“You No Got Sense Wiseness”

Adinkra Symbol for "Wisdom Knot"

Adinkra “Wisdom Knot”

I often talk about the importance of common sense but that term doesn’t work for the kind of fierce Black Common Sense I have in mind.  I like the term I learned from Fela Kuti better: sense wiseness.  Just like Fela Kuti conveys in the song, black academics and professionals, especially graduate students, have very little sense wiseness after all of the studies and travels within the empire.  Wisdom is not the purview of books and Western schools.  Far too many of us see the world outside of academia as incompatible with the work we do inside of academia.  For sure, black masses are not welcomed into academia and that is no coincidence but, also, for sure, you better hold on to the sense wiseness of the black masses or you won’t survive academia.

When I think of sense wiseness, I think of my family members (who do not have college degrees… like Fela Kuti says, education and sense wiseness are often an inverse relationship).  Between sense wiseness and quick wit, couldn’t NObody get over.  My uncle, Uncle Bay, who passed away a few years ago now, was fierce, even when cancer was ravaging his body.  My cousin, his son, tells a story of coming home from school one day really upset because a friend told the whole school my cousin’s secret.  My uncle quickly told my cousin to stop complaining and take full responsibility for his foolishness.  As my uncle told it: if you can’t keep your own secret, why you ’round here expecting somebody else to?  That makes a whole lotta sense to me, sense wiseness, actually.  I still don’t know what this secret was, some 25 years ago now, so apparently my cousin learned this lesson well.  Like in the case of my cousin, sense wiseness also means you listen to people who are telling you the right thing and who know what they are talking about: choose your teachers wisely and ignore fools.  I am often baffled as a teacher in this regard: stunned by how many of my students and colleagues listen to the dumbest people offer the dumbest advice about the discipline, who’s who, what’s what, and end up gettin NOwhere.  And since sense wiseness is not something you can read in a book, some folk will be like them old 7Up commercials: never had it, never will.  Like my Uncle Bay taught my cousin in high school (that my cousin, in turn, taught us): when you trust the wrong folk, something is wrong with YOU, not them, so get yourself right.  Friendship, trust, and the intimacies of your selfhood are not things to be given so freely.

africaStories of Uncle Bay’s sense wiseness abound in my family. Uncle Bay was a manager at the factory where my father worked when I was a small child (until the factory closed and moved overseas).  On one occasion, my father was apparently SHOWIN OUT (and let me attest to the fact that Pops can be good at THAT!) because his paycheck wasn’t accurate and significantly slighted.  When my father’s anger didn’t seem as if it could be “contained,” my uncle was called for assistance.  Uncle Bay, however, did not oblige and did not intervene: “if you want him to stop actin out, just pay the man.  Ain’t nuthin I can do for you.”  I know very few black folk like Uncle Bay.   Catering to white comfort, fearing white power, or being mesmerized by/chasing whiteness were never part of the game for him.  Uncle Bay did not try to placate my father or ask him to forego his righteous indignation and he did not try and explain/domesticate my father’s behavior to his white bosses who knew they were in the wrong.  “Just pay the man. Ain’t nuthin I can do for you.”  I think of Uncle Bay’s example in the context of my profession often. Time and time and time again (click here for an example), I have witnessed white men want/tell my black graduate students to tone down their anger and verbal forthrightness against the racism they have experienced as students and young faculty.  And yet NO single one of these white men has ever taken a stand against or spoken out against the racism these students encounter; they only want to make sure they can squash black students’ voices and keep the status quo exactly as it is.  Sense wiseness can keep you from being fooled into maintaining this kind of white dominance that works by silencing black folk and ignoring the wrong done to them.  Uncle Bay will always be my model in these instances.

There is a similar story about my Uncle Mac.  Apparently, one of the workers got caught doing something, no one really remembers, but everyone does remember that he accused Uncle Mac of ratting him out and being an Uncle Tom.  Now you have to understand that Uncle Mac is probably the quietest in my family but that quietness doesn’t mean he is going to tolerate disrespect… so Uncle Mac held the man at knifepoint and let him know what would happen the next time he came at him like that.   The man ran straight to Uncle Bay who, by that time, was a manager at this new factory where Uncle Mac worked.  Uncle Bay just told the man: Well, he didn’t cut you, did you?  You look alright.   Now some of the more bougsie types might cringe at the knife in this story, but I don’t have that issue.  The man got what he had coming: don’t dish out something you can’t take in return.  You don’t get sympathy and coddling when you choose to be stupid. Uncle Bay taught me that and he taught me that you don’t take the side of someone who is WRONG and disrespects your people, that’s not where you put your allegiance and you let them always know it too.  This goes for black folk who want to do wrong and then come at you sideways disrespectfully too— this is that real equal opportunity right here.  Sense wiseness doesn’t let you forsake real allies and loyalties.


