What’s the Big Deal about “Knowledge of Self?”

It is a phrase many Black activists and Hip Hop artists use with almost obsessive regularity. Indeed, the phrase “Knowledge of Self,” joins other terms in the pantheon of Black expressions that have become cliche.

But exactly what is knowledge of self, what does it refer to, and why is it so important that we Black folk acquire it?

We should begin by noting that the knowledge of self idea is not new. In ancient Kemet (Egypt), initiates in the “mystery schools” learned the phrase “Man know thyself and you will know the universe.” Early Black Nationalist pioneers like Noble Drew Ali and Marcus Garvey urged Black folk to know our history as early as 1913. Groups like the Nation of Islam (via Elijah Muhammad, Malcolm X, Louis Farrakhan, and Khalid Muhammad) and its offshoot, the Five Percent Nation of Gods and Earths (via Clarence 13x), popularized this idea in the mid-20th century.

The $1 million questions at this point are: “What exactly is knowledge of self,” and “What do we gain by having it?”

“Knowledge of self” refers primarily to empowering information about our past. This includes: our geographic origins, our ancient values and culture, our accomplishments, and even our defeats and miscalculations.

More specifically, a Black person demonstrates knowledge of self when he/she:

  • Acknowledges Africa as the cradle of world civilization.
  • Acknowledges the pivotal role Africa played in the development of spirituality, law, music, astronomy, mathematics, education, technology, architecture, agriculture, etc. Furthermore, people with knowledge of self understand that European development in all its forms, was facilitated, borrowed or stolen from African ingenuity, knowledge or labor.
  • Realizes that African civilization/contibutions to humanity, were deliberately attacked, omitted and trivialized by Euopeans.
  • Understands how and why  Black ancestors were enslaved, assaulted and discriminated against by whites all over the world.
  • Develops pride and meaning from the past accomplishments, struggles and treatment of their ancestors.
  • Is familiar with, references and respects Black leaders and organizations of the past who fought to advance and protect Black people and interests.

It is important to note that one’s “knowledge of self” is relative to each individual. Some know more than others, can articulate this knowledge better than others, or embrace and manifest this knowledge more than others. Thus we must realize that this term means and manifests itself in different ways to different people.

Now we must grapple with the question of “Why is it so important that Black people have knowledge of self?” Those familiar with my “Wizard of Oz” framework, understand that the characters (Dorothy, Scarecrow, Cowardly Lion, and Tin Man), represent archetypes of people who are lost, believe themselves unintelligent, fearful, and ruthless/inhumane). Don’t you know brothers and sisters who seem lost and disconnected, feel themselves incompetent and “dumb,” act like cold-hearted thugs, or who refuse to exert leadership and authority? Of course you do!

Knowledge of one’s Black self has the potential to heal those in our community who have been taught (and who believe) they are nothing, have nothing, and can do nothing. Having a strong grasp of our history is both a shield against such propaganda, and a weapon we can use to challenge and dismantle it.

Lastly, knowing one’s history is not just a matter of developing pride or of healing damaged psyches; It also equips us to accurately understand our problems, identify their causes, and develop blueprints and remedies to liberate ourselves. For this reason, knowledge actually is NOT power; It is POTENTIAL POWER. Knowledge of self is only relevant if it empowers an individual and leads that individual to empower and liberate others.


Agyei Tyehimba is an educator, activist and author from Harlem, N.Y. Agyei is a former NYC public schoolteacher, co-founder of KAPPA Middle School 215 in the Bronx, NY, and co-author of the Essence Bestselling book, Game Over: The Rise and Transformation of a Harlem Hustler, published in 2007 by Simon & Schuster. In 2013, he wrote The Blueprint: A BSU Handbook, teaching Black student activists how to organize and lead. In April of 2014, he released Truth for our Youth: A Self-Empowerment Book for Teens. Agyei has appeared on C-SpanNY1 News, and most recently on the A&E documentary, The Mayor of Harlem: Alberto ‘Alpo’ Martinez.” Currently, Agyei is a member of the Black Power Cypher, five Black Nationalist men with organizing backgrounds, who host a monthly internet show addressing issues and proposing solutions. He runs his own business publishing books, public speaking, and teaching Black people how to organize and fight for empowerment. He is the founder and coordinator of Harlem Liberation School and National Director of Education for Souljahs of the People.

Agyei earned his Bachelor’s Degree in sociology from Syracuse University, his Master’s Degree in Africana Studies from Cornell University, and his Master’s Degree in Afro-American Studies from the University of Massachusetts at Amherst.

If you are interested in bringing Agyei to speak or provide consultation for your organization, please contact him at truself143@gmail.com.

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