Sunday, June 24, 2018

Cultural Wisdom

How have I arrived at who I have become, what I value, what I know, what I believe to be true?
Like many folks I know in America, what the culture handed down to me felt insufficient. There were a few good stories of freedom and human rights and love thy neighbor, but so many turned out to be empty talk soaked in hypocrisy. The real stories behind Colombus’ curiosity and bold exploratory spirit, Thomas Jefferson’s intellect and defense of democratic freedom, the churches carrying through the theology of Jesus Christ were riddled with disappointment and hidden —and not so hidden—brutalities, lies, injustices and deceit. Colombus cut off the hands of native Taino people who didn’t collect enough gold for him, Jefferson had children by a slave woman he legally owned who apparently didn’t have the “inalienable right to life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness” and the church justified killing millions of people who didn’t believe what it wanted them to, condoned four centuries of enslaving human beings, burned women at the stake and was recently used to explain how it is perfectly fine to “legally” kidnap children away from their parents at the U.S./ Mexico border because God says so.

What I was gifted is a cultural that values (or valued) literacy and gave me the freedom to read multiple points of view and decide for myself what felt right and just and true. And so a lifetime of reading the wisdom and beauty of poets far and wide, enlarging my world through novels, cultivating my thinking mind with ideas presented in non-fiction, is what began to shape both my knowledge and values. Alongside films and documentary films and even occasional TV, music both listened to in recordings and played on various instruments and sung, art in museums, dance recitals and plays, all the voices of culture. By picking and choosing—Yeats over Rod McKuen, Dickens over Danielle Steele, Thoreau over Machievelli, Coltrane over Kenny G., Black Orpheus over Road Warrior, Suzuki Roshi over John Calvin, Martin Luther King over Bull Conner and so on, I created my own cultural identity and grew a philosophy, outlook and life practice born from the confluence of various traditions.

That’s fine as far as it goes. But what if those (what I consider) more enlightened thoughts and morals and practices were actually given to me by my culture? Kofi Gbolonyo remains one of the wisest, most intelligent and most interesting people I’ve ever met and without taking an ounce of credit away from him personally, most of what he speaks of so eloquently is the wisdom and practices of his indigenous Ewe culture. I could listen to him for hours speak of the three colors and their meanings, the three stages of human existence, the ritual of making a drum, the steps to making palm wine, the meaning of the designs in the kente cloth, the meaning of the dance steps and drum patterns and songs. Meaning is infused in just about every aspect of Ewe life and it is a collective, ancient, yet forever contemporary meaning rather than a personal one. Not a dogma to be blindly accepted, but a genuine wisdom and spiritual point of view crafted over centuries. For a Westerner like me, it is truly astonishing to receive for free this gift of a connected, meaningful culture.

Of course, there were inevitable shadows and blind spots as there must be in any situation
where a group of people choose “this” over “that.” And the encounter with the Christian missionaries who refused Ewe beliefs and practices and insisting that their converts deny them creates many layers of complexity to the situation. Let’s not go there now. This is just to report that 99.99% of us Americans have no idea how exquisite and wise and life-affirming and complex the accumulated wisdom of this Ewe culture is. I’m not talking about being a good liberal and acknowledging the humanity of people who were historically denied it by the West, not talking about being tolerant or compassionate or kind from our arrogant stance of brainwashed superiority. I’m talking about understanding how intricate and exquisite and wise a collective group of people can be even if their wi-fi is spotty.

If Kofi wasn’t so busy, I would strongly encourage him to write a book gathering together the many remarkable lectures he has given on this wisdom. Or at least sit down at his feet for hours with a tape recorder and then transcribe his talks. To speak on behalf of the Ewes to add their wisdom to the store of accumulated knowledge so that someone feeling isolated in their American town can have this world opened and begin to shape their new life.

Akpe, Kofi!!

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