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  • Writer's pictureDRM, PhD

Toward a (not so) New Way of Being Black in the World: Ubuntu

“There is nothing new under the sun, but there are new suns.”

Octavia E. Butler

A few days ago, I was searching through my digital files for a copy of the presentation I gave when I was invited to the University of Virginia to interview for the Associate Executive Director position in the Center for Contemplative Studies as I was wrapping up my time as Executive Director in service to The Center for Contemplative Mind in Society (CMind).

The Contemplative Sciences Center at UVA is keenly focused on student flourishing and peripherally on human flourishing—a topic that is extremely important as it appears the planet is reaching its breaking point.

While many institutions are focused on student and human flourishing, they do not approach this topic from a planetary standpoint but more from a Western, individualistic position that presupposes a number of variables already in place and at play, and utilize contemplative practice(s) as a techne rather than an onto-epistemological positionality necessary to shape being and transform doing within a new axiological context.

I walked into the interview, critique-in-hand and unapologetic about who I am—fully myself—whole.

The primary critique: healing precedes flourishing. There can be no human flourishing without human healing. There will be no human flourishing without a recognition, respect, and reparation with and for the more-than-human. While we catalyze flourishing, we must ask: What needs to be healed?

Many seemed surprised at both the critique and at my focus on healing during the various conversations and interview presentations. So much so, my time there felt more like a consulting call than an interview. Needless to say, I was not surprised when the job was offered to a better fit candidate. I enjoyed my time on campus and meeting with the Center staff and University leadership.

Not coincidentally, the interview below explores a similar question. What must be healed to catalyze Black, that is, human flourishing within hostile environments that are clinging to and recycling historical tropes and are engrained with a violence that has yet to be faced its perpetrators; that has yet to feel the weight of justice?

As I have written elsewhere:

Healing is a practice and a continuous process. Healing systems is a continuous process of embodiment; of making incarnate the transformation toward wholeness and compassion in ourselves, first, so this attunement in body, mind, and spirit alters every environment in which you might find yourself planted. However, nothing can be healed until it is faced, and nothing is faced in earnest until we tell the truth about it.

May you be well.

May you be free—and know it.

May you be made whole.


The following interview appeared in the April/May 2020 issue of Flourishing While Black, the newsletter of the Community Healing Network and was conducted at the request of the Community Healing Network’s Founder Enola Aird. The original title, was “Toward a New Way of Being Black in the World.”

What is the Ubuntu concept of humanity and of the human being?

Ubuntu is an African onto-epistemological cosmo-cultural philosophical notion, an ethic, and the foundation on which the life of an African and those of us in the diaspora rests. As African scholar Michael Eze declares, “ubuntu is in fact, essentially what it means to be an African.” Similarly, South African philosopher Mogobe Ramose (2002) asserts that Ubuntu is understood to be “the root of African philosophy” (p. 203); so much so, he exclaims, “the being of an African in the universe is inseparably anchored upon ubuntu” (p. 230).

Ubuntu is the short form of a Xhosa proverb “umuntu ngumuntu ngabantu” or a human being is a human being only through and in relationship with other human beings. Ubuntu is most commonly understood as ‘I am because we are’ or that a person is a person through other people. As I write in Ubuntu and Buddhism in Higher Education: An Ontological (Re)Thinking, “Ubuntu is both the abstract and concrete manifestation of human interdependence and interconnectedness that defines the culture and lives of southern Africans,” in concept across the continent, and for those of us in the diaspora. It is a recognition that no one comes into the world fully formed; we are formed only through relationship with others. We need other human beings in order to become human.

The Ubuntu conception of humanity defines the individual in the context of relationship to others toward an engendering of harmony, respect, and compassion not only for other human beings, but for all sentient beings, nature, and the unseen, namely, the Ancestors. While it can be described as African humanism, Ubuntu does not necessarily center the human. In an African cosmology, we appearing in human form in the present moment are just one component of a grand cosmological ecosystem. Ubuntu hued understandings of what it means to be human allows us the ability to understand that humanity is a quality we owe one another.

In one word, Ubuntu is community. It is a communal orientation that places primacy on the well-being of all, but not at the expense of any. It is an embodied knowing, a philosophy, an ethic, a way of being-doing in the world that recognizes difference as generative and that each being is caught up the in the cosmological dance of creation and of sustaining this otherness creation. Ubuntu is an active enshrinement of our interconnectedness and our shared being as human.

As you can tell, it is hard to define. Like time, we know what it is, and we recognize it when we see it, but we have the damnedest time defining it. When pressed further for a concrete definition of Ubuntu, I often say or write: “Ubuntu is comparative to Black Americans recognizing “soul” in other Black Americans; it is deeply felt, marginally describable, and imperceptible to those in which it is not contained.”

How does it differ from the Western view?

In its orthodox understanding it differs from the Western view in totality; however, like all lands and peoples colonized by the global West’s imperialistic brutality the understanding of Ubuntu has become bastardized by European Christianity. I believe martyred South African Freedom Fighter Steve Biko has illuminated the difference best. In the 1978 book of his selected writings titled, I Write What I Like, Biko writes:

“... [Western society] seems to be very concerned with perfecting their technological know-how while losing out on their spiritual dimension. We believe that in the long run the special contribution to the world by Africa will be in this field of human relationship. The great powers of the world may have done wonders in giving the world an industrial and military look, but the great gift still has to come from Africa giving the world a more human face.”

