This past Saturday, I went to see the UniverSoul Circus for the first time in nearly 15 years. It was its 25th anniversary. It never fails: Before I even get under the big tent, I’m dancing. Fifteen years ago, I was a rising college freshman, just finished from prom and on my way out of high school. That moment was etched into my memory. So was the idea that my childhood love of the circus could meet the contemporary context of hip hop in the 2000s. To develop, one did not have to summarily do away with the past.
To my delight, many of the elements stayed the same. There was rap and soul music played during intermission and between the acts to get the crowds riled up and keep the energies flowing. There was calypso and soca music during high-wire acts; African drummers with stilt walkers and giant puppet mascaraeders; spinning and twirling disco roller-skaters; Chinese tumbling wall-builders and dreadlocked and afro-ed clowns doing the #KiKiChallenge. One thing that was not there, thankfully, was an elephant.
While it is important to be reverent of the past, it is important to acknowledge the benefits of progress. Elephants don’t belong in circuses. Period. That’s a development. They also stopped using tigers in their shows. Wanting to be near the majesty of such beings is understandable; they represent the wisdom of nature in motion. Yet, nature has already programmed a place that can care for them: indigenous habitat. Nature’s technology is that it meets needs.
Earlier this spring, the NYC Branch of the Smithsonian’s Museum of the American Indians, introduced a new addition: The imagiNATIONS Activity Center. Its aim is to re-present the technologies of First Nations peoples in the Americas and their legacies in our modern engineering. For example, in one of the exhibitions there is a videogame called the Crop-etition Challenge.
Players, in this digital farming simulation, work to respond to weather and vitamin deficiency challenges by craftily selecting the best combination of crops, according to the museum’s website. The structural constraints: “Up to four can play, but there is a surprise: if they compete, the outcome won’t be as good as if they cooperate” .
According to ScienceDirect.com, “It is estimated that about 60% of the current world food supply originated in North America. The foods of the Native Americans are widely consumed and their culinary skills still enrich the diets of nearly all people of the world today” . “New world foods” such as potatoes, tomatoes, bananas, maize, cacao (chocolate), sunflower, and squash revolutionized 15th century European societies and were developed in the Americas . This a bit of the “picked up” tech from indigenous peoples’ tech that was “discovered” during the purported “Age of Exploration.”
It takes scientific know-how to accomplish what First Nations peoples did. We are still benefiting from their technologies today, in the field of chemical engineering, architecture and medicine. Aspirin, is included in that list. They used willow bark—whose extract’s scientific name is salicin, or salicylic acid (note that salix is Latin for willow) and the active ingredient in one of the most common painkillers in the world today .
Nature’s technology is that it meets needs.
Cooperation is a technological process in itself. This is another advancement we still use today. It’s called democracy, a governmental structure that also originated with First Nations peoples.
This is what the UniverSoul Circus seeks to showcase—the diversity of cultures working together. In a way, they showed their math: Social organization--how to get different people interacting without fighting. Each culture during the show had its time to shine and be celebrated by the present audience. It was a kind of modern assembly of organizational forms under the pretext of a circus.
Let’s take the Chinese wall builders. Just imagine, it’s the Qin or the Han Dynasty (221 B.C.-230 A.D). There is a sudden barging in: An invading army enters the emperor’s hall. The stationed guards have to quickly form a blockade before the attackers reach from the other side of the hallway. A flip is going to get you there faster than walking. Forming human wheels to erect a wall of men three times tall than horses to guard the king gives both advantage in height and aerial sight. Smart.
Today because of advances in modern warfare where people confront their targets at a distance and less directly, human wall-building can seem obsolete. Save if you transform it into a cultural relic and harness the social benefits of fitness and group cohesion.
The marketing expertise of the UniverSoul Circus organizers is that the crowd they attracted more likely than not would view the tumbling display with the cultural reverence that ancient assemblies would. To see less of the spectacle in it and more of the wisdom embedded in its structure—is having the eyes to see its science.
Take, for example, the disco roller-skaters spinning around on a small circle platform with one skater balancing the other on top of his head while continuing rapid revolutions. What is the physics formulation to represent bodies in centripetal acceleration? Mass times speed squared divided by the radius of the circular path . Were these dancers thinking about their TI83 calculators on the circus show floor? Mostly likely not. Yet, their bodies knew the math—meaning that in two people dancing, in the meeting of their hands or bodies or climbing on each other’s heads while in motion they had to calculate the added weight of the skates, their movement, the movement of their partner and how much space they had to skate on. (Their little platform was fairly tiny. Maybe six feet in diameter). They lived the math intuitively—and I am sure with great practice.
It is said, “A picture is worth a thousand words.” Well, that means it takes 1,000 words to see a smile. How many formulas does it take to dance with someone? Who knows? Our bodies, for one. And we don’t need to pinpoint the math to the millisecond. In the moment of the dazzling show, all we know is that it’s amazing and so are our bodies.
Ancient technology has given us the food that we eat, math that sent us to the moon and a way of social organization that can calm a hundred armies. The ingenuity of the UniverSoul Circus is using a common medium to assemble the world’s greatest mathematician: Culture.
As a vegetarian and a friend of the wonderful bodies of wisdom we call animals. The horses, dogs, zebras and the one camel I saw at the UniverSoul Circus looked well groomed, well feed, and well treated. Yes, I was still a bit uneasy—and thankful that 15 years later, the circus is still evolving away from the use of animals.
