Kwanzaa 2015: Umoja (Unity)

Myth 150We live in extremely divided times. Here in the United States, the population is split by race, income, politics, religion, gender identity, sexual orientation, hierarchy of values and so many other things. Across the world, it feels like the same; if it’s not religion, it’s ethnicity. If it’s not that, it’s national background. If it’s not that…you get the picture. On a social level, most of us define ourselves by what we’re opposed to, instead of what we believe in.

On the Internet it feels especially true. One of the great things about finding a community online is the realization that we’re not alone — that no matter who we are, where we come from or what we believe, chances are good that there’s a group out there for us somewhere. It can be life-changing to find your tribe, especially when you’ve struggled to find somewhere you belong in real life. But this year the language of our communities seems to be one of rejection; we define our in-groups almost exclusively by determining who we collectively damn.

This negativity-focused basis for forming our collective societies is a troubling one, because it trains us to belong to something by vehemently rejecting those we feel shouldn’t. And what that encourages is an increasingly rabid rejection dynamic; when someone we used to agree with us doesn’t about the most recent topic of our anger, we get to turn on them. One of the things that gave me most pause about the way we unify online in 2015 was the controversy surrounding a fan-artist for Steven Universe, and the way the community turned on the creators and producers of the show when they stepped in to tamp things down. Is this what it means to be a part of a niche in the 21st century? Do we have to scream loudest in order to secure our space in these places?

The theme for Kwanzaa this year is “Embracing Kwanzaa’s Principles and Practice: Creating and Celebrating the Good”. I know, a holiday maybe shouldn’t be so serious-minded if we want people to hold it in their hearts, but I find the opportunity to create a ritual around introspection and re-commitment to our values at the end of the year to be a great one. Kwanzaa definitely has its work cut out for it if it wants to be adopted on a wider basis, but I love it.

Kwanzaa is a seven-day celebration and focus on the Seven Principles of the Black Community here in the United States, though the institution has spread to at least Canada. It was started in 1966 by Maulana Karenga, as a counter-holiday to Christmas and the commercialization of it by the dominant culture. It’s meant to be a holiday that focuses on the experience of the African diaspora, but so many people in the black community are alienated for various reasons, it’s very hard for it to gain traction in a meaningful way. I’ve never met anyone who actually celebrates Kwanzaa, but now that I’m reconnecting with my heritage I thought it would be an excellent way to take something from the community that resonates with me and make it my own.

Umoja is the principle we focus on today, the first day. It means “Unity” in Swahili, a native African language predominantly spoken in the southeast of the continent. Above everything else, it’s good to remember that a strong community is a powerful thing; even though we each have individual power to affect change in the world, when we get together and rise up with a single purpose, amazing things can happen.

Which is why it troubles me that so many of our communities these days are so singularly-focused on pushing their weight behind excoriating the things that have offended or opposed us. Yes, rising up as a community and saying in no uncertain terms that certain behaviors and ideas have no place in modern society is very useful, but when so much of our time and energy is spent tearing things down we have to understand why people look at our groups as a destructive influence.

I belong to many different groups: I am a black man, and a gay man, and a Buddhist, and a comic book fan, and a tabletop RPG gamer. I’m socially and economically leftist. I believe that human beings are a social species, and the goal of our institutions should be to make sure every individual — no matter who they are — can find their place to be productive, whole and happy. I believe in unity, and I oppose the things that hinder that ideal, or makes it harder to achieve.

I believe that we have to take a long look at the communities we belong to and think of how we encourage unity within that community. Sure, we know what we will not stand for, and it’s important to be vocal about that. But how do we encourage the things we DO stand for? How do we make our communities a welcoming place for newcomers? How do we resolve conflicts within our communities in ways that make them stronger? What positive things can we do to create and celebrate the good within the groups we belong to?

It’s important to draw lines in the sand when our dignity, our rights and our lives are threatened. I absolutely understand that. But it is also important to show, by our examples, the best our community can be. We must show others — and remind ourselves — what we’re fighting for together, not just what we’re uniting against.

I’ll do my best to make sure the groups I belong to are united together for ideals that make our world better. We can change the world, if we work to make it a place where people see how they can make worthy contributions to it. No one changes for the better by being shunned and ostracized. If we need to push someone away because of their ideas and actions, we also need to show them how we can be reunited.

Have a joyous Kwanzaa today. I’ll catch up with you tomorrow.

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