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The Spiritual Core of African-Centered


Over the past one hundred years, the discipline of psychology has explodedonto the academic and scientific scene, advancing theories of human behavior,theories of normal and abnormal development, and theories of the personaland situational variables that contribute to one’s personality makeup. In fact,there are entire schools of thought that have been developed as a way to syn-thesize the vast array of ideas proposed by various theorists who are convincedthat their theory is the most compelling in the understanding of the human psyche. There are Euro-American schools of thought that are labeled psychody-namic, neo-analytic, behaviorism, humanistic, cognitive-behavioral, and exis-tential (Myers, 2010).


In illustrating this point, many psychoanalytic theories are anchored in theworks of Sigmund Freud, who viewed human nature as a dynamic interplay be-tween the unconscious, preconscious, and conscious mind. Each domain is be-lieved to be responsible for navigating perspectives that influence how each individual responds to internal instinctual drives (unconscious), repressed orstored memories (preconscious), or to the demand of the external environment(the conscious). Freud’s approach advanced the notion that the personalitycomprised three interrelated parts labeled the ID (basic instincts that operate ac-cording to what is pleasurable and satisfaction seeking), EGO (consciouschoices that are anchored in perceptions of reality), and the SUPER EGO (amental conscience influenced by parental values and principles of morality).Psychoanalytic theory also proposed five stages (oral, anal, phallic, latency, andgenital) of development in a person’s life, each focusing on a region of the


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36 Chapter 3 • The Spiritual Core of African-Centered Psychology

body that aligned with the instinctual and pleasure seeking tendencies thatwere believed to be the most salient at that point in time. The goals of a psy-chodynamic clinician include: helping clients/patients recognize how unre-solved issues in childhood continue to exert an influence in their lives andhelping clients gain insights into the roots of dysfunctional or maladaptive cop-ing or lifestyle choices.

A contemporary of Freud who advanced a theory of his own was AlfredAdler. His Adlerian approach, which is also referred to as individual psychology,believed that human nature was primarily influenced and motivated by social in-terests. If the development of those social interests proceeded in an orderly fash-ion, he believed that individuals would help to connect to society as a socialwhole, develop an interest in and empathy for other members of the communityand society, and contribute to the general social good, while taking a high de-gree of responsibility for their own actions that aligned with those outcomes.Unlike Freud, however, Adler believed that the conscious rather than uncon-scious aspects of an individual’s personality exerted the most salient influence, inhelping them to strive for perfection in navigating social interactions. In recog-nizing that people possessed a strong desire for social validation, Adlerian clini-cians also recognize that unsuccessful resolution of that desire and need wouldlead to complexes of inferiority, or superiority, each of which might influence aperson in negative or unproductive ways. The goal of Adlerian therapy then is toassist individuals in developing productive, wholesome, and healthy lifestyles,free from the self-centered tendencies that erode social networks; and to helppeople gain insights into how maladaptive or inaccurate feelings developed inchildhood will continue to exert a negative influence in their lives unless theycan be successfully revisited and resolved in therapy.

A third school of thought that emerged from traditional psychology is theBehavioral school. Owing its origins to theorist like B.F. Skinner, John Watson,Albert Bandura, and others, Behaviorists believe that all behavior, whetheradaptive or maladaptive, is learned and reinforced in some way within one’senvironment. They focus on the present and here and now, rather than one’sdevelopmental past, and believe that with insight and specific behavioral analy-sis, new schedules of learning and reinforcement can assist individuals in devel-oping and sustaining good and healthy adaptations and adjustments to life circumstances. Thus, their therapeutic focus is on helping clients modify oreliminate less constructive behaviors from their lives, while helping them developand learn more healthy and useful ways of being in the world. In a related way,the Cognitive-Behavioral school of thought was developed and influenced byindividuals such as Albert Ellis. He believed that people learned to conceptual-ize their world in ways that gave too much attribution to events and situationsand not enough to their own ability to think rationally or irrationally. Cognitive-Behavioral clinicians understand that it is not situations or circumstances thatcause people to feel certain emotions or behave in particular ways. Rather, theybelieve that it is their belief system about those events that has the most influ-ence. Therapy then becomes a process of discrimination and analysis where internal dialogues about oneself, other people, or situations are examined as a

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Chapter 3 • The Spiritual Core of African-Centered Psychology 37

way of identifying what is both rational and irrational. Clients then gain insightinto how they contribute to the emotional distress or unsatisfactory behavioraloutcomes in their lives, while learning to replace irrational unproductive think-ing with thoughts that are more healthy and rational.

Interestingly, each of these differing schools of thought is grounded in aset of assumptions about the nature of reality, the development of one’s person-ality, how and why people develop distress in their lives, and what role thecounselor or clinician should play in helping to alleviate their discomfort. Yet,while each of these theoretical schools of thought in Eurocentric psychology di-verges on many of these variables, they do converge on a common belief thatthe individual personality is composed of intellectual (cognitive), affective(emotional), and response (behavioral) dimensions. Admittedly, they do differon which dimension of one’s personality they believe is the most salient inmanaging the dynamics of one’s life and lifestyle choices, and which dimensionshould be targeted for therapeutic intervention.

