquid) was done in the Yoruba language accompanied by African drummers. Various other elements completed the ritual -- corn symbolizing abundance, cowrie shells symbolizing prosperity, and yellow flowers symbolizing Yemoja, goddess of the sea. As "conscious" as I thought I was, I was very nai;ve to African spirituality. I had been taught, like many Black people in America, to dismiss our traditional religious systems as "voodoo" or "mumbo jumbo," vestiges of the evil jungles and the Dark Continent. Experiencing this powerful ceremony with its reverence for ancestors, prayers, dance, and song provided me with a fresh reorientation to traditional spiritual systems.
Later that year I received an invitation to attend the birthday celebration of an Ifa priest, which would include a "Ceremony of Ceremonies." At the Ceremony of Ceremonies I was able to see the diversity of traditional African spiritual systems. I met priest, priestess, and devotees (people vying for initiation) from a broad spectrum of systems practiced in the Caribbean, Latin America, and Africa. During the ceremony I witnessed a phenomenon that convinced me Black people are not as far removed from mother Africa as we might like to think. A Haitian priestess became possessed with the spirit of a deity and began to speak to us in kreyol. I immediately made the connection between this phenomenon and the Christian tradition of "catching of the Holy Ghost" and speaking in tongues.
These experiences intrigued and enlightened me, but not enough to become a devotee of Ifa and seek initiation. What fundamentally altered my perspective on African spiritual systems was the discovery of the Odu Ifa. The Odu Ifa is a collection of odus (Yoruba sayings) used by the babalawo (priest) to provide counsel. Some might call them scriptures. First and foremost the odus are profound in their own right. But perhaps more importantly they demolished the notion that we had no religion before the coming of Arabs or Europeans. The Odu Ifa affirmed my belief that Africans brought the world its first spiritual systems.
The Christian church taught me the power of collective worship, Islam taught me that spirituality can be empowering, Buddhism armed me with the tool of meditation, and African spirituality revealed the power of my ancestry. But the real home run for me was not practicing one particular religion, but rather embracing a broader concept of spirituality. That is what led me to home plate.
My spiritual journey thus far has led me from the church to the mosque to meditation to now a simple prayer table. The path taken has allowed me to see the universality and connectedness of religions and spiritual systems, and helped me understand why all people have a right to worship God in their own unique way. Respecting the universal truths that bind most religions gives me a low tolerance for religious chauvinism. And all the while I have found myself becoming more focused on the fact that the external expression of worship is not as valuable as one's internal commitment to living a life reflecting self-love,self-respect, and a commitment to service.
Some may interpret my spiritual journey as the wandering of a fickle, noncommittal, misguided young brother. Those who defend a particular religion (or "vehicle") may be reluctant to acknowledge that there are many roads leading to the ultimate destination of spirituality. But I would argue that my rich, diverse spiritual experiences have helped me understand why so many Black males distance themselves from organized religion. Some brothers are no longer convinced that their religion equips them with the tools they need to be successful in today's society.
The twenty-first century calls for a new manifestation of faith, one measured less by adherence to doctrine and more by living a life that is healthy and balanced in all aspects -- physically, mentally, and spiritually -- both in our families and in our community. We no longer live in a society governed by superstitions, age hierarchy, and unquestioned compliance with tradition. There are Black males who have become increasingly critical of religion as a whole, and they express their discontent in various ways depending on their personality. The less confrontational brothers simply abandon the church, mosque, or temple altogether. The more aggressive ones become cynics with a general disdain for religion. These are the brothers who consider anyone perpetuating religion to be a pimp or con man.
There are three fatal flaws found in most religious practice, which, if they were properly addressed, could alter Black men's perspective toward our spiritual systems.
One is our tendency to confine "holy" acts to our religious centers. We fill churches throughout the country -- be they megachurches or small community congregations -- adorned in our Sunday best. We gather in houses of Afro-Caribbean spiritual systems such as Voudon, Yoruba, and Candomble;, or attend rituals in rural areas in our beads and traditional attire. The Muslims among us attend Juma services. And Hebrew groups, both orthodox and Black Hebrew Israelites, gather in pockets throughout the Black community.
But once we leave that space, do we remember our values and principles? Many have come to believe that beyond the confines of the sanctuary, it isn't necessary to act out of one's higher self. Consider all the sensational cases of scandals in which religious leaders have been guilty of adultery, abuse, and financial mismanagement. Of course this "saint in the temple, sinner outside" syndrome applies to the congregation as well as the clergy. How many churchgoers relate to their families and communities in negative or destructive ways? The only justification for this schizophrenic behavior is the notion that spirituality can be confined within four walls rather than extending into our everyday lives and interactions.