More ticketholders are pushing the company in that direction. (See PETA back class action suit). This, too, is part of the social dance that helps us in more sustainable ways appreciate the bounty of nature and honor our roles as stewards of that wealth. Wealth is more than a simple calculation or an adding up of dollars. It is the way we treat each other, the way we treat the beings we share the planet with and the way we continue on the cultures that formed the scientific wonders of our times.
Kids learn better with knowledge of ancestral heroes. That means they learn better when they see people who resemble them as key historical actors. For example, “when kids enjoy reading titles with characters who look like them, it helps form a connection to the book on another level” . It helps them in “identifying with the characters in a story,” allowing, “for a deeper comprehension of the text,” Scholastics.com writes.
Being able to place oneself as the inheritor of heroes imbues learning with both import and excitement. That energy brings learning to life. Implied in the notion of something valuable being “tried and true” is the reality of that something being tried by, at least, someone. What treasure it is to have a century or more of “someones” from which to draw?
"Kids learn better with knowledge of ancestral heroes."
An unconventional example of the curricular benefits found in channeling ancestral legacies is seen in the rugby team at Gisborne Boys’ High School in New Zealand. Gisborne is majority Maori. It considers rugby as a credited course. Its rugby team, the All Blacks, “emphasizes a connection to Maori culture” at all levels of team interaction, even utilizing the hongi, a traditional Maori salutation, to greet each other .
“Since the introduction of world rugby rankings in 2003, New Zealand has held the No. 1 ranking longer than all other countries combined,” David Maurice Smith writes in this article “Reading. Writing. Rugby.” New Zealand’s success on the international stage of rugby is credited, in large part, to the Gisborne’s team. The All Blacks credit their success to the ancestral Maori legacy, kawa, that they harness.
The school's leadership sees “nurturing a connection to cultural identity as key to developing” strong athletes . Dean Ryan Tapsell aptly remarks, “Most sporting teams strive to create a team culture, whereas our team is modeled after an actual living and breathing culture.” For Gisborne, they are not reinventing the wheel. They are redeveloping the axles.
Gisborne’s All Blacks are reapplying the techniques and tools of kawa in a present-day context to solve a contemporary problem: How to honorably draw upon ancient cultures in modern society's development?
Reaching back to move forward, a West African principle called Sankofa, is a beautifully fraught process. Done successfully, it has immense rewards. For example, in Gisborne’s case, it elevated a small North Island town into international stardom. In the case of the South African town, Mpumalanga, its Sankofa dream was intercepted.
"How to honorably draw upon ancient cultures in modern society's development?"
For Nelson Mandela, education was a liberatory force of which the school building was its symbolic embodiment. During the anti-apartheid movement, in Soweto 1976, bettering the condition of the schooling system was a rallying cry, particularly the instituting of native language(s) instruction over instruction in Afrikaans, the language of the minority-white population in control.
But what happens to a dream deferred? Langston Hughes asked this very question in his famous poem “Harlem.”
Mpumalanga’s former premier and education minister, David Mabuza, who is now the second-in-command under the newly installed president, Cyril Ramaphosa, was one of the main student organizers building ties across the anti-apartheid groups . “Yet under Mr. Mabuza’s leadership, millions of dollars for schools in his province have been misspent…His province routinely spent less on poor students than required and school construction projects have been riddled with inflated costs,” Onishi and Gebrekidan report in their article, “Amassing Power in South Africa as Corruption Rots Its School.”
Mabuza did not just oversee the siphoning off of public funding for schools but pillaged the hopes and dreams of many South Africans. He misused both the legacies of the country's freedom fighters, like the Mandelas, and the cultural legacies of small villagers by playing on duplicitous liberatory rhetoric. This is when the resurfacing of ancestral intelligences goes wrong.
How to distinguish between leaders using cultural awareness to bolster educational activities and those using it as a smoke screen for something more nefarious?
"Mabuza did not just oversee the siphoning off of public funding for schools but pillaged the hopes and dreams of many South Africans."
This is the question parents and community members, earlier this summer, were asking regarding an Eastern Cape, South African choirmaster who produced a seminude traditional performance featuring teen-aged schoolgirls . According to The Daily Dispatch, the choirmaster was on the record saying, “We are proud of our Xhosa tradition,” and, “We are proud of Xhosa women and girls,” . Education minister Angie Motshekga repudiated the performance by saying, “There is absolutely nothing wrong with being proud of your culture and heritage” but that educators “should know better than to expose teenage girls to this form of exploitation” . One reader on The Daily Dispatch’s website, writes “How is this not pedophilia masquerading as culture?” .
How to reintroduce historical cultural practices in a moment where those practices have morphed and comingled with the norms and mores of modern society? How to do so with an awareness that roots out exploitative motives on both sides?
The kawa is a set of Maori traditional protocols centered around public gatherings in the marae, a village court. Maori culture also a has set of protocols for war, and the Gisborne All Blacks rugby team has additionally gained fame for performing a Maori war cry and dance (haka) during, for example, the World Cup games. [See video]. One does want to be cautious of replicating the mistaken “passive, tame native” myth in highlighting the merits of various cultural practices. [See The Ancient History of the Maori, his Mythology and Traditions].
As the popularity of history is waning in provinces across South Africa, Pule Rakgoathe an education specialist states that “eventually, young people will know little of their country and the society in which they live” . That has wide-ranging implications for underrepresented students’ ability to learn in ways that helps them excel.
Students learn better when they see both people and practices that resemble them and environments with which they are familiar. They need access to diverse historical narratives. In seeing their ancestors as historical actors, they are more likely to become participatory members of society in a way that continues to move history forward.