Fortunately, the complex nature of the human psyche does not easily lenditself to tight or even concise explanations. Therefore, most presentations ofpersonality development present these schools of thought as a broad lensthrough which to seek understanding of the human condition. Interestingly, ourconcern in this chapter is less about which school one considers adopting ashis/her best explanation of the individual psyche, and more about a specific element of the psyche that to us, appears conspicuous by its absence. In psy-chology’s traditional realms of understanding, analysis of the individual person-ality has been constrained by an assumption that the most salient aspects of thepersonality are the id, ego, or super ego (e.g., theories of Freud, Jung, Adler),or composed of the cognitive (the way people think, e.g., theories of Ellis), affective (the way people feel, e.g., theories of Rogers), and behavioral domains(the way people respond to their reality, e.g., theories of Skinner, Bandura, orWatson). Thus, when teaching students about the structures of the psyche, orconceptualizing a client’s degree of debilitation who presents themselves formental health treatment, the analysis is typically limited to these three domains,irrespective of which school of thought plays the most prominent role in a pro-fessor’s or clinician’s thinking. This practice does a tremendous disservice topeople of African descent and other members of the human family, because itignores what is arguably the most important element of a person’s beingness,their spirit (Parham, 2002; Nobles, 2008). Imagine you are a client of African de-scent who in presenting yourself to a clinician for some counseling and therapyis greeted with clinical eyes that appear to look through you. They look to yourleft, to your right, and even over your head, seeing aspects of your self butnever really connecting with the authentic you. That is illustrative of what hap-pens in many therapeutic encounters when the core of who you are is ignoredor not otherwise acknowledged.

The failure of traditional psychology to embrace the notion of genuineand authentic spirit has occurred for several reasons. These include: rigid ad-herence to an outdated belief that psychological constructs and variables mustbe measured; failure to embrace the full spectrum of psychological health and

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38 Chapter 3 • The Spiritual Core of African-Centered Psychology

wholeness in deference to an obsession to weakness and pathology; and a ten-dency to cloud discussions of “spirit” with discussions of religious and spiritualbeliefs. The first point about rigid adherence to outdated beliefs that all psycho-logical constructs must be measured to rate relevance is a curious one in thatthere is so much discussion about the affective and intuitive nature of the indi-vidual psyche. Psychological and counselor educators spend countless hourstraining students to rely on clinical instincts when attempting to empathize withclients whom they are treating. Yet, attempting to measure the instincts or intu-itions that often inform decisions about which questions to query clients aboutor which directions to pursue in therapy would prove a difficult task, even forthe most seasoned clinicians. The failure to embrace the full spectrum of psy-chological health and wholeness is a tendency many psychologists and coun-selors are beginning to question, partly because of the movement of “positivepsychology.” This movement is beginning to gain some traction within the dis-cipline but has yet to be fully embraced in a way that the majority of thosecounselors and clinicians doing therapeutic work incorporate such perspectivesinto their client conceptualizations. In part, the conceptualization issue is fueledby the reliance on psychological instruments that continue to be pathology-oriented, even in their revised forms (e.g., MMPI-II). The tendency to cloud dis-cussions of “spirit” with discussions on religious and spiritual beliefs is problem-atic as well. The fact that people chose to align their lifestyles with a particularreligion simply implies that they are believers in GOD, and support the doc-trines of that denomination. In recognizing that people’s faith is a strong anchorin one’s life and can be a major support system in times of trouble and adver-sity, many psychological service providers do ask about religious affiliation as astandard part of an intake interview. They also refer to a client’s religious affili-ation and adherence to doctrines of theology as a way of gaining insights intopast behaviors, as well as perspectives into how an individual client might rely on that body of ideas as a support in navigating their way through certainlife challenges.

This latter point is significant in its impact because it anchors spirituality ina cognitive activity of belief systems analysis, rather than an experiential basethat aligns one’s energy and life force with that, which already exists in theworld, in connections with other members of the human family, and with theDIVINE. This tendency to look at spirituality within the context of religious af-filiation and belief system analysis can be seen in the work of Armstrong andCrowther (2002), who talk about the importance of client spiritual and religiousbeliefs in helping them navigate challenges in their life. Spirituality and religios-ity are also seen as a prime coping mechanism in helping people cope with thechallenges of academic life (Herndon, 2003), health concerns (King, Burgess,Akinyela, Counts-Spriggs, & Parker, 2005; Holt, Lewellyn, & Rathwell, 2005),and even racism and oppression (Manning, Cornelius, & Oklindaye, 2004).Similarly, Constantine, Lewis, Connor, and Sanchez (2000) argued for the neces-sity for clinicians to be “aware” of client’s spiritual and religious beliefs in anytherapeutic recommendations, and that such perspectives should be incorporatedinto graduate training. It is no wonder then why clinicians and academicians alike

