The Learning Curve

I’m Danny Thompson, a Black Studies Tutor. What does that mean?

I’m still learning the many answers to that title. A title that can’t be found in any state School, College, or University Teachers or subjects list. There are no official exams, no Degrees, PhD, Doctorates, etc. It’s an existence lived within the shadows of state education and the full glare of community education and activism.

I prefer the term ‘Black Studies Tutor’ to ‘Black History’ as the latter is but one aspect of Black Studies. Of course, history permeates all subject areas but within a Black Studies program you’ll find several modules – History, Science, Psychology, Sociology, Religion, Arts, Politics, Literature, Economics, etc. Each with its own rich, extensive and unique content which when all brought together, add up to total experience of African people from the dawn of Humankind to the present.

So, how does such a journey begin? It begins with a yearning. A yearning to fill a semi-conscious void experienced and expressed but rarely articulated. A yearning for answers whilst searching for the right questions. A yearning for completion. A yearning to overstand a life bittersweet in the extreme. All students of Black History are initially self-taught. “How do I find out what I don’t know and haven’t been told” is the subconscious calling one initially responds to, a stop on the way to the higher calling, “Who am I?”

The curve begins once one finds his or her gateway in. For me, it was poetry, music, and art. As a teenage poet and musician falling in love with the creative process I discovered Black political poets and musicians that spoke to my soul as well as educating my mind. The Black Power poets of the 60s, 70s and 80s. The Jazz musicians pushing the outer limits of melody and rhythm through Bebop as an African science/art form. The urban experience as retold in a thousand sweat drenched Funk grooves. The trance meditation of reggae, spiritual re-connection through a speaker box. I dived headfirst into a sea of creativity which awakened me to all shades of Blackness. The more I found out the more I needed to know. Reading Jazz biographies of Mingus and Monk led me to reading ‘The Autobiography of Malcolm X’, ‘Soledad Brother’ and other authors of the Black experience. I felt a sense of recognition and validation I hadn’t experienced before, and I liked it .

Being self-taught in the pre-Social Media 80s meant scouring bookshops, attending community meetings and events. Picking up fragments and trying to piece them together. Unknowingly I was creating my own body of knowledge, learning different perspectives from different scholars and developing my own informed opinions. Emotionally this wasn’t always a comfortable experience. Many times, I was made acutely aware of my own youthful arrogance by wiser and quieter minds. I imagined myself as a Malcolm X figure when in reality I was still a confused young Black man, an English Malcolm Little. But I was on an empowering journey of discovery and the glimpses of African greatness I came across inspired a stronger sense of self and purpose and inspired me to want to know more .

It also brought me into conflict with my family. My rejection of Christianity didn’t go down well, particularly at Xmas and Easter when I was labelled a sulk, selfish, and constantly asked “why can’t you just join in like everyone else?” I experienced an inner conflict of wanting to please my family whilst staying true to my growing principles. I compromised many times, faked a smile and dutifully played the loyal son and brother fully participating in the rituals and philosophies of my oppressor. it was also a period in my life when I was grappling with depression and whilst knowledge of my African self definitely helped my mental state, the need to compromise to keep the family illusion of peace did not.

My first experiences as a teacher came through my career as a musician. Teaching opportunities arose depping for my musician friends who also taught, and whilst I initially took them as a source of extra income I discovered a passion for passing on what I knew. I enjoyed helping others discover the music inside themselves. I committed to it and over the next twenty-seven years I gained Teaching qualifications and taught in schools, community groups, mental health institutions, nursery and elderly groups .

My first formal study of my own history happened in 1999 when I enrolled at Goldsmiths university on the ‘African World Studies’ course run by Dr Femi Biko. It ran for a whole academic year and this is the course that changed my life. Dr Biko took us on a journey beginning 250,000 years ago. He not only broke down our history into palatable chunks but made us aware of our own individual place in that history. I was so excited by the challenge of having to research and write essays on my own history, the first time I’d ever done so. Many times, I left the class feeling ten feet tall, emotionally and intellectually ready to take on the world. Other occasions I crawled out on my belly in shame at the stupidity I’d expressed. Dr Biko was old school, not of the millennial school of sensitive teaching. If you were chatting rubbish he’d call you out. Tough love but nuff love.

He wanted to inspire his students to take what we’d learnt and put it to use. For those interested in teaching his suggested pedagogy regarding teaching Black Studies in the community was, “to enthuse, enlighten, and entertain”. This resonated deeply with me, gave me pedagogy I could immediately apply to my own music workshops.