This particular point was underscored for me when a friend of mine was choked by her husband while she was preparing to attend a religious service -- in front of their children at that. One moment the family was getting dressed to go worship God, the next, mom was being strangled and dragged through the house by dad. On another occasion a priest made romantic advances toward another female friend under the guise of healing her. These situations and countless others remind us of the need to carry our spirituality beyond our places of worship.
As quiet as it is kept, there is an underlying politics of fear playing itself out in our religions, encouraging followers to be obedient so as to avoid punishment in the afterlife. Many of us think of our devotion as premiums that we pay into a sort of sacred insurance policy. We attend religious services, praise the higher power, and read our divinely inspired text. From this formula we hope to become beneficiaries of divine grace in life, while our spiritual benefactor awards prosperity in the afterlife. Ultimately, we are investing in security for when we die.
This fear-based argument is compelling. Death is the only experience guaranteed to all people regardless of race, gender, or socioeconomic status -- and it is a mystery. Mortality stares us all in the face. This fear of the unknown played a major role in my submitting to the church as a teenager. The idea of "knowing that you know that you know" weighed heavily on my heart. But even when I was a Baptist I still felt as if there was more to learn. Although I was in the arms of salvation, I didn't feel any better prepared to survive in the world as a young Black man. So, yes, I thought my religion would save me from the fires of hell but I was uncertain that it could show me how to make it in the here and now.
Mortality was a real consideration in my family. My two maternal uncles both died at age twenty-two, one from a drug overdose and another from murder. My paternal grandfather and maternal grandmother recently died from lung cancer. Just three years earlier I remember crying until my eyes swelled when notified of the drowning death of my seven-year-old cousin. I had long come to terms with the fact that I could soon be the person on the cover of the funeral program. But the struggles not to fall into the traps of drugs and premature parenthood, while still making enough money to go to school looking clean, led me to gamble with my place in the afterlife.
Our willingness to test the boundaries of fear-based religions is quite apparent in rap music, an effective gauge of the Black male state of mind. In 2Pac's 1996 song "Hail Mary," Young Noble and Kastro of the Outlawz chant:
If it's on then it's on,We break beat-breaksOutlawz on a paper chase
A similar sentiment of getting yours now and letting the chips fall where they may after death is also reflected in Nas's verse on the 2002 release "Life Is What You Make It," when he states:
No tears if I'm dumped in a hearse, I won't be the firstNor the last ni***, let's get this cash ni***.
Rap is not the only music forum where Black men ponder our relationship with the divine. Through all of our musical forms -- spirituals, jazz, reggae, rhythm and blues -- we express our wrestling with mortality. Consider Al Green's transition from R&B crooner to gospel artist, or Sam Cooke's lyrics on "A Changeis Gonna Come":
It's been too hard living but I'm afraid to die'Cause I don't know what's up there beyond the sky...
Black men often feel hopeless. The realities of living in a society rooted in injustice, inequality, and racism -- the secular -- can take precedence over our fear of what's to come after death -- the religious. Black men have been waiting for a change to come since we were brought to the Americas to work until death. We were denied full citizenship after the Civil War and the compromised fall of the Reconstruction era. The entire Black community had to endure the terror of lynching and rape during the hellish Jim Crow era. Both the nonviolent Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr., and the Black Nationalist Malcolm X died from gunfire. During the Black Power era our male leadership was incarcerated, exiled, and murdered. After inheriting this legacy of racism and injustice, how much worse can hell be?
Displaying good character as a means of avoiding retribution after life is not just problematic but inherently selfish. The idea of "personal" salvation is the third challenge facing contemporary religions. The old adage "I came into this world by myself and will leave by myself" is popular among those who seek to justify their self-centered lifestyle. But how a person enters or exits this plane of existence is not the issue. The fact is we live our lives among others. The issue is that many of the religions we practice stress individual salvation.
Presenting personal salvation as the aim of all spirituality is also reflective of a society focused on material acquisition. Those who move through the world looking out for number one tend to see other people either as barriers to individual progress or pawns to be manipulated. This belief system allows people with education, material wealth, and social status to neglect those who are unable to attain those privileges. It also provides comfort to those who live out an "American Gangster" fantasy by selling drugs to members of their own community. This type of attitude allows them to be indifferent to their fellow man as long as they keep their own personal salvation on layaway.
