I am a gay black man. I am a Zen Buddhist. (Thank you, Kevin.) I am agnostic — I don’t know if there is a God, but I don’t believe that being a good person should be dependent on that. I am a writer, gamer, geek, lover of animals, myths, and the intersection between them. I’m a morning person. I drink coffee. I believe that in order to be at my best I must be stripped down and simplified to my essence. That requires the very difficult work of scrubbing away decades of gunk that has been built to protect me from the hardships of life. (I’m stripping a cast-iron skillet over the holiday, so maybe my metaphors are going to be reflecting that today.)
I didn’t always believe this, of course. When I was a child — well, I was still called gay, and a nerd, but the connotations were negative. As I grew up, I was called a pussy, a weirdo, an Oreo — black on the outside, but white on the inside. As a defense mechanism, I took all the terrible things people said about me and turned them into positives:
“Yeah, I’m a pussy — but that means I don’t get my ass kicked on the regular or have to worry about being shot.”
“I’m a weirdo, sure, but that means I get to think about stuff that you never will.”
“Oreos are fucking delicious, and everyone wants to have them nearby. I’m crunchy AND I’m sweet, you jackass.”
These days, I don’t even engage. Of course I care about what people think about me, but at the end of the day I know who I am and what I stand for. I’ve put in the time and the work to strip myself bare, see what lies beneath my face and put myself back together to try and be the best reflection of that. It’s an ongoing process, and I will never be finished with it — that’s life, that’s self-improvement. But it is one of the most important and worthwhile things you will ever do.
The principle we focus on today, the second day of Kwanzaa, is Kujichagulia — self-determination. I love this concept; the Swahili word is so much fun to say, but it’s also one of those things that tends to work in a spiral. There are always new ways to name and define yourself, and because you’re a living being who exists in a complex and ever-evolving society, the relationship between who you are, who you want to be, and how that relates to other people demands that you constantly check yourself. But first, let’s start with the basics.
Self-determination, at its most simple, is answering these three questions:
Who am I? No really, who am I? It’s a simple question that is almost impossible to answer. You must seek and understand the core of yourself in order to do that…but is there a core there? Are we actually the tension that exists between the various aspects that make up who we are? Am I only myself because I am gay, black, Zen, geek, etc.? Am I only a series of definitions, a collection of names I have given myself? Or am I something beyond and beneath that, some unnamable, unknowable kernel? If I can’t name it or know it, how can I define it or ensure its existence? What do I think about all of this? Who is the one that is doing the thinking?
Am I really who I say I am? Determining who you are is a process that I don’t think you may ever get to the bottom of. You do the best you can with the information you can, and then you try to confirm it. I think this question forces you to take a look at your actions; if you really are who you say you are, then you would behave in ways consistent with that, correct? What are your beliefs, and how do your actions reflect them?
It can be a bit of a gut check to realize that you behave in ways that are inconsistent with what you believe. But it’s also necessary to face that down and make the changes you need to in order to re-align yourself. For example, if I look within myself and find that I’m not actually following the Noble Eightfold Path, then it’s on me to figure out what that means and how I can work my way back there. This may mean painful changes, or stepping outside of a comfort zone, but knowing yourself and being yourself is more important. This is a sacrifice that must be made for the right to self-determination.
Am I all that I ought to be? So we’ve worked out who we believe we are and determined that how we act accurately reflects that. But is that enough? Of course not. We could always strive to be something more, something better — to embody our beliefs more closely and carefully. Could I be more than who I am? What do I need to do in order to get there? Self-determination is more than knowing who you are — it’s knowing where you are going and what it takes to get there.
It is vital to know ourselves, especially as black people. My ancestors came from western and southern Africa. Somehow, they were put on ships by men who took their destinies from them and replaced them with the Middle Passage. When they arrived, they were stripped of their clothing, their cultures, their families and their very names. They were given other names, other religions, other jobs and relationships. Even after they were freed, they were told that they were lesser than their fellow Americans, forced to confine themselves to the poorest neighborhoods and work the worst jobs. This is a process that continues down to this day.
In our media we are given a narrative, a single story. Our men are called thugs and criminals; even the “good guys” are tough and physical. Our women are crazy, loud, outspoken but unintelligible; they speak almost entirely in slang and are predominantly concerned about hair, makeup, clothes and men. Our children are told they don’t have the intelligence to make it in American society, that the best they can hope for is to be athletes, drug dealers, or prisoners. Our communities are impoverished and intellectually stagnant, but the fight for better is called “disruptive,” “obnoxious,” and “unnecessary.”
We must reject that story, and find our own. Black men are smart, courageous, confused, scared and just as soft as anyone else. Black women are incredible; tough, intelligent, beautiful, complicated. Our children are precious, each a kaleidoscope of possibilities — they could be astronauts, scientists, businesspeople, politicians, artists and activists. We joined American society being told who we were and what we were, but there is no reason that needs to continue. We are who we are, and only we know what that is.
As individuals and as a culture, we must define ourselves to be active participants in our own destinies. We must fight the pressure to be defined or named by other people; we accept or reject terms based on our own principles. That is Kujichagulia. That is life.
Have a wonderful Kwanzaa today, everyone. Know yourselves. I’ll check in with you tomorrow!