Yes, I am using sense wiseness as a racial concept here.  If you have been told by every form of media that the darkness of your smooth skin, the thickness of your kinky curls, the fullness of your perfect lips, and the soul-stirring curves of your hips/thighs/backside are ALL WRONG, you need some hardcore sense wiseness to know these are lies and to see the beauty that everyone denies.  You need sense wiseness to know the truth behind a jury and judge of white women who say an unarmed black boy is a danger and should be killed.  You need sense wiseness to know that no, there’s nothing wrong with you when you see the white graduate students and faculty around you get support, nurture, and get-out-of-jail free-passes that you don’t. You need sense wiseness to know that your people are not unhuman, unlovable, unpretty even when the world suggests otherwise.   Every group does not have to cultivate sense wiseness like this; sense wiseness is what you need to counter dominance and power so those who represent that are not part of this counter-system.   Sense wiseness is what lets you question the dogma of a world that denigrates you and tries to control your thinking and action.  Certainly not all black people have it… and surviving this world won’t be easy for them.

My family taught me who to trust and who not to trust, who is real and who is domesticated. I know a white supremacist when I see one and I know someone who is acting in the service of white supremacy. I know what it means to be loyal and I know who my allegiances are reserved for.  I call all that sense wiseness and I am grateful for it.

Take Care of Home…

The adinkra symbol for the "Power of Love."

The adinkra symbol for the “Power of Love.”

In a previous post, I decided to look up the Adkinra symbol of love called the “power of love.”  When I found the symbol, I also found the expression/proverb that comes with it— ODO NNYEW FIE KWAN, “love never loses its way home.”   This is one of the reasons I have always valued and learned from Adinkra symbols (including the symbol, Sankofa, which is probably the most popular): there is a moral and lesson that goes with it.  As soon as I saw the corresponding expression for “the power of love,” I remembered an expression I heard in my family and from older African Americans as a child: “take care of home.”  As I have been thinking more about it, that expression is even bigger than what I have realized.  What I am suggesting here is that these “idioms” can be theorized, on their own terms, and located in and as unique philosophies that have sustained and represented black communities.

Women pounding rice on Sapelo Island, Georgia, around 1915

Women pounding rice on Sapelo Island, Georgia, around 1915

I have heard both men and women use this expression: “take care of home.”  It has nothing at all to do with homemaking in the domestic sense.  In fact, when I remember hearing it used in relation to one’s actual physical home, interestingly, it was mostly in the context of gardening and planting.  There was always something esoteric to me about the way people talked about taking care of their collards in the back or planting flowers in the front. There is, of course, the practice and symbolism of letting things take root in the context of what was arguably the second Great Migration when my family moved from Alabama to the midwest in the 1970s to work in Northern factories.  Putting down roots would be no insignificant issue and so this was something you took pride in and this was something you took seriously.

This practice of putting down roots as a cultural system was something that began to intrigue me when I first read Judith Carney’s Black Rice.  Carney’s book blew me away when I first read it in the way she demolishes the legacy of rice in the United Sates as the face of Uncle Ben on a box at the grocery store. Instead, she establishes rice cultivation as a cultural system that traveled the Middle Passage, blossomed from enslaved Africans’ knowledge (and, obviously, labor), and became the first food commodity traded successfully across the Atlantic Ocean on a large scale.  Rice was, thus, a food whose cultivation in the South was invented and maintained solely by black people and especially black women.  Before I read Carney, I had, quite embarrassingly, not fully considered that the very systems of planting and foodways were created and sustained by slaves’ crop experimentation.  What especially impacted me in Carney’s book, what I am saying makes the notion of “taking care of home” an alternative epistemological system, has to do with the provision gardens that slaves maintained. During the Revolutionary War, provision gardens were allotted to slaves to discourage them from fighting on the British side; these provision gardens dwindled after the War but there is still evidence that many slaves negotiated to acquire them afterward too.  Carney’s research shows people who, after working for 12 hours, then went to their own small plots and cultivated their piece of earth also.  Through their crop experimentation and informal, clandestine networks for acquiring seeds and other staples from Africa, these black people in slavery gave the United States its first peanuts, okra, greens, millet, sorghum, pigeon peas, and black-eye peas.  The Royal Society, Columbia Exchange, scientific societies, and plantation owners’ farming techniques had nothing to do with the planting and cultivation that slaves sustained for the United States. Sarney shows that these provision gardens also functioned amongst slaves in Brazil and the French Caribbean.   There is obviously more going on here than mere planting, gardening, and food production; what we see are a people maintaining a cultural identity, way of living/eating, and hands-on networking with other black communities.  That a people would choose to plant their own cultural foods, after working all day in white slaveowners’ fields, astounds me.  It was, it seems to me, a way to go back home AND make a home, despite the world that told them they did not have such “rights,” a practice and process also very profound for my own black family as recent migrants to the North in the 1970s.


