Monthly Archives: December 2017

Kwanzaa, Day 6: Kuumba (Creativity)

Myth 150Habari gani, brothers and sisters?

Today is the last day of 2017, and to say it’s been an interesting year is a small understatement. But we’ve made it! We’re about to enter 2018, a year full of new possibilities and problems that will require us to be united, self-aware, diligent, cooperative, and purposeful to solve. The issues we face next year will be a lot of the same old stuff — but cloaked in different wrappers that might be hard to see through. I’m confident, though, that we’ll not only survive the next year, but thrive. We are strong, adaptable people. A big reason for this is my favorite principle of the Nguzo Saba — Kuumba, or Creativity.

Africa is a land rich in stories. From the folk tales handed down verbally through generations of families, to the poems, songs, novels and other stories presented through the kaleidoscope of the diaspora experience, we’ve contributed much to humanity’s creative expression. So many things that have become the bedrock of the American pop art culture find their roots within us, from jazz to dance to rock and roll to historical fiction to genre fiction to science. Our ingenuity and ability to thrive despite great difficulty and limitations is one of our best traits, and I’m excited to honor the work our ancestors put in to make creativity such a huge part of our cultural heritage.

As a writer, I come from a long line of African-Americans who have done amazing work providing a vital perspective on our cultural experience. James Baldwin seamlessly blended his thoughts on being a black man in America through both novels and essays, not only discussing issues of race, but of the complexities of being gay and bisexual; Langston Hughes was one of the foremost names in the Harlem Renaissance, along with Zora Neale Hurston, Countee Cullen and Wallace Thurman; Ralph Ellison spoke about how both external and internal cultural pressure can render a person invisible in Invisible Man; Octavia Butler and Samuel Delaney opened the doors of science fiction and fantasy, and Tananarive Due, N.K. Jemisin, Nalo Hopkinson, Nnedi Okorafor, Daniel Jose Older and Terrence Wiggins all keep up the work of carving out a space for black people there. Ta-Nehisi Coates, Ava DuVernay, Alice Walker, Toni Morrison, Christopher Priest, Dwayne McDuffie, Evan Narcisse, and so, SO MANY others have all contributed outstanding work to the creative American canon. The list really is too long to name properly.

And that’s just talking about writing. The Black American contribution to popular music is even longer, going back to the old spirituals of the slavery-era South and coming through today with the dominance of rap and hip-hop on the charts today. We’ve made great art, sculptures, jewelry, dances, claimed new media and technology as forms of self-expression with Vine, Instagram, Snapchat and other platforms; we’ve put creative energy into protest as well, thinking of new ways to engage with the problems plaguing the black community. Black Twitter, which is one of my absolute favorite things ever, is a giant messy digital town square where we boost calls for help or action; talk about music, movies, TV and books; highlight issues of representation in media and entertainment; and clap back on folks messing with us and ours in hilarious ways.

Our vast cultural heritage of creativity is one of our best features. We can capture the complicated, difficult feeling of our experience in powerfully moving works through whatever medium we choose. We inspire hope and change through song and story; we make sure our collective struggle is remembered through the essays and personal writing of those who’ve lived through it. In our hearts, there is wit and passion and the unwavering strength of our birthright. As long as we tap into that, there’s always a way out of the thicket.

We’ve taken such great strides with entertainment over the past couple of years, and 2018 is looking to be even more amazing. Moonlight, a film about an inner-city black man struggling with his sexual orientation, won the Best Picture Oscar this year with a black director, screenwriter, and actors — it was based on a semi-autobiographical story from a gay black man. On TV, black men won Best Leading Actor Emmys in the Drama, Comedy AND Limited Series/Movie categories while Blackish, Queen Sugar, and Empire made sure a wide variety of black characters were seen on screen. Black people killed it in comics this year while the industry at large took a number of questionable choices through their summer events — but it didn’t stop Ta-Nehisi Coates, David Walker, Christopher Priest, Roxane Gay, and others from turning in amazing work. In 2018, Black Panther is set to hit the big time in the MCU while Miles Morales is headlining his own animated movie.