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are becoming more in tune with spiritual and religious beliefs, given that grad-uate training programs and counseling/clinical training sites report the incorpo-ration of religion and spirituality in curriculum modules (Brawer, Handall,Fabricatore, Roberts, & Wajda-Johnston, 2002). Despite this fact, trainees andstudents have occasionally reported discomfort with such discussions (Souza,2002). Thus, while the recognition and importance of spirituality are more uni-versally accepted in this new millennium, it is our belief that the professioncontinues to suffer from both the absence of spirituality in the core or revisedtheories of personality, and a failure to adequately distinguish spirituality fromreligion and religiosity (Schulte, Skinner, & Claiborn, 2002; Souza, 2002; Serlin,2005; and Wendell, 2003). Nevid’s (2007) second edition of Psychology:Concepts and Applications, for example, mentions spirituality only once in theentire text, and even then, associates the concept with the positive psychologymovement. Despite the fact that Nevid attributes the origins of positive psychol-ogy to the work of Seligman (2003), rather than with African-centered psychol-ogists like Myers (1988); White (1972, 1984); Nobles (1986); White, Parham, andParham (1980); and others who were talking about strength-based psychologydecades before, he gives no coverage to the construct of spirituality in anydepth. Similarly, Myers (2010) introduction to psychology text mentions spiritu-ality very briefly, and only then in the context of a factor correlated with faith,health, and healing in helping individuals managing their stress.

Thankfully, there are those scholars who have sought to distinguish be-tween the two constructs (Mattis & Jeager, 2001; Berkel, Armstrong, & Cokley,2004), and their work has provided some clarifying perspectives. Two decadesago, Burkhardt (1989) sought to explore the concept of spirituality by suggest-ing that it was a process involving the unfolding mystery through harmoniousinner-connectedness that springs from inner strength. In suggesting that life’sexperiences provide challenges that allow us to confront the purpose andmeaning of life, individuals are believed to discover that purpose in relation toa higher being (God) and others in their lives. Meraviglia (1999) also weighedin on the discussion by asserting that spirituality is the experience and expres-sions of one’s spirit in a unique and dynamic process reflecting faith in God ora supreme being; connectedness with oneself, others, nature, or God; and anintegration of the dimensions of mind, body, and spirit. Also contributing to thediscourse on spirituality is the work of Mattis (2000); and while her perspectiveswere anchored in the opinions of a primarily female sample, she captures a po-tent definition from the narratives provided by her women participants. Mattisconcludes that spirituality was a belief in and connectedness to a higher inter-nal and external power; consciousness and meta-physicality; understanding andacceptance of self; guidance and life instructions; peace, calm, and centered-ness; positively influencing relationships with others; life purpose and meaning;and facilitation of efforts to manage adversity through support, strength, ability,and willingness to cope.

In extending the discussion, Mattis and Jager (2001) argue for a relationalframework in studying religiosity and spirituality among African Americans.They advance the assumptions that religion and spirituality are relational

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40 Chapter 3 • The Spiritual Core of African-Centered Psychology

phenomena and the very act of faith and belief in a higher power (God) placeseach of us in relationship with that divine force, as well as others in our lives.They define “religion” as a shared system of beliefs, mythology, and rituals associated with a God, and religiosity as an individual’s adherence to thosepractices, beliefs, and doctrines. Spirituality on the other hand refers to an ac-knowledgement of a non-material force that permeates all affairs, human andnon-human. Cervantes and Parham (2005) also discuss both the importance ofspirituality in a counseling framework, and the necessity to distinguish betweentrue spirituality and religiosity. In supporting the work of Nobles (1998), theyargue that “spirit” is the core, animating principle and energy, and is theessence and substance of all matter. Spirit is described as the basis of all exis-tence, including what we see and do not see. Spirit, they believe, likes Noblesand others before them, is the energy and life force in each human being,which acting like a Divine spark, gives humans their beingness.

In extending the discussion on spirituality, other authors have moved be-yond mere definition to outline a multidimensional perspective on the construct(Jones, Wainwright, & Yarnold, 1986; Saint-Laurent, 2000). These dimensions,when taken individually, are represented in many definitions of spirituality.They include heightened awareness, connectedness to all living things, enlight-enment, self-transcendence, compassionate wisdom, loving kindness, increasedappreciation of how sacred life is and can be, and the capacity to serve others.Not only do these dimensions of spirituality distance themselves from religionand religiosity, but they also provide a way to view how spirituality is mani-fested in the life of each individual. These multidimensional aspects of spiritual-ity represent an evolution of sorts, as some describe the construct as a process,rather than a product. Here, Brussat and Brussat (1996) inform our thinking bysuggesting that embracing spirituality is really about embracing life’s journey toward wholeness, where awareness is expanded, one’s internal center isstrengthened, one’s purpose achieves clarity, inner demons are transformed,conscious intention is directive, and movement toward a deeper connection toone’s spiritual self evolves.

