Transformative Power of African-centered Rites of Passage

Excerpt from

Bringing The Light Into A New Day:

African-centered Rites of Passage

by Lathardus Goggins II, Ed.D. (2012)

The very purpose of the rites of passage process is to transform the initiate from non-member to member. Where being a member is to be a person who can meet the demands of his or her purpose (i.e., the intent of the Creator). Hence, the significance of a rites of passage process can be measured by its power to cause or facilitate change in one's skills and insight.

The Bible is filled with persons undergoing transformation from one stage of life to another: Abraham, Moses, David, Paul and, of course, Jesus provide some of the most poignant examples. In Genesis 17, Abram and Sarai are given new names of Abraham and Sarah to mark the transition when God (Creator) revealed the "new" intent for their lives. From his birth to his death, the books of Exodus, Numbers and Deuteronomy chronicle the transformations in Moses's life. One can clearly see that at each stage Moses is being prepared for future challenges. Likewise, 1 Samuel 16 to 1 Kings 2 records significant moments in the transformation of David from a child to a king.

The conversion of Saul to Paul dramatically illustrates the transformative power of the rites of passage process. As Saul, he zealously persecuted Christians. Learning the critical issues about Christianity such as philosophy, where it was spreading, its organizational structures, what was its "most" convincing points, and what to say to discourage people from converting to Christianity were important to Saul's success. However, this stage of his life proved to be preparation for "being" Paul. The road to Damascus was the separation stage. The transition stage was while he was blind, and reincorporation stage began when the scales fell from his eyes. Having completed the "rites" process, Paul was transformed into the prolific author and arguably the person most responsible for "organizing" the early Christian church by drawing upon the knowledge and skills developed as Saul. Illustrations of the transformative power of rites of passage are not limited to Biblical characters.

In Narrative of Frederick Douglass: An American Slave, Douglass reflects on the "significant" moments of his life such as being separated from his mother as a child, watching brutal beatings, learning how to read and write, leading an insurrection, and escaping from slavery and how these experiences influenced his philosophy and actions against slavery. In The Confessions of Nat Turner (Khalifah, 1993), Turner recalls the significant moments which led to his insurrection - a two-day war on South Hampton County. Turner states: "In my childhood a circumstance occurred which made an indelible impression on my mind, and laid the groundwork of that enthusiasm [the insurrection]..." (p. 16). Turner remembered that his father and mother had told him that he was intended for some great purpose. Also, he remembered his grandmother saying, "Nat had too much sense to be raised [in slavery], and if he was, he would never be of any service to anyone as a slave" (p.16). Again and again, autobiographies and books like Growing Up Black, edited by Jay David, and Children of the Dream: The Psychology of Black Success by Audrey Edwards and Dr. Craig K. Polite, document "successful" African-Americans' reflections on significant moments that transformed their thinking and personal development.

In an interview on BET Talk, July 8, 1997, Geronimo (Pratt) Ji Jaga was asked, "How did you keep the faith [during his wrongful incarceration]?" He replied, "I was prepared by the elders." Likewise, when a member of the "Little Rock Nine" was asked about how they were able to withstand the hatred while integrating Central High School, she replied "We had no choice! We were chosen by our community and were prepared to face the crowds."

As alluded to earlier, when a person recognizes that the present is connected to the past and future, and recognizes that the past and present experiences are preparation for future experiences, then "full" transformative power of rites of passage can take effect. So when a person finds himself or herself in circumstances for which he or she has not been prepared, he or she has the consciousness to examine, "What happened?", "Why?", or "What am I doing here?"

Consider the parable of the "lost son" (Luke 15: 11-32). It is his recognition that he had not been prepared to live his life in a pig sty which is the impetus for deciding to return home. Here again it is important to note that rites of passage does not prevent a person from straying from his or her intended purpose. However, the rites of passage process does ensure that if a person strays from his or her intended purpose, then that person knows that he or she has strayed.

A child reared in a family where: a) the child is expected to fulfill the Creator's intent for that child's life; b) the elders and adults of the child's family maintained a relationship with the Creator so that they can discern the Creator's intent for the child; and c) the child's family elders and adults provided the opportunities to know the Creator, discern the Creator's specific intent for his or her life, and develop necessary skills and knowledge, will have a standard by which he or she can evaluate circumstances, experiences and concepts.

