I’ve been thinking a lot these days about Howard University and its past, present, future story. Maybe this is because Howard is in the news and the picture is not so bright. It could be that the institution is facing an identity crisis and this crisis is calling for the visionaries among us to come forward and create the future. Perhaps we are the ones who determine “whither we go and why,” as Dana Williams suggested in her HU Research Day Presentation. Perhaps, as Georgia Dunston reminds us, it really is an identity question. Maybe we have to get to the soul of who we are, the DNA of our cultural/spiritual identity. Could it be that the answers we seek lie within our own story?
As a religious studies scholar, I study the Ifa/Orisha tradition of West African origin. One of the things I am most interested in is the concept of the “Ori,” which literally translates as “head” or “consciousness,” but the “Ori” might also be described as the “god self” or that which carries the blueprint of the soul, the answer to the question, “Who am I and why am I here?” In Ifa cosmology, one’s Ori is a unique, individualized expression of one of the 256 Odu or fundamental energy patterns of the Universe. Through divinatory rituals, the priest/healer determines the Odu that a person’s Ori is experiencing and expressing. The Odu is, in effect, a naming of the active energy and it is the story that one is living. That internalized narrative of self is fluid and changeable, always evolving and yet there is an overarching story or an archetypal pattern that one came into the world to live out.
When an individual truly knows the self, understands their story, and the archetypal energies that govern their lives, they can make decisions that will help them fulfill their highest potential. “When you really know the nature of your spirituality, you can rise in the majesty of the soul, as a spiritual and intellectual giant aflame with a purpose,” as our African-American cultural ancestor in the field of education, Nannie Helen Burroughs, proclaimed. This level of self-knowledge allows us to “hear the sound of the genuine within,” as African-American spiritual sage, Howard Thurman, advises.
In his baccalaureate Address, entitled “The Sound of the Genuine,” given at Spellman College in 1980, Thurman told the story of the Blue Cat of Castle Town. Here’s a summary:
It seems that all the cats in Castle Town knew the legend of the blue cat with pink ears. No one wanted to give birth to such a cat for they had heard that a blue cat with pink ears was strange and would do strange things, like just leave home in search of the song of the river. If the blue cat heard the song of the river it was their fate to learn the song and go off in search of a home where someone recognized it. Well, one day a mother cat’s greatest fears came true. She gave birth to a blue cat with pink ears. The cat did have a few black hairs on its tail and she thought perhaps this might be her saving grace, but one by one those black hairs fell out. And wouldn’t you know, one night the rumbling sound of the river deep in the consciousness of the cat awakened him. He got up, shook himself off and wandered down to the river. There the river spoke, saying, “Sing your own song. Sing it well. Sing your own song well.” So the cat learned the song and went in search of a home. He went from place to place singing his song, knowing that when he reached his true home the people there would recognize his song. When he arrived at the home of the pewter maker something happened. As soon as the cat stretched out on the hearth and began singing his song, the pewter maker froze. A far away look came over his eyes and he remembered the river’s song. The cat then knew that he had found his home. (Coblentz, 1949)
There is more to the story, but the point Thurman made to the Spellman graduates, and the point I want to make here is that there is something inside each of us that waits and listens for the sound of the genuine within. Sometimes we are so distracted by the traffic inside our heads and the traffic going on around us that we cannot hear that sound. Until we hear it, though, we will dangle on the ends of the strings that someone else is pulling. How do we hear the sound of the genuine? Thurman reminds us that it is flowing within us. Ifa says it is in the Ori. It is in the Odu, the archetypal story of the soul. But, Thurman also says, this is not a solo journey for “If I hear the sound of the genuine in me and if you hear the sound of the genuine in you, then it is possible for me to go down in my spirit and come up in your spirit. … because the sound of the genuine makes the same music. “ The sacred texts of Ifa speak of an “egbe” in Heaven and an “egbe” on earth. An “egbe” is a group with whom we share an affinity. In Ifa terms, it is a group with whom we have a sacred contract.
Could it be that the blue cat is stirring at Howard, hearing the sound of the river, calling for those who would sing their own song and go deep enough to hear the sound of the genuine in others? While we raise the tough questions about the administrative and financial operations at Howard, we must also seek the resonance that binds us in other ways. Perhaps our survival depends upon knowing our true identity and singing the river’s song. Fred Ware said as much the other day when we talked about the science and religion project he is leading. “We must pose the questions that are unique to our sociocultural history,” he said, “for those questions will give us a competitive edge that we will not otherwise have.” In other words, “We must sing our own song and sing it well.”
I think the blue cat is waking up and the river’s song is rumbling in our consciousness. It is rumbling in the Heritage Studies Collaboration proposed by Eleanor King, in the Science and Religion project Fred Ware is leading, in the Climate Change Research that Greg Jenkins is conducting in Senegal, in Georgia Dunston’s application of identity lessons learned from the Human Genome Project, in the Humanities Collaboration Project Dana Williams and I are exploring, and in countless other ways. Our challenge is to learn the Song of the River and recognize it in the voices around us. When we know who we are and why we are here, then the way forward can become much clearer. Ase!
Velma E. Love