In examining the various concepts of spirituality, one begins to see a par-allel between these definitions and the conceptual template used for centuriesby African people to describe their experience. While time and book length donot allow for an exhaustive review of differing African tribes, customs, and tra-ditions, we focus here on the ancient Kemetic people of North Africa, theYoruba people, the Bantu-Congo tradition, and the Akan people of Ghana, andtheir concept of spirituality, as articulated by Anthony Ephirim-Donkor in his1997 text on African Spirituality. In doing so, we acknowledge that over thelast three decades there has been a gradual but steady reengagement with in-digenous African spiritual traditions in the United States brought about largelyby influx of Cubans and Haitians into the United States and by African Americantraveling to and from the African continent. As result, there has been a steadyincrease in the African-American adherents to traditions like Vodun (by way ofHaiti), Palo Mayombe (Bantu-Congo system), Santeria (by way of Cuba/WestAfrica), Ifa (by way of Nigeria) and the Akan tradition (by way of Ghana). Not

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surprisingly, a number of African-American psychologists have also become initi-ates into these traditions. Some have even begun to explore the psycho-spiritualmodalities of these traditions and their potential heuristic and healing value inthe psycho-therapeutic process (Grills and Rowe, 1998; Rowe & Msemaji, 2004;Nobles, 2008).

Within the African worldview, the basis of all knowledge is self-knowledge,and the self when distilled to its essence is spirit. Thus, within the African concep-tion the basis of all knowledge is spiritual knowledge because all that exists is first and foremost spirit. Right away, it becomes apparent that we aredealing with a very different epistemology—a different order of knowledge—onethat supplants the Western materialist mode of knowing and replaces it with anaffective epistemology. Cheryl Grills (2004), along with Piper-Mandy and Rowe(2010), asserts that this epistemic shift is fundamental to the African-centered per-spective, while Nobles (2008) notion of Sakhu positions African-centered psy-chology outside of the Western epistemological frame and recenters it within aKemetic vis-a-vis indigenous African order of knowledge, thus suggesting a rethinking of relationships between the knowing, the knower, and the known.


In exploring the core of spirituality in its African manifestation, it is important totravel back in time and engage the construct where civilizations first began. Indoing so, perhaps no place better represents the concept of spirituality than an-cient Kemet (Egypt), for it is there along the Nile Valley that early manifestationsare evident. Concepts such as GOD, spirit and spirituality, systems of human in-teraction, and spirit energy existing in several domains are very evident.Kemetic people believed in supreme beings or deities who were thought to beresponsible for creation, ruling the world, and controlling the universe. Theyalso believe that rulers or pharaohs were the human manifestation of divine en-ergy endowed by the CREATOR to rule over particular kingdoms or dynasties.Thus, as early as recorded time, you see a connection between GOD as asupreme being and those charged with managing the affairs of the people. Theconnection to the CREATOR was not simply a belief manifested in the titlesgiven to or offices held by particular rulers, but rather was articulated in the ex-pectation that those in high office should rule in ways that were pleasing toGOD. In essence, leadership in ancient times involved a social contract whereone’s position was intended to uplift the people and community, and addressthe needs of the collective before ministering to oneself. This is evident as oneexplores the concept of Ma’at (Karenga, 1990; Parham, 2002). Dr. Karenga(1990) explains that Ma’at was a code of conduct and a standard of aspirationfor all of the ancient Kemetic people. It was characterized by seven cardinalvirtues: truth, justice, righteousness, harmony, order, balance, and propriety.Thus, each citizen of a kingdom, whether pharaoh or servant, was expected toadhere to these behavioral aspirations. In doing so, one operationalizes theconnection to the divine CREATOR by ruling and behaving in ways that wouldprove most aligned with the spiritual system of the time. Thus, there was no

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42 Chapter 3 • The Spiritual Core of African-Centered Psychology

domain of daily life, including education, social, economic, political, religious,or family where Ma’at was not the attitudinal or behavioral aspiration. Beyondthe aspirational nature of human conduct, it is also important to understandwhy such systems of human interaction carried such a high degree of saliencefor both ruler and citizen alike. The ancient Africans believed that at the end ofone’s life, people could achieve a oneness with the CREATOR by having theirheart weighed against the feather of truth (Ma’at). If their heart was found to beas light as a feather, then they were judged by the assessors to have lived agood life, and were then presented before GOD’s throne by the Son of GOD(no one comes to the Father except through the Son). That feat was achievedby living one’s life in harmony with what was known as the forty-two sacredtruths (or declarations of innocence), which included such admonitions as:“honor thy father and mother, thou shall not kill, steal or lie, and thou shall notbare false witness against thy neighbor or covet thy neighbor’s material posses-sions.” Indeed, this was a very elaborate and complex spiritual system.

