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The Rites of Passage as a Cultural Retooling Process for Black Youth in their Adolescent-to-Adulthood Transition

by Lance Williams, Ph.D.
Posted with permission from the Black Child Journal

Transitions from one developmental stage to the next are very challenging periods for all human beings. African American youth, many of whom suffer from identity crisis caused by acculturation, are particularly strained. Because of the unique cultural circumstances Black youth face during critical transitional periods and the negative sociocultural implications precipitated by these difficulties, youth development programs that served Black youths have been adding cultural paradigms to their existing programs, or developing new cultural programs all together. Incorporating cultural paradigms into the existing programs address the youths’ needs for cultural reformation. Inspired by the African-centered movement that emerged in the late 1980s, the Black community at-large, including its social workers, educators, sociologists, community activists, and parents, among others, have recognized the need for a more formalized method of socializing Black youth that rely heavily on cultural reconnection (Pinckney et all, 2011; Harvey & Hill, 2004; Harvey & Rauch, 1997). During this time period, African centered approaches were very popular among cultural interventionists who served African American youth populations. Following this trend, leaders in the contemporary youth rites of passage movement began planning, implementing and evaluating rites of passage programs around the country to help Black youth in their developmental transitions.

Leaders in the contemporary youth rites of passage movement and others have noted that during these developmental transitions, the prominent role expectations shift from one of “carefree and self-centeredness” to “responsibility and self development.” This important role shift is not only imposed by society, community and family, but is personally reinforced as these social expectations are internalized in to one’s own value system. Hence, the search for adulthood becomes a major life crisis for young African Americans.

The intention here is not to diminish the strain of the adolescent-to-adulthood transition for youth of all races and gender. But, the chronic sociocultural implications specific to Black youths has made their transition a special psychosocial challenge (Bowman, 1990). The extreme difficulty in the search for adulthood experienced by increasing numbers of Black youths is non normative and has far reaching implications. Teen-age pregnancy, substance abuse, delinquency, violence and other antisocial behaviors are manifestations of these implications that must be addressed from a developmental perspective.

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Adaptive Cultural Resources

While intense adulthood search conflicts carry psychological risks among Black youth, cultural resources that are transmitted from one generation to the next may facilitate adaptive as opposed to maladaptive modes of coping (Bowman, 1990). We currently know far too little about the factors that differentiate Black youth who fall victim to barriers in the adolescent-to-adulthood transition from those who some how manage to make the transition successfully. Adaptive cultural resources may combine with the successful resolution of fe/male conflicts to facilitate adaptive coping with impending adolescent-to-adulthood role barriers. A growing literature on Black youth supports the adaptive value of unique patterns of African centered methods of socialization and behavior modification, as well as subjective cultural resources such as strong bonds with Black role models (Asante, 1987; Jagers, 1996; Hill, 1991). Like any other ethnic group, Black Americans may transmit such cultural resources to each generation to help them cope with the barriers they face in major life roles (Bowman, 1990). Rather than regarding them as mere reactions to oppression, African centered scholars view these African American cultural patterns as essentially African forms that are strategically adapted to shifting economic, social and ecological imperatives (Bowman, 1990; Nobles, 1990).

In psychosocial terms, adaptive cultural resources may empower young Black Americans in two major ways (Bowman, 1990; Nobles, 1990). First, cultural resources may nurture a general sense of personal efficacy by facilitating adaptive coping with adulthood role strain. Second, adaptive resources may enable youth to overcome impending barriers in the adolescent-to-adulthood transition. Social learning studies demonstrate processes through which role success at one developmental level may increase a sense of personal empowerment and efficacy in coping with role barriers during subsequent stages. Similarly, cultural resources that promote mastery of role barriers at one stage may provide the psychosocial basis for successful adaptation to future role strains. Personal empowerment, which is rooted in culture and prior childhood role success, may be the basic formula for a successful transition from adolescent-to-adulthood.

Traditional African Rites of Passage

Traditionally, many indigenous African ethnic groups relied on a complex system of rites to transmit adaptive cultural resources and to facilitate the adolescent-to-adulthood transition. These rites are presently referred to as rites of passage. Rites of passage are those structures, rituals, and ceremonies by which age-class members or individuals in a group successfully come to know who they are and what they are about – the purpose and meaning for their existence, as they proceed from one clearly defined state of existence to the next state or passage in their lives (Mensah, 1990). Traditionally, African rites of passage have been rites which accompany every change of place, state, social position, and age (van Gennep, 1960). Such rites, also called transitional rites, indicate and constitute transitions between states where transition is regarded as a process, a becoming, and even a transformation (Turner, 1987). Among the Ibo of Nigeria the rites of passage are rituals and ceremonies that punctuate the phases of life of man on earth, such as, birth, childhood, passage from puberty into adulthood, marriage, old age, death and passage into the next world (Onuh, 1992). The Akan of Ghana exercise these rites as ceremonies that accompany the individual or group in their life crisis. Secondly, they function as an educational process for accelerating growth in a passage of an individual or a group, pointing to special needs in a particular passage; to a social position that needs to be understood, accepted or rejected; or to a movement from one status to another (Mensah, 1990).

