A small group in Brooklyn sees the skyscrapers in Manhattan and thinks of the great pyramids of ancient Egypt.
The mission of The Earth Center in South Crown Heights at 404 Lefferts Avenue, which serves north & south Crown Heights is to revive “Kemetic spirituality,” meaning ancient Egypt’s religion and culture. Kemet is the pronunciation of the hieroglyphic name of ancient Egypt. According to the center, all human civilization radiates from its Egyptian origins. Bouimen Kamenthu, a regular volunteer, says Kemet is "the location where we all came from.”
Because Kemet is the origin of all other human cultures, The Earth Center advises visitors that kemetic spirituality will allow them to connect with the very essence of one’s human identity.
When the Center says ancient Egypt, they mean very, very ancient. And by Egyptian they mean northeast Africa before there was an Egypt. A spokeswoman at their headquarters in Chicago, who did not want to be identified, says that Kermeticism is the initial spirituality of humans and shouldn’t be confused with religions that developed later. She emphasized, “We go back hundreds and thousands of years and this knowledge is preserved by the Dogon people. We are not a religion, we're a spiritual structure that existed before Christianity, Islam, and the major religions.” The Center teaches that the Dogon migrated with their sacred knowledge from the Egyptian/Sudan area until some ended up in Burkina Faso.
In a dialogue on a video a Kemetic leader, Bikbaye Inejnema, explained that Dogon Kemetic history teaches that “the Dogon is comprised of bloodlines that go back to the Pharaonic period in the Nile and Niger valley civilizations. When the invasions [by the Arabs, Greek, Persians, Romans and Europeans] started happening in Merita [Africa], the Dogon, who were considered the upper echelon of the Kemetic society, went to different areas of Merita in order to preserve the mystery school knowledge that they were upholding…Some people may say ‘Egypt,’ but this [started happening] long before the word ‘Egypt’ existed.”
Now, this historical perspective has flowed into the long-standing rivulet of New York City African American religious life that also locates its roots in ancient Egypt.
Egyptian - NYC African American religion
In the late 1920s the Moorish Science Temple of America appeared in Harlem claiming ancient roots. Its founder, Noble Drew Ali from Newark, New Jersey and Chicago, said that the authority for his version of Black Islamic nationalism derived from a lineage that went back to ancient Egypt. It is likely (though much disputed) that Ali influenced Wallace Fard Muhammed, the founder of the Black Muslims.
In the 1970s alternative religions arose also with claims of ancient Egyptian origins. Among African Americans, the claim was that ancient African cultural values were the foundation for the rise of the ancient Egyptian empire and were crucial today for African American identity. Concurrently, there was an increased interest in religions that taught that the earth was divine or inhabited by many divinities. A conviction that the oldest Mediterranean religion was the worship of the Divine Mother also moved some toward certain idealized versions of ancient Egyptian religion.
In 1973, Brooklyn was the birth place of a form Black Kemeticism with the founding of the Ausar Auset Society, an Afrocentric organization that provides spiritual training to African Americans. Their values revolve around the belief that ancient Egypt provides the foundation for the African early civilizations of Indus Kush and Nubia.
Ra Un Nefer Amen, the founder of the Ausar Auset Society, immigrated to the US in 1960 from Panama and graduated from the Brooklyn High School for Boys the following year. He pursued a music degree from Mannes College of Music and eventually left music to devote full time to his society.
In the 1970s Martin Bernal, a Cornell University scholar who wrote the controversial Black Athena: The Afroasiatic Roots of Classical Civilization, made a similar argument. He controversially theorized that the origin of ancient Greece culture was influenced by earlier Egyptian and Phoenician civilizations.
More recent immigrants from Africa have also brought another wave of interest in ancient Egyptian religions.
The Burkina Faso background
Master Naba Lamoussa Morodenibig, the founder of The Earth Center, was born in 1960 in Fada N'Gourma, Burkina Faso, a Francophone country in Western Africa with a population of about 16.46 million people. Islam is the main religion of the people in Burkina Faso (about sixty-one percent according to the 2006 census by the government). Consequently, Burkina Faso contains a notable Islamic site. The Grand Mosque in Bobo-Dioulasso, the country's second largest city, exhibits a famous architecture style called Sudano-Sahelian. The style features outside walls made from adobe plaster and mud bricks with large wooden beams extending outward, resembling to the Western eye the look of a giant wooden mallet used for meat tenderizing.