Parallels can also be found in the Yoruba system and philosophy of spiri-tuality, who like their Kemetic and Nubian Brothers and Sisters, believed in aSUPREME BEING, a heaven and earth, divine spirits or deities, and the exis-tence of ancestral spirits beyond their earthly human forms. The Yoruba believein a SUPREME BEING called OLDUMARE, who is the CREATOR and ruler of allthings. They also believe in the existence of Orishas, who while serving asemissaries of OLDUMARE, earned their divine status through their great deeds.Thus, we see common elements of the concept of CREATOR, spirit beings, andthe necessity of proper conduct in this African belief system. For the Yoruba,there is a belief in a power or energy that permeates the entire universe ofhuman beings, plants, animals, and even inanimate objects. This energy em-anates from the CREATOR and connects everything to the divine force in theuniverse, while various deities serve as the intermediaries between God andman. There is also an invisible and visible world, the latter of which has a phys-ical and spiritual dimension. Physical disease in the Yoruba conception is afunction and structure of body organs, but mental disorders are believed to bea result of several domains: natural sources, supernatural sources, preternaturalsources, and inherited sources. Believing also in the relationship between peo-ple and the social environment in which they live and conduct their affairs,mental illness does have a social significance for interpersonal relationships.Thus, the Yoruba believe that irregularities in the physical/biological or socialrealm, which might be caused by deficiencies at birth, as a function of heredity,or resulting from certain social afflictions, can be the basis of mental illness.However, despite the techniques of traditional psychology and even medicineto diagnose and treat problems in individual domains, the Yoruba believe thatassessments and interventions must be conducted in the biological, spiritual,psychological, and social. Those intervening are typically healers, who oftenspecialize in being a herbalist, rainmaker, or diviner. Often, it is the divinerswho are the most popular and inspire the most faith among the people, forthey have the power to see beyond the physical to explore the spiritual, andit is in that realm where healing must take place. The Yoruba also believe that

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individuals acquire and choose their destiny prior to the transformation into acorporal being, but they are induced to forget the contents of that destiny priorto birth. Thus, the only way for a human being to access that destiny is throughthe power of divination; where in accessing the spiritual aspects of the visibleand invisible world, aspects of their destiny are revealed to them by what arereferred to as “witnesses to destiny.” Mention should also be made here that theYoruba believe that every aspect of mental illness cannot be cured, nor can itbe cured permanently. They do however understand and believe that mental ill-ness in people is often controlled by spirits and, because it may represent aspiritual attack, can only be addressed spiritually.

The Akan spiritual system also merits discussion here. Within the contextof metaphysics, the Akan believe that each person has a nature that is both phys-ical and spiritual. For the Akan, the interchange between the soul that originatesfrom the CREATOR (kra); the physical body that serves as a container for thevital organs (nipadua); and the spirit or energy (sunsum) that, while immaterialin its power and nature, accounts for one’s intellect, personality disposition,character, and individuality is the essence of African people’s lived experiences.Ephirim-Donkor (1997) helps us understand that in the formation of an individ-ual’s life, the spirit (ntoro) of the male mingles with the blood (mogya) of the female to form the physical component of the personality. Thus, human beingswere believed to have two components: one biological that was derived fromthe mother and one spiritual that was derived from the father. The father’s sun-sum is transmitted to his children during sexual intercourse and procreation, sothat the “ntoro-sunsum” molds the child’s personality and disposition during achild’s formative years. So important was a father’s influence on a child that chil-dren who do not come under that aegis may experience unhealthy lives, psy-chological maladies, or even death. Thus, in dealing with a psychological ail-ment later in life, one could not simply address the physical symptom consistentwith the way Western medicines deal with illness and disease. Rather, one mustaddress the spiritual core of the problem. In that regard, the Akan system wouldsimply ask how one who struggles with a particular ailment could be properlytreated without dealing with the spiritual elements of an individual’s personality.

The Bantu-Congo system of cosmology also provides some fascinating in-sight into the concept of spirituality, that intangible energy and life force wehave been speaking about. This system, as articulated by Fu-Kiau (1991, 2001)in his writings, argues that individuals are sacred at birth; and as human beings(muntu), we have the capacity for self-healing power. Humans are believed tobe a “rising and living sun” who at the moment of their birth enter into a livingcommunity with a radiating potential for health and healing. That potential, ordivine spark that constitutes their electrical energy, is bolstered or weakened bythe circumstances surrounding their conception. Life then is about a process ofperpetual and mutual communication of radiating waves of energy that are givenoff and received by individual human beings. Those waves, or oceans of energyas Fu-Kiau (2001) describes them, can be both positive and negative, and indi-viduals can either be sensitive to or immune to the energy, in reacting to life cir-cumstances in adaptive or maladaptive ways.

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44 Chapter 3 • The Spiritual Core of African-Centered Psychology

There are several factors believed to impact one’s self-healing power; oneof these is conception. Fu-Kiau explains that parents are the first and most im-portant variable involving the functioning capacity of an individual’s self-healingpower. Collectively, they are believed to be responsible for children who areweak or strong or healthy or not. The Bantu-Congo believe that parents can bedeliberate or unwitting players in the development of their children by whatthey do when selecting each other as mates and how they come to engage inthe act of procreation. By selecting each other as partners, they seal the bio-genetic rope that determines the composition of that seed of possibility that willbecome their children. The circumstances surrounding the act of lovemaking(both the mental state of mind and the physical state of being) then contributeto that energy that bonds the two parents together, influencing the characterand overall mental and physical health of that child whose being is a result ofthat act between the mother and the father. Because both biogenetic and situa-tional factors influence outcome in this case, adults attempt to avoid any circumstance during the act of love making or procreation that potentially depletes or contaminates the energy flow between those individuals, includingangry or hostile spirits, alcohol or drug use, etc.