At the end of Dr Biko’s course a group of students decided we wanted to continue our studies and so we formed our own study group. We called ourselves the ‘Seba Study Group’. The name Seba (or Sba) was a Kemetic term meaning “to study, to learn, to become wise”. As such it also expressed our group philosophy. Over the next ten years we met regularly, monthly, fortnightly. We set ourselves study targets; reading and reviewing books, undertaking research projects. We shared a commitment to immersing in and connecting to our spiritual and intellectual heritage. We created a group shrine consisting of objects representing the four elements, our ancestors, any deities we felt particular connections with, and any personal objects we chose. We also used the Book of The Husia, a collection of Kemetic scripture as our guide. We’d begin each meeting with a prayer and a random reading from the book. I say random but nothing ever was. At the end of the meeting we’d revisit the selected reading and realise it had foretold the content or direction of the meeting. Our shrine was organic, reflective. Sometimes large, sometimes small. It reflected our own energies. We began as like-minded students but grew into Brothers and Sister. We shared our lives and supported each other in the physical and the spiritual. There was a way we wanted to live, and together we able to live it.

In 2008 we travelled to Kemet with Ashra & Merira Kwesi, two African American Egyptologists who took us on a ten day educational trip through Kemet’s enduring greatness. We visited temple complexes, pyramids, museums, ancient remains in the morning and sat through lectures in the evening. Everything that I’d been learning and theorising in book form was brought to life. It was a visceral and sensual experience physically engaging with our ancestor’s great works. I could feel their presence as I placed my palms on sacred walls. Colours painted on walls five thousand years ago opened my eyes to the future. There were one hundred and thirty-two people on the tour, a combination of Afro-American and Afro-Uk. Ashra and Merira proved to be excellent and most learned hosts. When Ashra would lead us through the various sites he would call out “Make way, Royalty coming through!”

And sure enough the tourist crowd would part and allow us through. We’d laugh among ourselves at the European tourists staring at us wondering exactly which royal family they were looking at. Ashra wasn’t boasting, he wanted us to understand “this is your house, built by your foreparents”. He wanted the Europeans and other tourists to know it too. This kind of validation I’d never experienced before. These weren’t museums full of relics, this was the house my father built. The group, both Sba and the larger group we travelled with experienced the full range of emotions, ecstasy and joy at the magnificence of Karnak, Saqqara, Dendera. An American couple held their wedding ceremony during the tour. They performed their marriage rites in a temple exactly as their ancestors had. We were honoured to witness and participate in their union, and I know many, including myself, carried dreams of one day performing the same ritual with our life partner.

There was also sadness and anger witnessing the levels of destruction heaped upon our sacred spaces. One woman went into a state of trance when we visited Karnak, another saw visions in Dendera. These weren’t tricks of the mind but real ancestral connections being experienced. I had my own connection whilst at the hotel. One evening I started crying. There was no apparent trigger, just an overwhelming surge of emotion which I kind of knew had been coming. I’d come to Kemet looking for something, something which I was discovering was inside of me. I wept as a child, because I needed to, as I still hurt as a child. I wasn’t alarmed or distressed, nor were the group who comforted me while I released. In our short time together we overstood, spirit does that to you.

Our last day brought forth more tears from my eyes but with much clearer reasons. That day we visited Abu Simbel, a complex built into mountainous rock in Nubia. Built by Rameses II during the 18th Dynasty it features giant statues of Rameses II and his Queen Nefertari at the entrance. To get there one approaches by foot from the rear along a narrow path which leads to the front. Ashra Kwesi had mentioned Abu Simbel many times during the previous ten days, almost teasing us with anticipation. We turned a corner and suddenly I could see the entrance. I screamed, I laughed, I cried, all at once. Despite all I’d seen during the trip this was by far the most magnificent site I’d experienced. The beauty, the size, the visionary minds it took to create it. I understood why Ashra and Merira had saved it till last. If we’d visited it on day one we wouldn’t have appreciated or understood it. I screamed “My father built this, my father built this!” Considering the fractious relationship I’d always had with my father to my own ears it seemed a strange thing to say. But no, the words, their vibrations had erupted from somewhere deep within me. Ancient vibrations of my many fathers, present felt. Other group members were experiencing similar states of wonderment. I semi collapsed on the ground next to a UK brother I’d befriended on the tour. The sheer weight of wonder had brought us to our knees. We smiled at each other through tear filled eyes and nodded our heads. Each new what the other was feeling, knowing that each one’s feelings were unique. We shared our epiphany. For a moment our roots entwined. Our lives were changing, our souls remained as they’d always been, ours to cherish, to celebrate, to glorify.

From the primordial waters the word was taking form.

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