I don’t think there’s ever been a better time for black creativity. The Internet has given us an amazing platform to connect and amplify each other’s work, and so many formerly isolated pockets are learning to come back into the community with unique experiences and perspectives. Personally, learning about Afrofuturism has been a revelation and my own personal vehicle for coming back to my roots. Telling solarpunk, urban fantasy, and anthro-animal stories is a powerful way for me to make sense of my history, identity, and feelings about where we are as a culture, as a country, as human beings. I’m looking forward to using my voice and refining my craft next year, fully living the principle of Kuumba.

There are few places where black excellence is more evident than in our creative endeavors. If possible, I invite you to think about all of your favorite stories, movies, TV, songs, art, poetry and non-fiction; think about the people of color who have had a hand in them. If you’re curious about what person-of-color-centered creative work to dive into, let me know a medium and/or genre, and give me a few examples of your own personal favorites. I’d be more than glad to recommend something to you.

Happy New Year, all of you. See you in 2018!


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Kwanzaa, Day 5: Nia (Purpose)

Myth 150Habari gani, brothers and sisters?

Today’s principle is Nia, or Purpose. This is another one of those blue-sky concepts that could mean a lot of different things to a lot of different people and that can make it a little difficult to talk about. What context should we place Nia in? How does it fit in with the Nguzo Saba and our cultural identity as a whole?

This year I wanted to make sure I talked about the Seven Principles and how I think about them today, while drawing a direct line to our history to prove why they’re necessary. Dipping back into our shared history, we can see that so many things have been made possible when we unite under a common purpose — neighborhoods are transformed, rights are earned, our self-image is restored. Our best achievements as black Americans have come from a sense of purpose, a drive to achieve something. The civil rights movement, the Harlem Renaissance, Black Lives Matter and the election of Barack Obama all came out of that sense of purpose.

But there are also aspects of our history that show what can happen when we don’t align under that common purpose. Our own ancestors sold their own people into slavery; African history is marked by tribal warfare, genocide, and humanitarian crises; so many African governments are corrupt and unconcerned about the atrocities visited on people. Here in the United States, our culture chases after the material wealth dangled in front of our eyes instead of focusing on the enrichment and well-being of our community. So many of us have adopted the worst excesses of individualism and the wealth gospel; we only look for the best status symbols, the trendiest clothes, all empty symbols meant to cover up our intellectual and spiritual poverty.

What is our purpose, as individuals and as a people? What is our life’s work? What are we doing, each day, as a small gesture to get closer to that purpose? Again — it’s one thing to say who we are, to speak our identity into being, but it’s another thing to live that identity. It takes work, risk, sacrifice, and patience. Who we imagine ourselves to be is quite different than who we turn out to be, even as we take strides to live up to our best ideals.

My purpose, personally, is to help people feel more connected and engaged with the world around them. In my mind, the great sickness of our age is the lack of empathy and compassion for our fellow human beings. We’re so quick to judge other people. We’re so quick to judge ourselves. Learning to accept who we are is important because we can then extend that acceptance to other people; our family and friends; our neighbors and community; strangers, and eventually the entire world. That work is incredibly difficult, though, because of the culture we’ve built around us. We hate things within ourselves but refuse to do to the hard work necessary to change them; then we see others projecting those things and hate them for it, too. We hate people we see as failures — the homeless, the poor, immigrants, minorities. We hate people we see as successes — politicians, entertainers, athletes, business owners. It’s become too easy to see the people around us as signposts for what’s wrong with the world, but for the most part they’re simply who we would be in that position; just human beings struggling to do their best.

The older I get, the more I recognize the value of community. Human beings are social animals, and we need to identify with something larger than ourselves in order to be whole. That doesn’t need to be religion, mind you; it can just as well be the potential of humankind to achieve things that are currently only in our imaginations. I want to give myself over to the ideal that we can overcome the things that divide us while celebrating the things that make us unique; I know that if we come together our collective brilliance can make a legitimate utopian society. I also know that we have a long way to go in achieving that dream, precisely because the kind of person I would need to be is so far off.