This indifference is a problem within the total society, resulting in violence and death among many young brothers in the inner city. Feelings of alienation, marginalization, and isolation cause some of us to adopt a "me against the world" mentality. That's why our spiritual systems and religions should reinforce the connections between us. Our commitment must not just be to ourselves but also to the condition of the collective. Let service to people be our way of serving God.
Whenever I have the opportunity to empower people through a workshop or lecture, I always try to change "I" to "we." I feel most connected to the Divine when I am developing and implementing success programs for African American males, both at the local and national level. When one of my students had a psychotic episode and I had to sit with him in a hospital room for thirteen hours to keep him from being forcefully restrained, I put aside the conveniences of the "I" for the well-being of the "we."
Many of us are familiar with the selfless spirituality of Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr., and Malcolm X. That same selflessness can be found in the lives and work of Dutty Boukman, one of the early leaders of the Haitian Revolution; the Honorable Elijah Muhammad, messenger of the Nation of Islam; and the civil rights activist Jaramogi Abebe Agyeman. From liberating slaves to building enduring institutions, these men demonstrated the power of seeking redemption for the collective as opposed to just the individual.
I could continue with a list of other challenges faced by our current religious institutions, but addressing these three areas would be a great start toward improving the lives of Black males:
¥ Stop thinking of divinity as limited to the confinesof a building.¥ Stop building our faith on fear of damnation.¥ Stop seeking personal salvation above the good ofthe whole.
If we could do these things, our community might begin to reverse the trends that have made so many Black males distance themselves from religion. Our community is suffering and our success will depend on how we respond with solutions.
We now have a foundation upon which to build a transformational approach to spiritual thought and practice dedicated to producing the kind of Black males who can be assets to our communities and to the world. In an effort to reclaim our humanity, let us find new motivation for living by opening our minds to broader concepts of spirituality. No longer can the conservative clergy continue to argue that our people suffer because we aren't following the doctrines of old. If the old ways were enough, we would not face the grave challenges before us today. Our steps toward a more productive spiritual path begin with recognizing the need for change. We can no longer afford to seek analog solutions to digital problems.
I propose these five steps as starting points toward pursuingspiritual growth and wellness:
1. Set aside a place in the home to reflect, meditate, orpray.
2. Consume media (whether print, audio, or visual)content that promotes good character and balancedliving.
3. Measure spirituality by cultivating harmoniousrelationships, not just by attending services or participatingin rituals.
4. Practice forgiveness of yourself and others.
5. Perform acts of service within your family and yourcommunity.
These five steps aim to provide practical, meaningful ways to reconnect one with one's higher spiritual consciousness. I can offer no guarantee other than this one: There is no cure for everything. Any religious or spiritual system claiming to be the be-all-and-end-all is guaranteed to fail. It's not about abandoning your current religious practices, but about taking the first steps toward overall spiritual empowerment.
We can transfer the same relationship we have with our various religious centers (whether church, mosque, or temple) into our homes by designating a place in our home for reflection time, meditation, and prayer. This space should contain items you consider sacred, anything that speaks to your higher self. These might include spiritual texts, pictures or other symbols of your ancestors, and incense or candles.
Once you have created a sanctuary in your home, it can serve as a place to retreat during times of both frustration and elation. Choose a consistent time to sit at your prayer table or altar for at least fifteen minutes a day. You must give yourself enough time to become spiritually centered. On your most challenging days, one can vent in this space. During prosperous times, one can reflect on one's good fortune.
Whether you are climbing the corporate ladder, earning college credits, working part-time at the mall, or counting down days on an incarceration bid, a man needs a place where he can clear his head. This transfers spirituality out of a particular building and creates an immediate space for self-reflection rather than worship. In your religious center, in the company of your fellow believers, you offer external praise; at your prayer table or altar your attention is inward.
I sit at my prayer table every day, and I always find a way to use that time constructively. Some days I just sit and meditate to clear my mind. Other days I pray for family and friends who may be in need. Sometimes I reflect on the past or visualize my upcoming day. When I am stressed I simply breathe and think of a positive way to solve my conflict. Sometimes I read scripture or inspirational quotes. The important thing is to seize time out of your schedule to tap into your spirit.