American education philosopher John Dewey (1938/1963) suggested that purpose is the criterion necessary to determine intelligence (the means by which one strategizes to execute purpose) and discipline (the ability and commitment to follow one's strategy). Hence, to be without purpose is to be without intelligence and discipline. Conversely, to enter an African-centered family-based community-linked rites of passage, which connects a person to his or her life's purpose, is to develop intelligence and discipline.

Highlights of my rites of passage ...

To discuss the highlights of my rites of passage process, it is necessary for me to start in the fall of 1992, when I was formally trained in African-centered rites of passage facilitation and instruction. I was introduced to Dr. Anthony Mensah's model which is based on the Akan traditions of Ghana. The information I received during the training allowed me to reflect on my life. I realized that my family had provided many of the same experiences and information; thus, a rites of passage. Though my family did not call the experiences they provided rites of passage, nor had they been formally introduced to the concepts of rites of passage, they to provide the basic concepts and experiences of an African-centered family-based community-linked rites of passage.

The Osborne family traditions were transmitted through rituals, stories and land. One of the rituals practiced by my mother was routinely calling home (Grambling, LA) at 7:30 a.m. every Saturday. This meant that whatever I was doing Friday night, I had to be "straight" enough to talk to Grandma and Grandpa 7:30 a.m. Saturday morning. Another was traveling home for holidays (it was what made the holidays special). These rituals stressed the importance of being connected to family. Also, they were metaphors for the importance of seeking counsel from and accountability to family elders, and the importance of returning home.

While at my grandparents' house, one ritual in which everyone is expected to participate is a small devotion conducted around the dining table. Every morning before breakfast, everyone met around the table and held hands; then either "grandpa" or "grandma" would read from the Bible; then grandma would request for someone to say the family prayer; then all others would say a Bible verse; and devotion ended with everyone saying "Amen" and hugging each other. This ritual is meant to focus everyone's attention on the importance of family connection as well as the individual's connection to the Creator, specifically though Christian teachings and philosophies.

Another significant tradition in the family is land. Whenever my mother and I went home, we would find the time to go "down home" to Saint Rest. This is a small community where my matriarchal ancestors have owned land since 1865. It is the site of the Osbornes' (grandfather) and the Leonards' (grandmother) family graveyards, churches and reunions. Saint Rest is where my mother was born, where my grandfather grew up and met my grandmother, where my great-great-grandfathers farmed land and are buried. In the Osborne family graveyard, my children and I can visit with my grandparents, great-grandparents, and great-great grandparents. Being surrounded by family history provided the impetus for storytelling. Now, when my children go "down home," we walk the land with my mother and uncle, and my children hear stories. The themes stress faith in God, farming (land ownership), independence, masonry, education, community service, excellence, leadership, having fun, and family interdependence. To be a descendant of Moses and Evangeline Osborne is to have at least an appreciation of such concepts. This was most clear during a ceremony for my cousin Kay and myself.

We were the first in our generation to graduate from college. To mark the transition, a ceremony was organized where Kay and I sat in the middle of a circle of family and friends. Each adult told a story about when we were children, then gave some advice or charge for the future. Once every adult had spoken, our grandfather laid hands on us, prayed for us, pronounced us to be adults, and charged us to be successful and live a good life.

My father's family told stories and traditions that focused on faith, ingenuity, hard work and education, as well. My father, who had earned three terminal degrees - Ph.D., Ed.D. and Ed.S. - told stories about working "odd jobs" and playing in a jazz band to pay for college. This is consistent with one of my grandfather's favorite sayings: "It may take faith the size of a mustard seed to move a mountain, but you had better bring a shovel." Altogether, the stories of my ancestors' and elders' lives and the rituals which symbolized their beliefs helped me to understand my life.

Being connected to one's ancestors and being connected to cultural heritage are important concepts in African-centered family-based community-linked rites of passage; however, not just to the African experience in the United States. One must be connected to the African experience in Africa. One way my parents provided this for me was a trip to Africa. My father, mother and I spent 4 weeks touring the continent. I had my 9th birthday there. We visited many countries: Senegal, where I went to Goree Island, stood in the dungeon and looked out the door of "no return"; Ivory Coast; Benin; Liberia; Nigeria; Tanzania, where I saw the oldest human remains which had been found (in 1975) at Olduvai Gorge; Kenya, where I went to Ngornongaro Crater wildlife reserve; and Ethiopia, where I saw one of the oldest continuous Christian churches in the world, from which a monk was sent to convert barbarians (see note 13) to Christianity. During our time in Africa, we visited villages, cities, rural areas and universities. These experiences had a profound influence on my life.