Twenty-three percent of the people in Burkina Faso are Christian, and fifteen percent practice various forms of religions centered on ancestor worship and animism. The religions are often practiced in tandem with each other, creating syncretic forms of religious practices.
The founder of The Earth Center was born into the Dogon ethnic group, which had migrated from the Sudan area several hundred years ago. Like other Dogon traditioinalists, Master Naba says that the Dogon brought with them knowledge that was inherited from the ancient Egyptians. Dogon stories are rich in stories of gods and goddesses, spirits and astronomical lore.
Starting at age eight, Master Naba started his initiations into higher and higher levels of knowledge about the secret teachings of the Dogon traditionalists. The initiated Dogons must keep the teachings secret unless someone has gone through the appropriate initiation ceremony. The initiations and belief in the Dogon mysteries also serve to certify a male Dogon as a full-fledged Dogon. Consequently, Earth Center leaders say that a Dogon who follow Islam or Christianity are really no longer Dogon.
Once mastering this esoteric knowledge, he approached his elders for their blessing in taking it to the United States. According to a representative at the Chicago school, “Master Naba was granted permission by his elders to come here to bring traditional education.”
With this sentiment in mind, Master Naba came to the United States joining thousands of other immigrants from Burkino Faso. According to the media organization B24TV, a web channel that caters to the country's diaspora population, approximately 6,000 immigrants from Burkina Faso live in the United States.
Master Naba founded the first Earth Center in Chicago in 1996, and it remains the headquarters for an expanding network of other centers. The center then branched out to four other locations in West Virginia, California, and New York City. One center is located in Ouagadougou, Burkina Faso's capital, also in Togo and Ghana. There are plans for a center in the United Kingdom.
The appeal of kemetic spirituality can be seen by examining the conversion stories of its followers.
The influence process
Eight years ago, Bouimen Kamenthu was starting another work day as a porter at a Manhattan hotel. He was hanging out in his car listening to the radio while he waited for a parking spot to open up. He flipped the dial to one of his favorite radio stations, the lefty, counter-cultural WBAI at 99.5 FM. The station featured out-of-the mainstream speakers who were interesting because they were different.
Hugh Hamilton's voice boomed out from the radio, which meant that the Black nationalist program “Talk Back” had come on the air. A little of Hamilton’s proper English bombast got the morning started with a rhetorical, sometimes religious, flourish. The talk show host often featured Afro-centric religious leaders on the program and on that day one of them caught Kamenthu’s attention.
The guest was “Master Naba,” as most people call him, talking about the ancient wisdom of the Egyptians. The religious wise man talked with a heavy African accent worked to emphasize the authentic origins of his knowledge.
"He had a heavy accent, but clear. Despite the accent, you were forced to listen and focus," said Kamenthu. The tone of Master Naba’s voice on radio was mesmerizing. "He must have something to say," thought Kamenthu, a 63 year old immigrant from Panama.
As listeners called to ask Master Naba their own questions, Kamenthu became even more intrigued by the questions and the sensible answers. "What is an ancestor? What is the definition of ancestor?" one listener asked.
"He spoke about how he honors the ancestors," recalls Kamenthu. Master Naba’s logic behind honoring one's ancestors is that in order to find reverence within our own existence, we need to respect those who came before us because they brought us to our present state. Kamenthu considered Master Naba's answers "jaw dropping” because he had such a different way of seeing the world, an Afro-centric one that makes being Black important in world history.
"I thought he's coming from a different paradigm," says Kamenthu during our conversation inside The Earth Center in Crown Heights, Brooklyn.
Black Kemeticism bestows a perspective that prompts pride in African American roots while creating a critical distance from certain baneful legacies of White culture. The faith highlights Africa as the land of the origins of human civilization. It appeals to some African Americans who are questioning their identity and patriotism in a nation that once enslaved their ancestors.
For these reasons, the concept of Black Kemeticism also has appealed to some African American scholars like the late Jacob H. Carruthers. In his book Intellectual Warfare, the professor at Northeastern Illinois University argued that ancient Egypt was a black civilization before it was colonized by the Western world. Since the Greeks obtained knowledge from Egypt, he further argued that Blacks ruled the first civilizations and therefore were the ones who civilized Europe,. Similar views are propounded at some African American studies departments in the New York City region.