Another factor is gestation, or the physical environment in which the fetalchild is carried and nurtured in the womb. The womb becomes the first phys-ical environment that the child grows up in, and this environment influencesboth their eventual physical health and their self-healing power. Thus, nutri-ents or contaminants/toxins that a mother takes into her body can have the effect of either reinforcing a healthy first environment or contributing to thedeterioration of one, making a child more vulnerable to illness once he or she isborn. This latter circumstance is what is believed to contribute to health chal-lenges a person experiences later in life, and a depletion of their self-healingpower’s potential.

That self-healing power and potential is central to an individual’s well-being, according to the Bantu-Congo philosophy. Illness, both physical andmental, is believed to be related to a state of “body electron regression.” In thisregard, the body’s and mind’s loss of functioning efficiency and power is be-lieved to be caused by a loss of the body’s balance of energy, rather than bybacteria or virus. Thus, mental disorder and life dissatisfaction are related to aperson’s self-healing power being able to produce and regulate sufficient spiri-tual energy to manage daily stresses, life adversities, occasional depression, andsituational anxiety. Thus, with this system of beliefs, much like that of theAncient Kemetic, Akan, or others, one questions how any intervention by amental health professional who does not address the fundamental nature ofspirit, energy, and life force in a person could be effective.


The exploration of these belief systems still begs the question of what we meanby spirituality and how spirituality is manifested within African psychologyprinciples and practices. Perhaps it makes sense to continue this segment of our

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Chapter 3 • The Spiritual Core of African-Centered Psychology 45

discussion by delineating the assumptions that guide our thinking here. It is ourposition that the ultimate nature of reality is spirit, and that everything on thisearth and in the universe that lives is spirit. We also believe that human beingsare divine spirit energy manifested in human forms, and to be human is to bespirit energy in motion. We also assume that consciousness represents the abil-ity of the human being to be aware of oneself in relationship to others, and allmaterial things; and that the connection to the human condition is experiencedthrough a review of one’s history, one’s experiences in the present, and one’santicipation of the future. As such, we also assume that our humanity is af-firmed by recognizing the humanity in others, where reciprocal human relationsand proper conduct are the experiential anchors of our beingness. What we aresaying here, as Nobles (1986) and Ani (1994) have before us, is that spirit in itsmost elementary form is an energy or life force that is the inner essence andouter envelop of human beingness. Human beings emit energy that is bothgiven and received by self and others across the spheres of time, place, person,and space. The modes of expression that serve as conduits to those spiritualconnections to others are consciousness, emotions (joy, laughter, love, affirma-tion, belonging, pain, anger, and even hurt), and behaviors (both verbal andnonverbal). It is also our belief that life experiences provide opportunities tomanifest spirit in relation to other people and the world around us. We also be-lieve that humans are on a trajectory in life, seeking to align their consciousnesswith their destiny (this is the essence of the principle “Ori-Ire”). Consequently,there are forces in the universe that will both facilitate and/or inhibit that journey, and one’s culture then helps to insulate the modes of expression from those forces that would negatively alter one’s trajectory toward their owndivine destiny.


In understanding that the core of our humanity is spiritual energy and lifeforce, it seems appropriate to understand how that energy is manifested in thelives of African-descent people, and other members of the human family. Inviewing the different systems and philosophies of various African traditions,the spiritual essence of human being is said to exist in the spirit of the ances-tors, the biogenetic makeup of their parents, the intrauterine environment ofthe womb, the world of the mundane after birth, and back to the spirit worldin which status as an ancestor is the goal. However, once arrived in the worldwhere the spiritual and material join, the goal is to both search out and em-brace one’s destiny, while also leading a life that is ethically and morallyproper. For the Akan, Ephirim-Donkor (1997) reminds us that they believe thatprior to consciousness, children are endowed with a clairvoyance that enablesthem to maintain close rapport with the spirit counterparts in the ancestralworld. Thus, children are both highly valued and cared for safely because oftheir telepathic ability and the possibility that they could be the ancestors arriv-ing from the spirit world. Once growing in consciousness and with the cessationof their paranormal activity, children enter a phase of deliberate indoctrination

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46 Chapter 3 • The Spiritual Core of African-Centered Psychology

and education with the cultural mores, values, and ethos of African people de-signed to help them become good citizens. The goal here is to prepare youngchildren, and subsequently adolescents for the adult world, complete with theobligations and responsibilities that accompany it. As a result of this deliberatesocialization, young people begin to exhibit the characteristics that allow themto function effectively within the social, economic, political, spiritual, and psychological domains of life, managing their affairs with standards of ethicsand morality.

