Askia MuhammadColumnistsOp-EdOpinion

MUHAMMAD: Free Ujamaa Shule!

Free Ujamaa Shule! Free Ujamaa School!

Ujamaa Shule is perhaps the oldest independent Black school in the country but it faces daily challenges in 2021 — including harassment by D.C. city officials, some believe — to drive the legendary African-centered school out of the centrally located Shaw neighborhood. It’s the latest episode of the gentrification chronicle, with an anti-Black Power twist. The Ujamaa School needs and deserves a strong show of support and solidarity.

“Ujamaa” is the Ki-Swahili name for the fourth of the Nguzo Saba, the Seven Principles, upon which Kwanzaa is based. Ujamaa means “cooperative economics.” “Shule,” the Swahili word for school, was founded in 1968 by Baba Senzengakulu El Zulu and has been located at 8th and Q streets in northwest D.C. for more than four decades. The school is a living historic monument. It should remain at 8th and Q NW!

There was a time in Washington when the only public place where Kwanzaa celebrations were held was at Ujamaa Shule. There was a time, even before Minister Louis Farrakhan was well into his rebuilding of the Nation of Islam, when the only place he could speak was at Ujamaa Shule, even before Union Temple Baptist Church opened its pulpit to the Minister.

Before there was a vegan menu to be found in Washington, Ujamaa Shule served vegan meals, even meat substitutes, at its many gala events, including anniversary celebrations at Howard University’s Blackburn Center.

But this push to remove significant Black cultural institutions in the Shaw neighborhood is not new. A couple of Black churches whose members had moved away from the neighborhood felt enormous pressure when their new gentrifying neighbors got city officials to strictly enforce parking codes against the cars of the worshipers on Sundays. Two congregations sold and moved to “Ward 9” — neighboring Prince George’s County, Maryland. Others, namely Shiloh Baptist Church and the Universal House of Prayer for All People have resisted massive efforts to root them out as the demographics of the neighborhood changed from Black to white.

Shiloh actually won a concession, getting the National Park Service to agree to restore the Carter G. Woodson Home, which is adjacent to the church and had been in disrepair for many, many decades. There’s even now a Woodson statue in the block.

But Ujamaa serves a narrow, but vital niche of the Black cultural landscape, one which has driven the dominant culture into recognizing Kwanzaa and Juneteenth, and the surge for reparations — reparative justice — for Black oppression in the U.S. But the unvarnished Africanized truth that is taught at Ujamaa, doesn’t win very many powerful allies for such an institution in an increasingly “multicultural” society.

Baba Zulu, as he is affectionately known, brings the flame he lit as a young Student Non-Violent Coordinating Committee (SNCC) organizer in Mississippi in the early 1960s to his zealous work propagating African-centered education to children K-12.

The sad truth is that Black Consciousness education is mislabeled and targeted for its unapologetic message of Black pride and its frank condemnation of the wicked white people the world over, and especially in Africa, who have colonized, brutalized, murdered and enslaved Black people by the millions, for centuries.

So, if you imagine that commercial gentrifiers don’t want a Black church to stand in the way of their “flipping” houses and streets from Black to white, you’d better believe they do not want a militant, conspicuous, Black cultural institution founded by a man named Zulu, with great big ol’ African Ankhs on its doorsills, thriving on their street!

They expect Black folks to bend to cater to the new arrivals, like one neighborhood business which changed its name from “Fish in Da Hood,” to “Fish in the Neighborhood,” so as to not appear to be ghetto-ish, even in its signage. And sadly, city officials are hungry for that kind of acceptance from the new residents, who will never truly respect or appreciate the treasures of D.C. like Ujamaa School, and may even conspire to drive another Black institution out of the city, for the delight of commercial developers and speculators.

But if you are interested in strengthening the educational and cultural bonds among Africans in the United States, the Caribbean, and the Continent, then you should look at and support Ujamaa Shule. If you wish to see a strong, independent Black educational institution that produces well-taught leaders, then check out Ujamaa Shule! They’ve got a GoFundMe page on the “El Zulu” Facebook page.

Askia Muhammad

WPFW News Director Askia Muhammad is also a poet, and a photojournalist. He is Senior Editor for The Final Call newspaper and he writes a weekly column in The Washington Informer.

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