For the first time, I could see the contradictions between how people in the United States perceived Africa and its reality. (Remember I am nine years old.) In the United States, Africa is one big jungle, but I stood in modern cities. In the United States, the lion was "king of the jungle"; in Africa, lions live on savannas. If the oldest human remains (at the time) are in Kenya and Tanzania, then why every time I saw Adam and Eve were they white? If one of the oldest Christian churches in the world is in Ethiopia and from this region monks were sent to convert the barbarians in northern Europe to Christianity, how can Christianity be the "White man's" religion? Not only did these experiences challenge what I believed about Africa and African people (and by extension myself), but these experiences provided a basis for reinterpreting the world and my place in it. After returning, I began to question my teachers and the motives for their presentations, particularly when it pertained to Africa and African people. I would let them know I had pictures to prove what they were saying was not always true. Some of my teachers thought I had been "ruined." I questioned not only information about Africa and African people, but how could Columbus discover America if there were people already here, and how could Lewis and Clark discover the West if they had a guide? Furthermore, I began to question the counselors and others in the schooling system: "Why would African people be misrepresented?" As I wrote in African Centered Rites of Passage and Education (1996),

I came to the conclusions: 1) that people misrepresent the "truth" because they are ignorant or do not want to face effects/affects of the "truth"; and 2) the information presented in schools and media was a reflection of interpretations not absolutes.

It is important for balance to point out that some of the things I learned from my family was "what not to do," and even with a "culturally rich" background, I managed to flunk out of college my freshman year. However, it was because of this background I knew that I could and had to graduate from college, and I did (Jan. 1990). I have gone on to complete Masters and Doctorate degrees.

It was not until I had become conscious of the rites of passage process, in November 1992, that I could more fully appreciate the role my family traditions and African cultural heritage played in my ability to critically think and reinterpret information. And, with this new "light," I could better discern the Creator's intent for my life. Subsequently, I have gained greater focus and "power."

Another significant transition that has brought new levels of insight has been fatherhood. The birth of my son has brought a level of love, commitment and purpose I could have never imagined possible. Watching him, I see gifts and energies that must be honed and disciplined. It becomes obvious to me that he is not simply a creation of Dietra and myself, but he came here equipped for a purpose. At two years old, he is already manifesting many "raw" talents and energies.

It is this understanding of his creation that demands of me accountability to his Creator. My son is not mine to make of him what I will. Though I have authority over him, I am in partnership with the Creator to affect his future, and will be cursed if I do not hold up my end of the bargain. To provide him with the necessary experiences to develop his intent is a daunting task. However, as I am coming into greater understanding of my son's life purpose, it elevates and motivates me to become better in tune to the Creator and a better person. One way that I come to know the Creator's intention for my son's life is to examine carefully his personality and how I "know" him (Appendix 2).

Since the first publication of this book in 1998, I have been blessed with three more children (two boys and a girl) and have face some "major" life challenges. Each child has challenged me to be the father each needs to fulfill the intent of the Creator. The African-centered rites of passage model has been used to provide markers in their development. For my eldest, we organized a First Steps Into Manhood process and ceremony (on his 13th Birthday). To date, he is still challenged by his words. The African-centered rites of passage process has helped to think beyond the moment and to seek clarity for his sense of purpose and responsibility. This year my daughter will enter a process that will culminate in a First Steps Into Womanhood ceremony next year.

As a family, we have used African-centered rites of passage model has also help us to model family and community values. "Rites" has helped my older children to accept their stepmother and to connect with their baby brother. The "rites" was helpful in marking the transition of my father from elder to ancestor, and to help my youngest know his "Papa," even though "Papa" passed when he was 9 months old.

The African-centered rites of passage model has help my family move though various life's challenges in a very practically way by reminding us of our traditions and values, affirming our relationships one to another, and challenging us to grow in our collective and individual purpose.