So my purpose is to learn how to connect and engage with the world around me, to accept myself and others as they are. By speaking up and sharing how I stumble towards that purpose, perhaps I can help other people avoid similar pitfalls or come up with better ways to navigate around them. Perhaps I can encourage other people to loosen their judgements of others and see why they are worthy of love and respect just as they are. Perhaps I can help others fight against ideologies that prevent us from coming together.

As I get older and wiser still, my sense of purpose may change. How I expect that purpose can be achieved may change. But that’s OK; it’s important to adjust your beliefs based on new experiences, insights, information. All any of us can do is the best we can, but it’s important to know what you’re pouring your effort into, and for what reason. It’s definitely difficult to do, especially at first, but the more we think about it, the better we get at aligning our actions towards it.

Today, I invite all of us to think about our Purpose — not just for individual success, but for the success of the people we care about, the groups we belong to, the human race. Those huge, over-arching goals can be tied to the little things we do every day by thinking about what we’re doing, why we’re doing it, and whether the action moves us closer to or further away from our purpose. Then, we adjust accordingly.

This is an especially good practice right before New Year’s, I have to admit. I’ll be thinking a lot about this as I make my goals for 2018.

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Posted by on December 30, 2017 in mental-health, Politics, Self-Reflection


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Kwanzaa, Day 4: Ujamaa (Cooperative Economics)

Myth 150

Habari gani, brothers and sisters?

So a number of studies have been released teasing out the role that race plays in upward mobility — in other words, how easy it is for black vs. white families to rise out of poverty. There’s this study from the Brookings Institution about the economic mobility of black and white families from 2007. There’s this article from the Washington Post, discussing the findings of Harvard economists on how children in majority Black cities are far more likely to have a lower income or chance of upward mobility than poor children in other parts of the country. There’s this longitudinal study from Johns Hopkins University, measuring the economic performance of nearly 800 low-income children in Baltimore as they grew up, from 1982 – 2007. There’s even this research (again from the Brookings Institution) discussing the wide gap in education between black and white students and how firmly that’s tied to the history of black education in this country.

Attempts to address the educational and economic disparity between black and white families have been fought at every turn. The Reagan administration worked to stop school desegregation programs, despite good evidence that they actually worked. This American Life released a two-part episode on what happened when desegregation efforts were rolled out near Ferguson, MO and Hartford, CT and how local governments and parents fought against it tooth and nail. Over the years, affirmative action — making sure that universities and workplaces have student or employee bodies that more closely match the diversity in broader society — has been rolled back steadily and surely. The Trump administration, just this past August, has announced plans for the Justice Department to investigate and restrict race-based admissions into universities. Applicants with black “sounding” names are less likely to be called in for an interview; another study found that racial discrimination against black workers has been largely unchanged since 1989.

This, unfortunately, is nothing new. Racial education and economic inequality in the US has its roots all the way back to the slave trade, and there have been a number of institutional influences aimed at maintaining the status quo. The segregation of schools after emancipation is well documented. The practice of redlining, or making sure minorities didn’t have access to certain housing markets, financial services, or businesses, has codified the make-up of cities for decades. There’s the “school-to-prison pipeline“, which disproportionately affects children of color and makes it much harder for victims to get decent jobs. Racial inequality in criminal justice affects black and Hispanic Americans in general and has for decades. Voter suppression aimed at reducing the political power of people of color in the United States happened in a multitude of ways post-slavery, during Jim Crow, and is becoming an increasing problem today. When black communities have been able to build economic success for themselves, such as Greenwood, OK in the 1920s, there is often a devastating backlash.

With so many external institutional pressures against the success of the black community, it’s vital that we focus on doing what we can to promote its success whenever we can. That’s the idea behind Ujamaa, the fourth principle of the Nguzo Saba. It means ‘cooperative economics’, working with one another to raise our collective standard of living.

This can be done in any number of ways, of course — the only limit is your will and imagination. We can make sure we buy from black-owned businesses and support our brothers and sisters in their financial endeavors. We can also push back against those external pressures by fighting the systems that promote educational, economic, and social inequality where we live. We can invest our time and resources into programs, services, and organizations that help those affected by those pressures. We can build new programs and initiatives designed to help our neighbors and local businesses not just survive, but thrive.