Back to Africa one student at a time
To learn the details of this alternative religious history of the world, students can enroll for classes in the center's school, the M'TAM School of Kemetic Philosophy and Spirituality. There the student can join the tradition of kemetic knowledge being passed down from generation to generation through traditional priests who guarded the knowledge since ancient Egypt civilization. Enrollment is the first step into the initiation to the secrets of Kemeticism.
The initiation process involves meditation, prayers to ancestors, breathing techniques, holistic healing, and astronomy.
Twelve generations of classes have graduated and been initiated by the Earth Center in NYC. The class size varies from start to end, since students drop out due to the rigorousness of he lessons. Kamenthu, who was initiated seven years ago, began the program with 25 other students. By the end of the process, seven of them remained. The costs range from $360 to $430 per semester. The classes are listed by the transliteration of their Egyptian hieroglyphic name.
In the Medu Myeet class a student will learn to read ancient hieroglyphics and how to communicate with the ancestors. A Ka-at Ibi class includes lessons on chanting and meditation.
"It's the process of reconditioning mind, body, and soul," said Kamenthu. "It's based on your strength of wanting to become a better human being." Moving at the pace of the slowest student, it takes about a year and a half for each class.
"What we're doing here is the same as it was 70,000 years ago. We're trying to connect people to their folk," expressed Hatnima Shemzura, a student at the Earth Center.
Shemzura, who is originally from Belize, was introduced to Master Naba's teachings in 2006 while at a lecture at Soul Brother's Boutique in Central Harlem. Someone gave him a flier about Master Naba. The flier intrigued him and he soon bought about $150 worth of books, magazines, CDs, and DVDs. He officially enrolled as a student at the Earth Center in 2008.
What intrigued Shemzura most about the Earth Center was its universal, inclusive philosophy. "This is a spiritual institution, not religious, for people to find their roots, no matter if you're black or white," sad Shemzura. "What we learn in our initiation is that we're all human from Africa."
The indigenous bush life-style
"We're nature base, coming out of the bush in Africa," said Kamenthu, who is now a volunteer teacher at the Earth Center. Flavors polytheism and ancestor worship, often found in indigenous religions, exist within kemetic teachings practiced at the Earth Center.
Students of the center, called kemu (or kem for singular), follow 77 Commandments titled The Divine Code of Human Behavior. The list includes laws presented in the Biblical Ten Commandments, such as thou shall not kill and thou shall not steal. But it also encompasses principles that reflect how far removed Kemeticism is from the Abrahamic traditions.
One such law is number 26 of the 77, "Thou shall not cheat on the offerings to Gods." Kemeticism has an infinite number of gods and goddesses. A Journey asked Kamenthu if one god has priority status over another. He answered, "We can't judge them. They're all gods." Some of their gods and goddesses, like Iaichat, is present in Greek mythology. Iaichat is comparable to the Greek goddess Isis, who rules the sky and sea.
By adhering to the 77 Commandments in our living life and accessing the gods and goddesses through the ancestors, the student can look forward to joining the gods after death.
"Our ancestors are our intermediaries to the gods," Kamenthu says. "They have transitioned from this dimension to the spiritual dimension." By accessing this spiritual dimension before death, a human being can joyously transition right into the sacred dimension.
"Death isn't a bad thing," added Bouimen. "A kemu would happily give up their life. That's the spiritual realm. Once you understand that dimension, death becomes something to welcome."
Good intentions in the world
For Kamenthu and Shemzura, practicing Kemeticism is about making an impact on the world while progressing toward the spiritual dimension after death. "We want to make a positive influence in the world," Kamenthu pointed out. "When you don't understand how a human being functions, how can you?"
The worldly good of Kemetic teaching comes from "embracing the teachings and lifestyle to become a better human being," says Kamenthu, rather than from any specific actions or missions. So, at this point the visibility of Master Naba’s mission and the resulting social benefits are relatively low. The mysterious teachings may tweak the curiosity of some or seem too esoteric to many.
In a city of churches, mosques, synagogues and temples, The Earth Center's teachings exist in the margins with hesitant buyers. However, this doesn’t discourage its adherents.
For Kamenthu, who dedicates nearly seven days a week as a volunteer teacher at the center, the teachings are his life. After being asked how many hours a week he spends at the center, he notes, "This is my reality."
405 Lefferts Avenue
This is the first feature in our 2014 series on "Crown Heights."