Taking time for a self-inventory is a necessary first step toward making the transition from a religion focused on belief to a spirituality based on behavior. Our behavior is influenced by our environment. One of my mentors, Pastor K. Hakim Kokayi of Transformation International Church, has stated, "What you consume is what you will consider." According to this logic, if one wants to be whole, healthy, and productive, one should seek out and digest information that encourages such attributes.
Exploring spiritual texts, including traditional holy books -- from the Bible to the Qur'an, the Torah, Odu Ifa, and Husia -- can provide a basis for positive thinking. Readings can vary from scriptures, meditations, or literature, discussing the application of spiritual laws and principles. Both fiction and nonfiction materials offer insight on spiritual health and wellness. Writers like Ayi Kwei Armah, James Redfield, and Alice Walker include spiritual themes in their work. Howard Thurman, Deepak Chopra, Iyanla Vanzant, Angel Kyodo Williams, and Kahlil Gibran sprinkle their writings with insights from diverse spiritual perspectives.
Listening to music that speaks to one's higher self also contributes to a more positive outlook on life. While spirituals and gospel music offer a traditionally religious message, other forms of spirituality can be found in the uplifting music of artists like Miriam Makeba; Bob Marley; Stevie Wonder; Earth, Wind & Fire; Femi Kuti; and India.Arie, to name but a few. Jazz music -- also known as African American classical music -- by the likes of John Coltrane and Thelonious Monk conveys powerful spiritual messages beyond words through instrumentation.
Some traditionalists may insist there is no redeeming value in "secular" music. But recent history has shown that a steady diet of gospel music does not exempt anyone from making destructive choices. From Kirk Franklin's pornography addiction to the domestic violence involving evangelists Juanita Bynum and Thomas W. Weeks III, it's clear that tuning out secular music is not a guaranteeof righteous behavior.
Visual information plays as profound a role in shaping our environment as does sound. Seek to fill your home with images that reflect tranquility, preferably scenes from nature. I use images of beaches, rivers, lakes, mountain ranges, and tropical forests as computer screen savers to combat the cold concrete environment of the city. Our history is full of great women and men, ranging from Harriet Tubman to Malcolm X, whose images we can place in our homes, offices, and communal spaces. These ancestors serve to remind us of our rich cultural heritage and of the fact that so many people before us have done more with less.
Diversify your television and film consumption with documentaries, educational programs, and stories of spiritual growth. Turn off the reality shows and music videos and scan the History Channel, Discovery Channel, or PBS for shows that broaden your understanding of the world and your role in it. For a candid interpretation of Black manhood and a serious look at our religious struggles, check out the St. Claire Bourne film, John Henrik Clarke: A Great and Mighty Walk. Give your spirit the break it deserves from the mediocre, dumbed-downentertainment that dominates popular culture.
Malcolm X remains the shining example of a Black man making the transformation from a menace to society to a minister to society. History tells us that Malcolm surrounded himself with books, articles, and anything he could find to feed his intellectual and spiritual curiosity, and to facilitate his metamorphosis. Within one lifetime he went from man-child Malcolm Little, to street hustler Detroit Red, to fiery Minister Malcolm X, to Omowale, an ambassador of Black Americans, to the mature lover of humanity, EI Hajj Malik El Shabazz. Know that you too can obtain spiritual development within the context of your current situation (whether corporate, laborer, student, or artist) by being more selective about what information you place into your mind.
Rethink the way we measure our spiritual development. It is time we transform the notion of being saved by conversion, of taking oaths and submitting to rituals, and move beyond symbolic gestures into real-life practices.
Let's foster harmonious human relationships. What good is it to claim allegiance to a particular deity if you are unable to hold a peaceful conversation with your relative or spouse? Pay attention to relationships with the people in your life. Are they unstable, fragile, or volatile? How have you contributed to this problem? How can you counteract it?
Conflicts have an interesting way of telling us where we stand in terms of maturity and spiritual development. As conscious and aware as I considered myself to be, I had a tendency to raise my voice in conversations with my wife when I felt my point was not being understood. My wife felt my tone was disrespectful. She, on the other hand, never raised her voice during our conversations. I took her critique to heart, changed my behavior, and brought harmony into our relationship.
Reevaluate your man-to-man relationships. When we exhibit unhealthy competitive postures toward one another, it fosters petty jealousy and divisions. This egotistical attitude makes a simple thing like acknowledging someone else's accomplishments or successfully working together virtually impossible. Some of us could stand to have our perception of "manhood" realigned. If our notions of manhood include a desire to control every situation, or they leave us unable to let go of grudges, then we may be destined to have fractured relationships. Even if we cannot forget wrongdoing, real or perceived, we can let go and live and grow. There is hope in the practice of forgiveness.
