The principle we focus on today, this third day of Kwanzaa, is Ujima. It’s a word that points to the idea of collective work and responsibility, which is a concept that I feel is missing from so many of our communities. One of the things that binds a society together is this very ideal, that the problems of one of us are the problems of all of us. If just one of our number is struggling to feed themselves, we are all impoverished. If one of our children is having a difficult time in school, we’re all concerned with educating him. If one of our people is misunderstood, rejected, alone, then it’s a failing of our community. Ujima, to me, means that we are our brother’s keeper. His happiness is ours, his sorrows are ours. No one is alone; we’re all in this together.
I think this principle is a little different for me because I’ve been on the outskirts of the black community pretty much all my life. I’ve never felt a sense of kinship with my family or my neighbors growing up, and even now, as I’m making the first tentative steps back towards the community, I feel hesitant about it. I am very different. What if those differences are too great and I find myself pushed to the outside again? One of our blind spots is the treatment of those who have a different sexual orientation or gender identity. Gender roles tend to be rigidly defined in our black communities, and transgressions of those roles are not looked upon favorably.
Personally, I struggle with the idea of being my brother’s keeper when that brother has distanced himself from me because of who I love. I find it hard to be a part of a community that spends so much energy ostracizing people like me who don’t “act like a man,” or who still uses “faggot” and “gay” as one of the worst verbal attacks you can make on a guy. How do I take responsibility for the problems of my fellow man when I *am* their problem? How do I embody the concept of Ujima?
Like so many things in life, all we can do is the best we can do. Even though I may be on the fringes of my community — even though I may never be fully accepted — I’m still invested in the problems and issues that face it. I still want to see my fellow black Americans live in a country where they are treated equally, where the institutions of our government and society is working to remove the discriminations that were baked into their foundations, where economic and intellectual poverty is not a default and the full expanse of the American dream is available to us. I want what’s best for my people; if that feeling is not returned, I have no control over that.
This year I’ve learned so much more about the myriad problems facing the black community. Our children tend to be disciplined more frequently and more harshly in our schools; we’re taught from a very young age that the authority structure will come down harder on us than it will for other kids. Our women frequently don’t have a place at any table but their own when it comes to issues of equal pay, sexual liberation and safety, the respect of their colleagues and inclusion in art and entertainment. Our men face the actions of a society that fears and hates them; we’re less likely to get good jobs, more likely to be arrested, brutalized and killed by the police, only see ourselves on TV as criminals, toughs or stereotypical smoothies. There are issues we face in just about every aspect of American society, and even if those issues don’t directly affect me it’s my responsibility to help solve them.
The concept of Ujima can be taken outside of that context, too. In the broader geek space that I inhabit, it’s difficult for us to band together to take care of problems that affect our spaces. So many fandoms have become toxic in-groups that violently reject anything that threatens the mono-culture people insist on maintaining. Women in gaming, sci-fi/fantasy entertainment, costuming and so many other areas have to face down so much bile just for trying to enjoy the same things we do, or demanding the same respect given to others. It’s a serious problem, and as fellow geeks Ujima calls on us to make it ours and fix it already.
Our communities will not cohere unless we learn to have empathy for our own. I talked about how self-determination may lead us to a greater understanding of ourselves yesterday, but we must also understand how that carves out different paths for the people in our community. Not everyone in our group will like the same things, or like the same thing for the same reasons. We have to strive to understand and respect that, to acknowledge the challenges our brothers and sisters face, to reach out and help them overcome them when we can.
But how do we do that? I’m still figuring that part out, to be honest. I feel I’ve taken the first step just by being educated on the work to be done and shouldering some of the responsibility for it. Where do I go from here? Do I become more socially active? Do I join groups that have organized to advance solutions to these problems? Which problems do we focus on first? That requires a lot more thinking, and I’ll do my best to come up with *something* to answer those questions.
For now, I’m in this with all of you. There’s work to do. Let’s pitch in to get it done, yeah? Have a joyous and wonderful Kwanzaa today, and I’ll check in with you all tomorrow.