In sum then, spirit energy reigns in various realms of reality (the past,present, and future; the yet to be born, living, and deceased), and we contendthat the energy is then mobilized to meet the needs of the human organism, bethey physical, emotional, psychological, behavioral, or spiritual. Within theAfrican psychological tradition, that energy is often expressed across a numberof domains, and that can include relationship to the DIVINE force in the universe, self-awareness of one’s being and becoming, personal growth anddevelopment, relationship and inner connectedness to others, alignment withfundamental principles or truths (i.e. Ma’at), religiosity, and even the capacityfor resilience when life’s hardships intervene to throw major challenges andobstacles in the path of each man and woman. What are we saying with thislatter point? We are saying that there is a duality to our spirituality. And so, weunderstand that anytime you have spirituality, particularly as it relates to Africandescent and oppressed people, you will always find, as West (1999) reminds us,instances of unjustified suffering, unmerited pain, and undeserved harm. Thequestion is not why does oppression or adversity occur, but rather, how do wecope with it? The question, as we see it, in using our African-centered culturalcompetencies in building for eternity is: How do we learn to transform the pain;transcend the harm; and improvise on the suffering to achieve some level of in-tellectual, emotional, behavioral, and spiritual liberation for ourselves and theclients we work with? And the recognition of this duality further requires thatwe understand that where there is pain, there is healing; where there is despair,there is hope; where there is suffering, there is comfort; and where there is amistake, there is redemption. That is the promise that our African-centered psy-chological theories should make to us; not that life will be trouble free or thatwe are labeled with a diagnosis each time we show human vulnerability, butthat principled strength will be that rock to cling to in the storms of life.Furthermore, once we find ourselves and the psychological spaces our clientsoccupy taxed in ways that instigate excessive feelings of anxiety, depression,fear, guilt, anger, and hurt, we should help ourselves and our clients understandthat there is a self-healing power within each of us that resides at the spiritualcore of our being.

Given this review, it now seems appropriate to ask ourselves severalquestions and examine the tenets of the spiritual nature of one’s personalityin an African-centered context: what are the assumptions that should guide aclinician’s discussions of spirituality; what does spirituality do for clients aswell as each of us; and what can it offer to our clients, students, communityfolks, and indeed to the discipline of African psychology as a whole? By way

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Chapter 3 • The Spiritual Core of African-Centered Psychology 47

of assumptions, we have argued that there is a spiritual essence that perme-ates everything that exists in the universe. It is also assumed that spirit is DIVINE, as each individual’s energy and life force is connected to that DIVINEforce in the universe. We also assume that since spirit is energy, which canneither be created nor destroyed, it existed before, during, after, and beyondmaterial existence. Finally, we are clear in assuming that the spirituality andreligion are not the same. Within the context of these assumptions, we nowask ourselves: What can spirituality do for each of us as members of thehuman family, and why is it important for African people?

• First, spirituality becomes connected to authentic personhood, by provid-ing an attachment to the Divine Force in the universe.

• Second, spirituality allows us to think more holistically about the personalnature of our being and one of the sources of our personal debilitations.

• Third, spirituality provides for and affirms our sense of power, by acknowl-edging the healing potential in all of us, and each person’s ability to trans-form and transcend situational circumstances in ways that are beneficial.

• Fourth, spirituality helps demonstrate our connectedness to other mem-bers of the human family, as well as our relationship to all other things inGOD’s universe that have life.

• Fifth, spirituality provides an assured sense of purpose, by instigating andalignment between one’s consciousness and one’s destiny (consistentwith the Yoruba concept of Ori-Ire).

• Sixth, spirituality as an energy and life force becomes an aspiration in lifesuch that it assists in our striving for a more ethically and morally centeredway of being in the world. In that way, as children grow into adolescents,adolescents into adults, and then adults move into being eldership, beingdeemed an elder is less a function of arriving at a certain age plateau com-miserate with retirement, but rather a title one earns by achieving somelevel of existential perfection in managing one’s affairs with integrity andrighteous character.

These are among the primary benefits that spirituality offers to each ofus who constitute a healing presence in the lives of the students we teach,the clients we treat, and the people we touch. And it seems to us that ourmission is to incorporate the notion and concept of spirituality into our in-struction in the classroom, the counseling and clinical work we provide intherapy offices, and in the community centers we all find time to touch andinteract with.


In closing this chapter, we would leave you with an important note of caution.We have deliberately introduced this notion of spirituality in this fourth editionbecause it is too important of the concept to be ignored in our work as psychol-ogists and healers. We want you to see, much like the Bantu-Congo tradition

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48 Chapter 3 • The Spiritual Core of African-Centered Psychology

articulated by Fu-Kiau (1991), or more recently the concept of spirituality addressed by Wade Nobles (2008) that makes plain the tri-fold unfolding natureof human beingness. They believe that to be human is to be an unfolding radi-ating spirit existing in the realms of the yet-to-be born, the living, and the after-life (see tri-fold) that expresses itself as an ongoing process of being, belonging,and becoming through the complex experiences of culture and tradition(Nobles, 2008). That spiritual energy, as in interacts with our consciousness,continues to evolve in ways that allow for insights into who we are at the coreof our being, who we belong to in the context of synthesizing cultural spaceand time, what power we possess in interacting with one’s environment, andwhat possibilities we have to become a fuller manifestation of our divine poten-tial. In essence, to be human is to be spirit in motion.


