Sunday, June 29, 2014

Wake Up. Mr. Toynbee

The historian Arnold Toynbee once famously said, “Africa has produced nothing of consequence to civilization.” I wish Mr. Toynbee had been in this Orff-Afrique course. I believe Kofi and myself and others might have widened his narrow vision and opened his eyes to expand his criteria of what constitutes civilization.

He may have been thinking of writing systems and literacy and novels and poetry and dismissed an entire continent based on that. But what is the point of literacy? To store, remember, pass down through time and pass across borders information vital to survival (the details of science and technology), instructive of character and morality (the Bible, Emily Post) and aesthetically pleasing to the human spirit (the plays of Shakespeare, the novels of Dickens, the poetry of Emily Dickenson). I hope that Mr. Toynbee would come to understand that there is an oral approach that accomplishes all of the above, storing information in human bodies, minds and hearts through music, dance, proverbs and poetry. Its reach is not as far across borders as a book, but when practiced unbroken in community, it passes through time every bit as effectively and requires a collective memory that makes a living community necessary and vibrant. (And in fact, its spirit did travel far across borders in the African diaspora, but cut loose from the specific stories that informed character and preserved the integrity of the community.) Mr. Toynbee might also consider that literacy from its inception was a way to keep track of slaves, was a key factor in colonialism (no oral culture ever colonized a literate one) and helped build nuclear weapons. While dismissing an entire continent because they favored orality over literacy, he might do well to keep that in mind.

He may have been thinking of scientific breakthroughs and discoveries and medicines and yes, you would be hard put to find examples in history of such things happening in sub-Saharan Africa, partly because of the preference for oral culture (see above). So while medicines for malaria, flush toilets, electricity, internal combustion engines and the like are to be appreciated, the unchecked proliferation of energy consumption, guns in the hands of children, air conditioners depleting ozone and the like is surely not the highest standard we can think of to measure civilization.

Or he may have been thinking of great monuments like the pyramids (which, by the way, are in Africa) and the Taj Mahal, conveniently overlooking that they were build by slaves in brutal working conditions. Or the big skycrapers in New York made possible by commerce in the new world built on the backs of African slaves and continued through sweat-shop exploitation in the third world. Is this what you mean by civilization, Mr. Toynbee?

Mr. Toynbee is not alone in looking at the world through the narrow lens of his cultural assumptions, but we all would do well to be aware of those inherited assumptions and consider a wider point of view. From where I stand, the culture I witnessed that puts music and dance at its center, that invests every gesture and sound with a cultural and morally instructive meaning, that creates eloquent, expressive, dynamic and graceful bodies in every one of its community members (never once saw anyone who looked clumsy when dancing), that continues unbroken the traditions of immediate and distant ancestors while continuously changing them and adding to them in response to the needs of the moment, that welcomes everyone— even awkward Western tourists— to come join the circle and participate, that equally includes everyone from the baby to the great-grandparent, that plays, sings and dances together for hours and hours without losing stamina, that is bound to community through these profound practices of song and dance, that is not prone to worship the “super-star” but looks for who will give back their individual success to the good of the community… well, Mr. Toynbee, don’t you think that this living model might contribute something of consequence to our ailing civilization? Don’t you think that those 74 children who randomly shot and killed other children and then themselves in the United States of America this past year might have had a happier childhood growing up in Dzodze, Ghana?

Dzodze and its culture has its own shadow, so I need to be wary of putting too much weight on the ideal of music and dance at the center of community life. But from where I sat, it looked and felt mighty good! And most importantly, was worthy of appreciation and consideration as to how to bring back some of its lessons into our lessons with children at school. To complete the mind-expanding (and body and soul) tour with Mr. Toynbee, I would also invite him into the music room at The San Francisco School.

I’d like to think that he would happily eat his words— alongside a helping of Fufu and red-red sauce.

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