Purpose + Social Bonds = Resiliency

Knowledge of one's purpose is critical to developing character and discipline. It is through the pursuit of one's purpose that personality is tested and refined. In Pursuit of Purpose, Myles Munroe (1992) discusses the characteristics of purpose. He states, "Everything has a purpose, which determines its status in relationship to everything else." Munroe argues:

Life with purpose is precise and directed. Life without purpose is depressing.... Purpose protects you from being busy but not effective... Purpose serves as a guide for determining the best path to a predetermined end... Life without specific measurable objectives is [at best] vague and haphazard... Purpose propels those who are committed to God's [Creator's] plans through the worst of experiences. (pp. 81 - 92)

Munroe's arguments are consistent with the works of Frankl (1962) and contemporary researchers who have found that people who have a sense of purpose tend to be happier; live longer with a better quality of life; are less likely to suffer from depression and other neurological diseases such as Alzheimer's; and less likely to engage in self-destructive behaviors (i.e., suicide, smoking, drug and alcohol abuse). Therefore, one of the most significant aspects of the transformative power of African-centered family-based community-linked rites of passage is rooted in the ability of the "rites" process to connect an individual to his or her purpose. It is this connection which helps to bring sanity and serenity to a person as he or she confronts the obstacles and disappointments that "life" sometimes brings; sanity and serenity even in the midst of a sexist and racist society that is determined to dehumanize people of African descent.

Another aspect of transformative power is the social bonds that are created and nurtured by the rites of passage process. Jomo Kenyatta (1962), describing the Gikuyu community system of education (family-based community-linked rites of passage), states:

The first and most obvious principle of educational value which we see in the Gikuyu system of education is that the instruction is always applied to an individual's concrete situation; behavior is taught in relation to some particular person.... the African is taught how to behave to father or mother, grandparents, and to other members of the kinship group.... The striking thing in the Gikuyu system of education and the feature which most sharply distinguishes it from the European system of education is the primary place given to personal relations.... While the Westerner asserts that character formation is the chief thing, he forgets that character is formed primarily through relations with other people, and that there is no other way in which it can grow. (pp. 116 - 117)

It is these social bonds that support the practicing of village and add to the resiliency of the person participating in the family-based community-linked rites of passage process.

The combinations of sense of purpose and supportive educational social bonds are important factors in the development of responsible, ethical and problem-solving adults. These factors encourage the family and community to accept responsibility and accountability for each child's learning and healthy development. This in turn fosters families and community to set high expectations, monitor the learning process, and intervene when problems arise for every child.

Families and, thus, communities that are actively providing family-based community-linked rituals and ceremonies are likely to reduce the need for unsanctioned, dangerous, and self-destructive rituals, such as gang initiation and drug (alcohol) abuse. Sense of purpose, foundations for critical thinking, supportive social bonds, and high expectations for success are the compelling forces in the transformative power of African-centered family-based community-linked rites of passage.

Thus far, I have discussed the transformative power of African-centered family-based community-linked rites of passage as it primarily pertains to an individual or family. However, there is at least one other very important consideration: the growth towards "critical mass" as more families and individuals become aware of the African-centered rites of passage process, and begin to practice African-centered family-based community-linked rituals and develop ceremonies to mark the transitions into new stages of consciousness and responsibility.

Critical mass is a principle that requires a certain amount of "something" to be present before a self-sustaining chain reaction will occur. Translated into social theory, critical mass is the certain number of people who are practicing a unique behavior needed to change the behavior of the total population so that the new behavior is self-perpetuating. Take, for example, the "high five." The first time I saw it was on TV in a football game. After someone scored, a group of players (brothers) did the little dance, jumped up and did the high five. As more and more people copied these players, a critical mass of the population was reached, and eventually the people giving "high fives" were not copying the original football players. It was something that was just done. And today, most people probably cannot imagine a time where there was no "high five." Likewise, as more people become familiar with the African-centered rites of passage process, there will come a time in which it will spread. Those who do not practice it will be thought of as odd, and the general population will assume that African-centered rites of passage has always been practiced by the masses.

Therefore, as people concerned about the African-centered rites of passage movement, and as people who understand the essential need for this process to be a part of the African-American experience, by simply practicing it, you are participating in the transformation of the African-American community.


For a complete list of available books used in my research see the bibliographies of

 African Centered Rites of Passage and Education

 Bringing The Light Into A New Day: African Centered Rites of Passage