Forgiveness means we don't allow disagreements to make us distrustful and guarded and the basis for all human interactions. When we don't forgive, we trap ourselves in spiritual prisons. On the other hand, forgiveness of one's self and of others opens up the doorway to new possibilities. Acts of forgiveness include apologizing or accepting apologies, offering amends, and simply releasing the hold that a particular situation has over your life. This is an especially effective spiritual approach for Black males who have issues with their father.
As a result of my father's substance abuse he suffered many losses, including his relationship with my mother. Their relationship was fractured but I always maintained contact and a relationship with him. He was a voracious reader who always sparked my curiosity to learn. He also has a contagious sense of humor so I was able to bond with him beyond his addictions. My father has recently recovered from his addictions, and to this day he and I remain close and supportive of each other.
My father and I are lucky, but I still consistently run into Black males who were raised primarily by their mothers or grandmothers and who have serious problems with their fathers. Deeply scarred by the absence of their father, they hold on to the hurt, disappointment, and frustration. My words to them are: Brothers, you are not going to get those lost experiences back. Nor are you hurting him with your anger. Release yourself from the prison of hatred. Forgive him.
Beyond forgiving is giving. Performing acts of service to our brothers helps to reaffirm a bond lost through individualist beliefs and attitudes of distrust. Service can be given in various ways: tutor or mentor youth, help elders go to doctor appointments, host fundraisers for community projects, design programs for small business development, coach Little League, provide pro bono counsel, or allow someone to apprentice under your leadership. It all comes down to, "each one teach one."
When we share our own time for the benefit of the collective, we are centered in our higher selves. The unique spiritual satisfaction that volunteers derive from their work, far beyond any material compensation, is the beauty of giving back. Although our community has many allies, most of the work toward empowering Black males must come from Black males. And nowhere is our love of God more evident than through acts of service.
For the past four years, I have facilitated a monthly Black male study group that focuses on what it means to be Black and male in twenty-first-century America. Divine self-awareness is developed in these conversations, processing issues ranging from masculinity and sexuality to power and racism. The study group provides a context for these young brothers to engage the world both empowered and informed. Nobody pays to participate. These sessions are volunteer efforts, an act of service.
Money is not a prerequisite for opening. Dr. King stated that all one needs to serve is "a soul generated by love." While performing acts of service, we are no longer on the sidelines of life, saddled with fear and impaired by individuality. In reaching out beyond ourselves, we express a deep sense of communion with all that we honor as divine.
Many people argue that the Black man's salvation lies in economics, while others say politics. Still others advocate "knowledge of self." The truth is we need all of the above, and then some. Nevertheless, we trust in our spiritual foundation to sustain us through those times when finances, political power, and history cannot. I have witnessed relatives use their spirituality to divorce destructive lifestyles, recover from drug abuse, and pursue entrepreneurial endeavors. The key to their success was relying on the power within themselves rather than something external. In their bleakest hour, spirituality gave them a reason to live.
Our families and communities suffer because some of us do not understand the purpose of our lives. Society tells us to pursue wealth and power. Advertisements tell us the main purpose of life is to consume as much as possible. But if material possessions really brought happiness, why are so many wealthy celebrities unhappy and making decisions that lead them to incarceration and premature death?
To those who claim to be leaders and practitioners of spiritual systems, let your work be reflected neither in your material possessions nor by the number of individuals who follow your message. Let your success be measured by the character and humanity of your members and followers. Our stubborn loyalty to sacred buildings, fear-based pontifications, and self-centered salvationstare back at us in the eyes of our youth. Will we offer them hopelessness? Or will we be men of character, assets to our families and our communities? Will we demonstrate our unconditional love of God by how we treat those around us?
Regardless of the religious banner we prostrate ourselves beneath, men of African ancestry are facing a crisis individually and collectively. Of all the tools we have to repair our communities and ourselves, spirituality is the most powerful. Commitment to spiritual growth creates a firm foundation to build upon. We cannot afford to sit in judgment of brothers at the awards shows nor the brothers who sit in prisons because they emulated something they saw in a music video, or on the streets. Such are the spiritual challenges we face as Black males. This is a struggle that we must share collectively. Let us find meaning in our human existence through the reconstruction of Black manhood -- physically, mentally, and spiritually. It's time to build.
Copyright © 2008 by Kevin Powell