While the understanding and articulation of the composition of spirit is impor-tant for our comprehension, we cannot close this chapter, however, withoutsome mention of how one’s spirit becomes ill or otherwise contaminated. Recallthat whether one’s spirit is nurtured in the womb or impacted after birth, thereis a constant interaction with the environment. If that environment is healthy,nurturing, and otherwise supportive, then the flow of good energy is unabated,there is a conscious recognition of oneself and one’s relationship to the DIVINE,there is a community connectedness to other members of one’s cultural groupas well as other members of the human family, there is an alignment of one’sbehaviors in support of a healthy and affirming lifestyle, and there is a socialorder guided by a respect for interpersonal contact and intimate relationshipsthat are grounded in the tenets of Ma’at. However, if that environment becomescontaminated by chronic exposure to environmental toxins of the material orpsychological variety, or agents of aggression that impose hostile and aggressiveacts of malice, brutality, and hatred, then the being, belonging, and becomingmotions of that spiritual energy are likely to be infected. And, given the spiritualconnection to one’s ancestral lines, it is highly possible that the infection, impu-rity, or contamination can be manifested in intergenerational ways, beingpassed down from adults to children, and beyond. Parenthetically, it shouldalso be noted that much like an infected person can become a carrier of diseaseand illness, so to do people, once sufficiently infected by the virus of dehuman-ization and negative spiritual energy, begin to infect others in ways that areanalogous to self-imposed destruction. In essence, if the “host” culture of brutalityand racial denigration is racism and White supremacy perpetuated by particularracial groups (i.e., White people), and that chronic mental, spiritual, and physi-cal brutality is imposed on African-American people over space and time, thenit is possible that African-American people, once infected and unable to resistthe spread of that mental disease, will no longer depend on White people andracism to contribute to their dehumanization: They adapt that mantle them-selves. Remember, it was Carter G. Woodson (1933) who reminded us that ifyou allow people to control the way you think, then you do not have to assign

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Chapter 3 • The Spiritual Core of African-Centered Psychology 49

them an inferior status; if necessary, they will seek it for themselves. Thus,when one looks at the condition of African-descent people in America andglobally, one can see the vestiges of that contaminated spiritual energy that man-ifests itself in the ideas of reference African Americans ascribe to themselves(derogatory labels like nigger, nigga); the negative attitudes and feelings we proj-ect onto other Black people (Black people are less than human, so I ascribe novalue to their life or existence [see the out of control homicide statistics for youngBlack males nationally]); the deteriorating relations we have with other people ofAfrican descent who represent our children, family, and our community (increas-ing incidence of child and elder abuse, sexual assault, family disintegration, un-healthy male-female relationships, and gang participation); and the patterns ofbehavior we display in response to life situations and circumstances (use andabuse of alcohol, drugs, and tobacco; consumption of unhealthy foods that con-tribute to obesity, diabetes, cardiovascular disease; and other illnesses).

Thus, if you are a clinician or counselor committed to treating an individualwho may be depressed about a situation, anxious about certain aspects of theirlife, unsatisfied with the quality of their familial or intimate relationships, con-cerned about their relationship with their children or parents, troubled by theirlack of productivity, confused about their identity, unhappy with their self-image,or angry about instances of unfairness and inequality in their life, you cannot as-sume that the target of your therapeutic intervention is relegated to their thoughts,feelings, or behaviors. For in reality, there is some degree of spiritual contamina-tion that is negatively impacting their lives, and it is the spiritual nature of theirexistence and humanity that must be addressed if healing is going to occur.

Finally, it is our belief that people can never learn to love, appreciate, andrespect things in other people that they first do not understand, love, and appre-ciate in themselves. Professionals and students alike cannot expect to align theirspirit and the energy and life force it represents, with another member of thehuman family (particularly African-American clients), if they themselves are outof touch with their own energy, and disconnected from the source of their ulti-mate power, which is their spirituality. For it is in spirit and spirituality thathuman authenticity lies, and it is there that African-centered psychology differsfrom Freud, Adler, Rogers, Ellis, Perls, and the other personality theorists whoare caught in the throws of conceptual incarceration that only sees theirEurocentrically oriented theories focused on cognition, affect, and behavior asthe gateway to our psyche. And even in cases where the importance of spiritual-ity is mentioned or recognized, much like in the works of Corey (2005), it con-tinues to be anchored in an acknowledgment of a counselor’s need to recognizethe client’s religious preferences and what importance they play in the client’slife. This is essentially belief system analysis. In this current space and time, thatsimply will no longer do. African psychology has embraced a different realitythan the one we have all been trained and indoctrinated with. For in reality, weare not human beings having occasionally spiritual experiences; but rather, weare spiritual beings having occasional human ones (Yogi Yogananda, 1946).

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