Of course this doesn’t just mean buying products with the FUBU mindset; it means investing locally wherever we happen to be. A healthy economy, we know, depends on the movement of capital from one place to another. This is more likely to happen with local small businesses no matter who happens to be running them. Large corporations owned by the ultra-wealthy act as capital sinks; money flows towards the top, where it is then hoarded away from anyone else. It doesn’t go anywhere, and this doesn’t help anyone. Putting money in the pocket of our neighbor through our business helps our community. That comes back to us eventually. It’s one tangible, important aspect of Ujima; by investing in the work of our neighbor, we share responsibility for its success.

We can also make sure our schools have the best chance possible to teach our children what they need to thrive in the future, not just push them into the early path of criminality. We can empower our brothers and sisters with political insight and knowledge; we can hold our elected representatives accountable for ensuring our well-being and continued success. We can save our people from financial ruin, when possible, by donating our time, our money, and our knowledge where it can serve the most good. Most importantly, we can stop the tendency to tear down our brothers and sisters for being successful and teach each other that success can come in many forms. There’s nothing wrong with owning the corner store, or being a good mechanic. It’s OK to be a scientist, a ballet dancer, or a security guard. There’s no one path to being black and successful.

In our lives, we learn to stand united for our community; we learn to take control of our identities; we learn to work hard and share responsibility for our success; and we learn to cooperate with our social, financial and political capital towards that end. Whatever you can do to help your neighbor and community flourish is appreciated. It helps all of us, and it builds closer connections to each other. Most importantly, it weakens the powerful forces that would seek to keep all of us poor, afraid, ignorant and divided.

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Posted by on December 29, 2017 in Politics, Self-Reflection


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Kwanzaa, Day 3: Ujima (Collective Work and Responsibility

Myth 150Habari gani, brothers and sisters?

One of the things I’ll strive to remember in 2018 is that we’re all in this together. We all share the planet we call home and we all share our collective victories and setbacks — from that perspective, there’s just no need to be envious of someone else’s success and there’s no reason to think someone else’s problem isn’t also mine. As much as we might wish otherwise, we are — each and every one of us — part of a community, something greater than ourselves. The things we do affect that community, and we all bear some measure of responsibility for the state of our world and our lives.

Ujima (oo-JEE-muh) is the third principle of the Nguzo Saba, and it means Collective Work and Responsibility. In a nutshell it means that what we do as individuals affect the well-being of our brothers and sisters and we should never forget that. If we want to change our communities for the better, we must change ourselves for the better. We must work to better our brothers and sisters. We must work to create the changes we want to see.

In a land as ruggedly individualistic as the United States, this can be a hard concept to buy into and harder still to enact. We tend to be distrustful of our neighbors and anyone who tries to weave together a social fabric on the local level is a busybody and a nuisance. We’ve taken the idea of choosing our own family to something of an extreme, seeking out only those people who look, think, and act like us to the exclusion of the people we pass by every day leaving our homes. We resist the pressure to conform to certain standards of conduct at every turn, because being an American means being free to do what we want when we want, and screw anyone else who has a problem with that.

In the black community, it can mean ostracizing our brothers and sisters who don’t conform to certain standards of blackness — those of us who are LGBQTIA; those of us who don’t engage in performative blackness; those of us who aren’t Christian, or Muslim; those of us who are anxious, mentally ill, or introverted. We’re all too willing to avoid the people who we don’t want to think of as one of ours, for whatever reason. But you know what? They are, and we have to be responsible for them.

Ujima is a difficult principle to take in because it requires us to look at ourselves and ask what we’re doing to uplift our family, our friends, our community and people. Most of us — myself included — may not like the answer we come to. But that discomfort is important; it’s a signal that we aren’t aligned with the people we’ve chosen to be. If we care enough about ourselves and our people to celebrate Kwanzaa, we have to care enough to be honest about where we fall short and take steps to correct it.

Black American communities all over the country have a number of problems that we cannot expect our government to solve. It’s true that drugs, crime, poverty and homelessness are things we can’t seem to shake. It’s also true that this is the result of a system that has been invested in denying our ability to determine who we are for ourselves, in keeping us from achieving our full potential. It’s a hostile world out there. No one’s coming to save us; we have to work together to save ourselves.