il_570xN.117698057I am still combing my memories for how this expression circulated and will probably remember more as time goes on.  I do strongly recollect that people used this expression, “take care of home,” in relation to fidelity in relationships, particularly men’s (though women obviously step out on their partners too.)  The expression is about more than sexual faithfulness though.  This might be the reason I liked the song by Dave Hollister, actually called “Take Care of Home,” when it came out in 2000.  Beside the fact that Hollister’s Gerald-Levert-esque vibe and that general Midwest-Kuntry aesthetic are just a part of me, given where and how I grew up, I like Hollister’s mobilization of take care of home” because he is not talking about fidelity either but about noticing the partner you are with and experiencing their joy as your own joy.  I think “take care of home” gets at something still deeper: something about sustenance of self in relation to others and one’s own purpose.  I am often perplexed by peers who I see with multiple partners or with one significant partner and many other “friends.”  I just don’t get how you have the time for all that.   It’s real basic to me too, it ain’t a moral or ethical issue at all.  There is no way I could finish all of the final editing I needed to do on my first book, start my new research project, fulfill my work/administrative duties, read and prepare for my new class, teach, be there for my friends and family, support and love a partner… and then have the time, energy, or spirit left to then be going out for coffee, drinks, breakfast, lunch, dinner/be text-messaging, emailing, tweeting, FBing, or calling some other dude who I barely know.  The only way I COULD even approximate all that is if I abandoned either my friends, students, family, work/scholarship, or partner.  Why would I discard one of those entities for someone I just met at the coffee shop or bookstore/library (the biggest dating cliches imaginable)?  I am just not the kind of fool to hurt and jeopardize the things I love that way.  It’s not like I am lonely with a lot of free time (or MONEY!!) so what would account for such immature, poor decision-making?  Perhaps, the sentiments I express represent a woman’s stance, not a man’s given male ego/misogyny, but, still, there have got to be men out there who are not this stupid!  Amongst many of my girlfriends and family, I have proclaimed that I barely have the time and patience for one man– so now what the hell would I do with two or more? Now there are some things that I do like in multiples: shoes, the curls of my natural hair, earrings, bracelets, peanut M&Ms(!!!), purses, books, slices of red velvet cake, songs on my “TooGrown&TooSexy” playlist, doritos… but men?  Hell. Naw.  That does not sound appealing at all.  Now in cases where such a level of commitment has been too much pressure, seriousness, maturity, or responsibility for a man, I simply assume that I need a new man, not a new disposition— something that might come as a surprise given the way the media likes to depict a single black professional woman like me as unaware, desperate, and/or without many choices. Don’t believe the hype. You need healthy boundaries in relationships to live such a life where “you take care of home,” ones that, once established, mean you are not just picking up random people off the street, abandoning the purposes/relationships most important to you, inviting any-ol’-body or any uninformed idea into your space, forging superficial closeness with people you do not know, and offering “mad love” for people and things that lack integrity.  This expression is about living your life on purpose and with purpose, even when it comes to love. And I must dutifully notice that black people, perhaps the most unloved people in the making of the modern world, have forged these highest ideals of love.  


Adinkra Symbol for "Wisdom Knot"

Adinkra Symbol for “Wisdom Knot”

My family also always told me two things: that a new fool wakes up each morning… and that they didn’t raise no fool when they raised me.  With these two expressions coupled together, you can see that there is an expectation that mainstream culture and values will make you stupid, reckless, undefined, and unthinking so there is a consciousness about raising a child against all that.  There is an embrace of wisdom here and a simultaneous distancing from the foolishness and non-sustainability that a socially unconscious system thrives on. nyansapoI am reminded here of the Akan Wisdom Knot, called Nyansa po, and its proverb which is roughly translated as: “The knot tied by a wise-woman cannot be undone by a fool.”  It seems worth noting that this symbol is so highly revered since it depicts someone who carries the ability to learn from her world and her experiences, a wisdom no one can undo.  I would like to think of myself as my family’s AND my history’s high-achieving student… one who is always learning and ready to apply the lessons.

There is a philosophical disposition that gets captured in an expression like “take care of home” in the two seeming opposite contexts I have described. It captures for me a kind of theoretical framework where I see black people deliberately countering consumerism, narcissistic self-indulgence, immaturity, the discarding of human bodies/labor/value, wealth as commodification, the acquisition of too much stuff (including people)— whether it is food, planting, family, or relationships.  What I see, hear, and feel in this expression is a black cultural view about purpose in one’s life AND an alternative definition for where and what love/sustenance is.