Ubuntu at its most basic understanding is counter-Western and counter hegemonic. Every facet of African life, as I appreciate it, is shaped to embrace Ubuntu that is to say it encourages relationships with others, inspires recognition of our shared humanity through communal dialogue and the practice of respect, compassion, and harmony. These tenets are embodied and not inextricably linked to Christian gospel or doctrine unlike in the West.

More pointedly, Ubuntu encourages cooperation rather than capitalistic competition; it engenders acting with others rather than against them; Ubuntu fosters dialogue for understanding toward consensus building, cooperation, and shared outcomes. The West encourages competition based on our system of economic capitalism, promotes domination and power, and is focused on outcomes that benefit undoubtedly the privileged few while the many struggle. Of course, this is an oversimplification of the difference, but an illustration of the differences, nonetheless.

I think most importantly, Ubuntu has the ability to reorient Western thinking and to turn Descartes’ ego cogito, the basis of Western thinking born of the Enlightenment, on its head. As Archbishop Desmond Tutu reminds, Ubuntu does not say, ‘I think, therefore I am.’ It says rather: ‘I am human because I belong. I participate. I share’. Nothing could be more counter-West than the transformation of an ‘I am’ in to a ‘We are.’

How might we as Africans avail ourselves of this and other African values in order to escape the European narrative?

Like most things, Ubuntu is ours for the asking and we already embody it. I argue, in addition to cultural traces, rich sun-soaked skin, and an indominable spirit, Ubuntu survived the Middle Passage, survived the brutality of slavery, survived a people being scattered in the wind all over the globe. It is an embodied knowing that each of us Africans in the diaspora continue to inspirit, continue to practice, continue to ritualize in our deep sense of community.

The short answer is that we only have to learn to (re)member the things that we have learned to forget, as our sister Dr. Cynthia B. Dillard reminds us. To (re)member, we have to rid ourselves of the seduction of being other than who we truly are. We live within a Euro-centric, Western narrative but it does not have to live in us.

How do we live within while simultaneously subverting? This will be different for each of us. For me, it is a constant invoking of the Ancestors and a reliance on the trinitarian wholeness of mind-body-spirit. It is recollection of Nana Peazant’s words in Daughters of the Dust, “Must be a bond, a connection between us here and us what are across the sea. A connection, the last of the old, first of the new.”

We have been trained away from ourselves, trained out of ourselves to fit into the mold of European discourse through domination. We must (re)member. We must and can unlearn—to the extent that it is possible—through a deepening of spiritual practice, through engagement in/with/for community, through a transformed understanding of personhood, collective action, and collective responsibility. Most importantly for me, to escape Eurocentric narratives we must rid ourselves of the fear of questioning, and the discovery of new thoughts and provocations. We must set our own standards for our lives, for our communities in keeping with our shared values.

There is no one way of subverting or transgressing; each of us does it in the ways that work for us. Similarly, there are no singular models for the creation of community, the beingness of being, nor of the process of becoming. I am because we are, and we are because I am. Ubuntu necessitates us accepting the other in the beauty of their otherness and in the process of their becoming—fully.

Calling forth our sister Dr. Dillard, I echo the words of Leela Fernandes (2003):

It is a process which brings you face to face with the boundedness of time, space, and history. It is a process that demands an unimaginable intensity of labor in an endeavor which will always seem unfinished…it is the essence of the unrepresentable, which Western postmodern intellectuals have been paralyzed by only because they have mistaken unrepresentable for unrealizable. It is the only form of power that lived divinity, that can transform and transcend all forms of hierarchy, injustice and repression.

There is no escape, but there can be emancipation through resistance. Our collective freedom is veiled as an invitation to be-do better, be-do deeper, be-do more gently with ourselves and one another. Saturated in love and imbued with an ancient, embodied knowing of who we are; we have always already been the people we have been waiting for. While Ubuntu shapes our vision for relationships, each of us must discover–individually and collectively–the answer to: Why we are here? What is our work? How do we heal?

Finally, I’ll leave you with these words to ponder:

Black face peering out and through and

against a sea of white.

Brilliant mind, innovative thinking enshrined in the magnificence of

humanity's beginning.

White face sees Black hole, Black body not the

human of humanity's birth.

African soul in Western world.

Hushed whispers in a screaming crowd;

ancient time in a quickening pace.

History repeating before our very eyes; past ever-present.

White faces greet white faces, who claim Black thoughts in a space and

time never created for Black beings to survive nor thrive.

Against all odds, we people of humanity's birth push through the labor pains of

white face's prejudice; we bear down with determination

to give life to humanity's future, to new thoughts, to being differently in, with, and

through love never exhibited or rightly received.

Genius unrecognized and more often denied, majesty at the core of our

being, love our northern star, and grace our true home.

Pay no never mind to naysayers, to the lies of white face.

Their flocking betrays their ignorance, behind their grin

jealously of your Black brilliance, your Black power,

the beautiful hues of humanity's face.

Black face in white world no more.

Despite the roadblocks, in spite of the prejudices claim this place as your own,

make space for yourself in it,

listen with the ears of the heart to the voices in the stillness of the wind.

Into this world you came set apart.

Ancestors and souls not yet

beckon you to your greatness; call you forth into your purpose.

Be still, listen, and know.

Black faces shine in splendor to which only sister Sun can compare.

Hold head high,

glory is nigh.

– “People of Humanity’s Birth”, David W. Robinson-Morris, Ph.D., December 2017

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