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  • Writer's pictureDr. Obari Adeye Cartman

Culture is powerful - Culture is not power

This thought isn’t fully formed yet. It’s mostly a feeling, been resting in the pit of my stomach for a while. Sometimes dormant. It flared up a couple days ago during a gathering to save a school that’s dear to me. I’ve committed to being a different kind of intellectual, so I get to excuse myself for processing drafts of my thoughts in public. When is a thought ever final anyway? Especially the ones so intricately married to emotions. This one, that lives in my core, feels like disgust. It’s warm and grinding. Makes me feel dirty. Embarrassed. Used. There may be some rage in there. And a dash of disappointment.

I love culture. I was raised to. A lot of what other people refer to as African-centered culture is just what is for me. I recently adopted a new name, Adéye, to replace my already African name. It means “the crown of salvation”. It makes me feel strong. I don’t know that it gives me any more power though. Maybe it does and it manifests gradually. Or maybe the ancient cosmic divinities that it pays homage to (Obaluaiye and Shango) are still the ones with the actual power, and whether They let me borrow some from time to time depends on what I want to do with it.

The city decided to close one of our African-centered charter schools, Barbara A. Sizemore Academy (BASA) on the southwest side of Chicago. The city changed a rule (because they can) and broke a deal they made with BASA. The students, parents, teachers, staff and extended family have been crafting an organized response since the decision was announced and it led to a public hearing this week where 50+ concerned citizens told them in 50+ ways that closing a good school is a bad idea. Some gave rationale explanations (as if the closing was based on logic), some gave emotional responses (as if the state cares). No one had a power response. There sat that feeling, that disgust, imagining the panel chuckle on the inside when a remark had some sass on it. I feel the same thing when protesters go downtown and I JUST KNOW some CEO or politician looked out the window down at the chanting crowd and said with a condescending pout “aww look dey mad at us again.” I can’t say I know what power is, but I know it don’t never beg or plead.

Kendrick Lamar’s performance at the Grammys was a powerful use of hip-hop culture. Beyonce’s performance at the Super Bowl was moving and sparked lots of important dialogue. The guy (most likely) that greenlit those moments and wrote their check still has more power. More people have learned about the Black Panther Party as a result, but the idea that “knowledge is power” is equally problematic. Then what is power? Where is it located? Who has it? How does one know when they have been impacted by it? Kwame Toure once said “If a whyte man wants to lynch me, that’s his problem. If he’s got the power to lynch me, that’s my problem. Racism is not a question of attitude; it’s a question of power.”

As much as we’ve learned about culture during the conscious re-emergence of Africa back into our minds and hearts, I worry that we haven’t learned as much about power. As beautiful as the names, songs, drum and dance, celebrations are they sometimes feel like empty ritual without any power behind them. At least the power to control the few institutions we have to pass them down to our children. I hate that the children were there watching their elders petition to someone for what belongs to us. I hate that we don’t value our stuff until someone tries to take it from us. I hate that a movie is being released this weekend called the God’s of Egypt that blatantly lies about our ancestors and deities, but we don’t understand that no state test can measure the long term significance of walking into a schoolhouse everyday where the truth is painted on the wall. The dilemma to remain small and manageable (affordable) or expand so more can have access will mean some compromises, some state involvement, until we have more power. In the meantime, we need to always be thinking about how to provide basic needs to our children: food, shelter, education, water (#Flint). We must develop better power analysis that has to do with land and other natural resources. We should be better able to galvanize people power. And we must always remember that our children are watching every step of the way.

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