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HU Reflections

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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
7/9/13

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http://gjenks-climatechangehu.blogspot.com/2013/06/h.html

Here’s a link to Greg Jenkins’ recent post on blogspot regarding his summer research trip to Senegal.  He was unsuccessful in his efforts to post on HU Research Network.  If anyone has figured out how “invited authors” can post please let me know.

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July 3, 2013 · 3:01 am

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Detroit Site Visit

Detroit Abandoned House

A few days ago Dean Alton Pollard, principal investigator for the Lilly Endowment funded project, Equipping the Saints: Promising Practices in Black Congregational Life, and I headed to Detroit, Michigan for a site visit with our local researcher, Henry Wells III, who is a pastor, the principal of a private Christian school, and a sociology of religion doctoral candidate.  Our goal was to get a contextual sense of some of the challenges as well as the  life enhancing practices in the Detroit area. Due to inclement weather and flight schedule interruptions, our departure from the Baltimore airport was delayed by 4 hours.

Tired and hungry, we arrived at the Detroit Airport around 10:30 PM.  We rented a car, typed in the address of the St. Regis Hotel and started on our way, trusting the GPS to get us there.  At this point the site visit started.  Instead of keeping us on the main highway to the hotel, the GPS, in all of its wisdom, directed us  off the beaten path.  We drove through dark streets, pass deserted houses and vacant lots. Even in the darkness I could sense despair, devastation, and hopelessness.  “My God,” I thought, “I have never seen anything like this, but maybe it is just dark and is really not as bad as it seems.” When we arrived at the hotel, it, too, appeared to have seen better days.  It felt empty and nearly deserted.   I showered and crawled into bed, hoping to forget that I was really hungry.  My mind was not at ease when I drifted off to sleep.  I couldn’t help but wonder if there were promising practices to be found in Detroit.  The next  morning our site researcher and host met us for breakfast.  We shared our experiences with him and his only response was to smile and say, “You will see more today.”  And we did, indeed.  We saw more boarded up houses and schools, vacant lots, people standing in long lines waiting for food, abandoned tennis courts, overgrown parks and athletic fields.  In the midst of it all, though, sprinkled here and there, were manicured lawns, clean streets, and urban gardens.  We saw murals and inspirational quotes painted on boarded up houses, and we learned that pastors and community leaders had planned neighborhood cleanups for the weekend.

Detroit Garden Mural

Detroit Garden Mural

When the research is over and we have analyzed the data, what promising practices will we have found among African American churches in Detroit?  What will we have learned about dealing with hopelessness and despair?  It is too soon to tell.  But I saw “art” and I know that art not only speaks to, but nurtures the human spirit, even in the midst of despair.  When we shadowed an urban pastor for a day, we saw “compassionate caring” fueling transformative leadership.  I left Detroit wondering if  perhaps “artistic expression” and “compassionate caring” are, in fact, among the most promising practices one could find anywhere. ….Ghandi2013-06-25 08.57.08

Velma E. Love, Project Director

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June 27, 2013 · 7:46 pm

HUSD Action Research

Hello All,
Last week I week I traveled to Tuskegee, Alabama for a site visit with one of the field researchers connected with the divinity school’s study of wellness and wellbeing practices of African American church congregations. Our site researcher, Dr. Wylin Wilson, of the Tuskegee Bioethics Center, reported on two projects that caught my attention, a diabetes support group operating in 27 local churches and a new project, Emotional Emancipation Circles, that directs attention to mental and emotional well being and encourages African American families to embrace practices that nurture and support emotional healing. Dr.Wilson is conducting interviews with participants in these groups as part of our efforts to identify and document effective practices contributing to the spiritual, physical, emotional, psychological and economic well being of congregants and communities. Tuskegee is an economically depressed rural area with boarded up store fronts in the “downtown” area. It is an official “food desert,” with not much to offer in the way of fresh fruit and produce, but it is open country land. However, I saw a glimmer of hope. In one of the few restaurants in town, Tiger Pause, I had the best veggie burger ever! Imagine that! I also learned that one of the churches participating in our study has a community garden that has become quite popular, especially with those who love fresh collard greens. I left Tuskegee feeling inspired and thinking about the importance of engaged scholarship, and translational research. What started as Dean Alton Pollard’s idea for a grant proposal to study effective practices in African American congregational life is quickly becoming a model of engaged scholarship and translational research, an example of Howard University fulfilling its mission of discovering solutions to human problems.

Velma E. Love, PhD

HUSD Visiting Scholar & Project Director

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Welcome to HU Research Network

Grab a cup of coffee/tea, relax and invite the muse to come sit with you as you share your 

research work in progress, your dream and “what if” projects.  Someone out there is waiting  to connect with you.

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