There are, reportedly, 600 to 1,000 different tribal groups in Africa. Among them are the Ashanti, Ibo, Masai, Zulu, Yoruba, Fulani, and Kikuyu.

One of the more noticeable characteristics of tribal identity is language. There are over a thousand different dialects spoken by tribal units on the continent of Africa. And language is the most effective method of communication and of establishing human relationships. Language is also used as a vehicle of isolation and closure.

Tribalism, although providing many benefits, has also contributed to divisions which have been used by enslavers and colonizers to pitt one group against another and to foster apathy when outsiders attack or exploit another group that are of the same race but belong to a different tribe.

Identification with a sub-group for safety and empowerment is also prevalent among African Americans. And although the strong and pervasive tribal system in Africa is often a extension of strong family ties, tribal or gang affiliations among African Americans are usually brought about because of broken homes or weak family structures. This is especially true in the phenomenon of Black urban street gangs. Most of these young men grow up without the guidance and influence of a father in the home. And the mother, although living in the house, is often absent because of job obligations.

Since love, acknowledgment and recognition are basic human needs, many urban youth who don’t get enough of it at home, search for it on the streets and within the circle of their peers who establish pseudo-families and sub-group affiliations (street gangs).

Just as in African these African American sub-groups have a tendency by their very exclusiveness to thwart wider efforts of unity and solidarity of Black people nationally which cut across sub-group or gang affiliations. And like in Africa, colonial authorities manipulate divisions and differences to control, to exploit and to promote genocidal programs in Black American communities.

In America, as in Africa, land is divided and Black people separated by artificial borders to disrupt communication and solidarity. A favored method is gentrification of Black neighborhoods and fragmentation of communities through so-called urban renewal programs and freeway construction projects.

In Africa, European colonialists divided up many areas and fabricated new countries and borders based on their own economic, political, and geographical interests. In this process Blacks were fragmented into "warring tribes" and isolated by make-shift national boundaries. In the case of Rwanda, one sub-group was pitted against another through favored treatment and by being used as a buffer against another. This methodology was applied to the Tutsis and the Hutus and sparked the worst genocide in recent history.

Even the term "tribe" is believed to be an invention of White colonialists who popularized it as a divide and conquer tactic and may( by its very usage) have racist overtones for rarely are White sub- groups with similar characteristics identified as "tribes." Paul Bohannan and Philip Curtin explain:

"In fact the term (tribe) became common in European writing about Africa only in the nineteenth century. In the era of the slave trade, Europeans usually talked about different African "nations," but the rise of European racism and cultural arrogance was accompanied by a shift to "tribe." From that point onward, the term took on many special-purpose meanings.

Anthropologists once used it simply to refer to any group whose culture the anthropologists identified as being homogeneous. In this sense, it was a classification applied from the outside, and the Africans themselves might not even be conscious of their "tribal" identity. The Ibo of eastern Nigeria, for example had a common culture and a language made up of a number of mutually intelligible dialects. But they had no sense of identity as Ibo until the nineteenth century-no common state, no common history. Even the word "Ibo" originated in the New World as a classification of slaves who spoke the Igbo dialect." [1]

Black Americans have a unique opportunity for although we have been plagued with a litany of divisions and inter-group animosities (most of them the result of White machinations) we still are not as thoroughly burdened by tribal alienation and antagonism as is the case on the African continent. In fact, regardless of any sub-group affiliations we assign ourselves- whether upper class, lower class, light-skinned, dark-skinned, east-side, west-side, Crip or Blood- we are all first and foremost Black.

Moreover, our shared plight of over 400 years of chattel slavery, lynching, beatings, economic exploitation, Jim Crowism, etc., bonds us and provides a vantage point from which we can more readily discard any superficial sub-group, class, or "tribal" affiliation we have fashioned or adopted. Charles Mudede gives an overview:

"It is impossible for the descendants of Blacks stolen from West Africa 4oo years ago to determine which tribe they came from because they came from so many tribes. Black Americans are a mix of Black African tribes, and so the only way they can identify with Africa is with the continent as a whole. This is why the Afrocentric movement can cobble together into one seamless reality the ancient civilization of Egypt with that of the Zulus, the ancient civilization of Great Zimbabwe with that of the Yoruba people."[2]

Regardless of what area of the United States a Black American was born or what social-economic group s/he identifies with, there is a larger Black national consciousness that is recognized and embraced. Sanyika Shakur, a.k.a. Monster Kody Scott, describes how he made the transition from L.A. gang banger to Black nationalist revolutionary:

"It took me a full three years to get out of the Crips. I could not just go to the administration building and put in a transfer to civilian life. I had to practice what I wanted to express, expression eventually to come through the practice of my new beliefs. Getting out turned out to be much like getting in, in the sense of building one’s name and deeds in conjunction with what you believe.

Many fail in trying to make this break. Some attempts to make the change to civilian life through working, going back to school or church, or moving out of the neighborhood. But many find themselves drawn back in by the strong gravitational pull of the safe familiarity of the set and the hood.

"It was hard for me to trully substantiate my break because the opposition was quite strong and I had no support whatsoever. I knew that my enemies of old would never believe that I actually stopped, so they would not cease trying to destroy me. My homies would feel let down, disapointed and perhaps betrayed. And I would be locked in a defensive posture for goodness knows how long.

During my time in Folsom prison I distanced myself as much as possible from the madness of the Crips and the Bloods. Unless it was a racial conflict, I didn’t have time to walk, talk, and gather in the realm of negativity."[3]

Minister Louis Farakhan and the Nation of Islam has had phenomenal success in converting Black street criminals and gang members into the Black consciousness movement through emphasizing compassion and as well as instilling historical, sociological, and economic knowledge through a shared Black heritage.

The stark reality is that regardless of any so-called tribal, gang, or sub-group affiliation or attachment, we must submerge our differences and unite and pool our collective resources with the realization that our centuries old oppression is based solely upon the fact that we are Black. And what Malcolm X said decades ago is still relevant today. "We may have arrived here in different boats, but we’re all in the same boat now."

Notes and References:

[1]. Paul Bohannan and Philip Curtin, "Africa & Africans" The Natural History Press, Garden City, New York, p.p. 347, 348

[2]. "Real African-American Culture is Superior to Pseudo-African Culture" by Charles Mudele. Accessible online at:

[3]. Sanyika Shakur, "The Autobiography of a L.A. Gang Member" Penguin Books, New York, New York (1993) p.p. 355, 356