This essay first appeared on The Doctor is in, hosted by Dr. C. Alease Smith on January 1, 2020.
Marcus Garvey said “A people without the knowledge of their past history, origin and culture is like a tree without roots.”
This hit home in so many ways.
As I am wont to do, I use my personal experience to relate a broader message. Africana philosopher Lewis Gordon, author of Existentia Africana said that personal experience becomes relevant only when it can transcend the individual. My experience fits the bill.
I was recently tasked with researching the meaning and purpose of tradition because I don’t have any. The reason I have no traditions is because I grew up in a toxic, abusive environment.
Traditions are about history. Creating new traditions is living history. Traditions are cultural. And they have origins even if we don’t know it.
I have no traditions and like Garvey’s statement, I am a tree without roots.
Now, realistically speaking we know that trees cannot grow without roots which is what makes Garvey’s statement so profound because here I stand. And here Black people stand.
The history and culture of Black people was stripped, stolen and whitewashed. I was simply never given history or culture. The little I got, like the history given Black folk provided no roots. What was given was just enough to let us know that there were Black folk before us.
Historically speaking, the western traditions imported to America have stood the test of time with the majority of those being religious in nature. Secular traditions of today were born in religious traditions. When we speak of the traditional family, we mean the Christian version. When we celebrate the holidays, we tend to overlook the ‘holy’ part.
Here in America, while the traditions evolve, their purpose remains the same. These western traditions are what shape society. Traditions provide a historical foundation on which to build, a common thread that can be traced back to ancient times.
Black folk, like me, were stripped of this common thread. We were told there was no common thread. We were told we had no history, no culture and no traditions. We were made to believe that our being began when we were born. Whatever back story there was to our being was irrelevant because we had no roots.
Roots run deep. Roots provide life. Roots grow into trees. Trees have branches that stretch to the heavens. As Jesus claimed to be the Tree of Life and He promised to ‘graft’ us in, Black people had no roots of their own and being grafted in to an eternal tree became the appeal that simply could not be resisted.
We need to have roots.
But we cannot have traditions, no historical common purpose, if we are to be grafted in. Those roots are not compatible with the new tree of life. And we are dead without roots.
Or are we?
I have no traditions. I was not provided any, nor did I seek to create my own. But I’m still standing.
Black folk were stripped of their traditions, culture, even their origins; but here we are, still standing.
Lack of knowledge of the history, culture and origins is in no way a lack of roots. If it were, Black folk would’ve ceased to exist a long time ago and I would never have been born.
I don’t have traditions. I was not given that common thread of history that connects me to my ancestors. I was not given any cultural awareness. I was not provided with knowledge of my roots. But the fact that I am is proof that my roots exist.
It is the same for Black folk. We may have been stripped of the knowledge, even lied to about it, but our very being is proof that we have roots. And our roots run deep. And we are finally, collectively, becoming aware of these roots.
We are not, as Garvey said, a tree without roots. We are trees whose roots and branches span the globe and reach for the heavens. We are a strong-hold hidden by the lies of white supremacy.