Van Gennep (1960) has shown that all rites of transition are marked by three phases: (1) separation (preliminal), (2) Margin (liminal), and (3) aggregation (postliminal). The first phase of separation comprises symbolic behavior signifying the detachment of the individual or group either from an earlier fixed point in the social structure or a set of cultural conditions (a “state”). During the second phase, the intervening liminal period, the state of the ritual subject (the “passenger”) is ambiguous: he passes through a realm that has few or none of the attributes of the past or coming state. In the third phase, aggregation, the passage is consummated. The ritual subject, individual or group, is a stable state once more and, by virtue or this, has rights and obligations of a clearly defined “structural” type, and is expected to behave in accordance with certain customary norms and ethical standards (Turner, 1987).

The subject of the passage ritual is, in the liminal period, structurally, if not physically “invisible” (Turner, 1987). Traditionally, liminality has been characterized by a state of death, decomposition and catabolism. The neophyte in this liminal period is characterized by having nothing. They have no status, property, insignia, secular clothing, rank, kinship position, nothing to demarcate them structurally from their fellows (Turner, 1987). This symbolic death is a state of waiting to be reborn (Turner, 1987; Onuh, 1992; Mensha, 1990). The concepts of the “invisible”, “dead” subject of passage is of particular interest when discussing the adolescent-to-adult transition. During this period of liminality, the subject is theoretically “not-adolescent-not-adult.” S/he is in a state of “betwixt and between” or in a perpetual “state” of nothingness (Turner, 1987). These ideas of invisibility and death may explain the condition of Black youths who suffer from chronic adulthood search strain and the lack of a process that will help them out of the state of liminality. On the other hand, liminality is also characterized by a state of reflection (Onuh, 1992)…

Would you like to read more of this report? You can read the full version by downloading the PDF here. Or you can order a copy of the original publication here.

Black Child Journal

This article was originally printed in the Black Child Journal Special Edition, Rites of Passage: Foundations and Practices (Summer 2013). “This special edition on Rites of Passage (ROP) is a very important and valuable addition to our knowledge and understanding of the way in which Africans in the US can Africanize and socialize males, females, youth and adults. It reports on programs that have been conducted primarily in the USA, and one in both the USA & Ghana. This issue is not a ‘how to conduct ROP’ but rather a report, update and reminder of the work being done and the work yet to be done.

Guest editor and publisher for this issue is elder Paul Hill, Jr. Brother Hill is also the founder and President of the National Rites of Passage Institute (NROPI), based in East Cleveland, Ohio. He has studied, written about and conducted rites programs for over 30 years.”

The issue covers ROP foundational issues, practices, descriptions, and/or curriculum from a variety of perspectives including:

  • rescuing and re-imagining parenting and raising African American children;
  • theory and practice in evaluating ROP programs;
  • application of ROP at the post-secondary/college level to insure academic success;
  • a ROP program for adolescent females;
  • a Pan African, African centered international model ROP program for urban adolescent males;
  • application of ROP process as a retooling process for Black youth during adolescent-young adult period;
  • application of ROP work with incarcerated adult males in prison settings;
  • faith based issues of alignment with ROP programs;
  • themes and/or topics in curriculum found in ROP programs;
  • a memorial tribute to Dr. Anthony Mensah, esteemed Ghanaian ancestor in the transmission of ROP, theory, practice, and training;
  • a closing summary of ROP issues to be tackled.

This issue of The Black Child Journal is an invaluable resource and reference for anyone currently engage and involved in conducting rites of passage programs or is interested in doing so.


  1. Are their any. Vedios , CD available I have a grandson that I’m raising and would like to do a rite for him when he becomes of age in a few years. We are African Americans

  2. Where can I find a (Rights Of Passage Program) for my African American daughter? are there any DVDs that can take a young 12 year old African American female step by step through the process of a (young 12 year old African American rights of passage)? If so how and where can I purchase one?

  3. Is there a African American Female Youth Rights Of Passage in Oakland California ? Are there any DVDs that take the initiate through the process step by step. If so, where and how can I buy one.

  4. The Holy Spirit spoke this to me about two days ago “Rites of Passage” so I felt to look at the meaning. I have 31 grandchildren and great grandchildren , this means a lot to me!

  5. Are you familiar with any Rite of Passage programs in the Atlanta area?

    • There are many: Boys to Men; Vision Quest Intl.; Mountain Wisdom; Rites Of Passage Experience Girls To Women…

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