Ujima is where the rubber meets the road for us. We have agreed to unite with our brothers and sisters in our common struggle. We have named into existence the identity we want for ourselves. Now we must realize that work and responsibility is how we take our identity, how we win our struggle. As long as one black person is in trouble, our entire race is in trouble.

This can feel like an enormous burden, but it’s not — not really. Because our brothers and sisters stand with us, sharing this burden. We shoulder it together, we lift it together, we lighten each other’s load when and where we can. If we take care of one another, someone will be there to take care of us when we need it, when we feel we can’t do any more.

That’s the magic of Ujima; we put work in, and we get a community out of it. We help and are saved. We defend our people, and we are shielded from ruin. We are so much stronger putting our backs into the barriers keeping our culture from being what we can be.

I know how this can sound to someone who isn’t part of the African diaspora. It sounds like I’m saying “we look out for our own because no one’s looking out for us”. In a way, that’s true. It can be uncomfortable to hear that I feel like I live in a hostile world, and that my ‘people’ need to band together against that. Isn’t that uniting against something, which is something I warned against in day one?

Well, yes, it can be. However, my goal is not to segregate the black community from the rest of America. In so many ways, it already is. It’s more difficult for black people to climb out of poverty, to receive small business loans, to get jobs that allow us to integrate into the larger economic and social system. Even for those of us that make it, it’s difficult to use that platform to highlight the plight of our brothers and sisters without being accused of making ‘everything about race’. It’s the reality that we face challenges on an individual, communal, and systemic level that makes our experience different. Until that can be recognized and changed, we’re largely on our own. So we have to look out for ourselves.

However, Ujima can be expanded to include everyone — and I invite us to do that when and where we can. Many of the problems we face — income inequality, environmental degradation, totalitarian creep in our political process, hatred and prejudice, injustice, a changing work environment — transcends race. What are we doing to work towards a better world not just for ourselves, but for our fellow human beings? Black, white, Asian, Native American, Hispanic — we’re all in this country together. What do we want the US to be? What are we doing ourselves to make that happen?

I know I could be doing more. Becoming more involved with black geeks, black creatives, and my brothers and sisters with mental health issues are my goals to bring Ujima into my life more concretely. I want to work towards building a world where mental health is understood and taken more seriously in the black community; I want to make sure that the awesome passion and work that my brothers and sisters are doing in science fiction and fantasy is seen and recognized as worthy. I want to work to remove the barriers that exclude LGBQTIA black Americans from acceptance; not just in the black community, but in the queer community as well. I want to help highlight how being black complicates mental health, sexual orientation and gender identity. I want to help find solutions for the people in my community who feel lost, alone and hopeless.

This means putting in the work, and the research. It means listening to experiences outside of my comfort zone to understand what’s needed to succeed. It means making mistakes and making apologies; trying harder to get it right the next time. It means doing the work because the work needs doing, not because there’s any expectation of a breakthrough success, recognition or reward. Knowing that I’m helping, doing my best, and living in line with my principles is what keeps me pushing.

How do you plan to bring Ujima into your life over the next year? What problems do you see in your community that you might be able to help fix, or that you might take responsibility for? Sometimes we have to focus on ourselves and our families for the good of our communities. A successful black diaspora can only make our country more successful, right? We’re in this together. So let’s get our houses in order.

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Posted by on December 28, 2017 in mental-health, Politics, Self-Reflection


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Kwanzaa, Day 2: Kujichagulia (Self-Determination)

Myth 150Habari gani, brothers and sisters?


A depressingly common refrain we tend to get whenever we make the attempt to center blackness for a time is “Why don’t we get WHITE (pride, History Month, superheroes, etc.)?” My response is this: Has this ever happened to most (if not all) white ancestors in your family?



Please watch the video — it’s less than five minutes long, but it’s important. This actually happened. It may not have happened in this exact way, and those specific words may never have been used, but it’s an encapsulation of the way the black American experience began. Our ancestors were taken from their homelands against their will, and any connection they had to their cultures were beaten, worked, and terrified out of them. It all began with their names, that most basic possession telling us who we are and where we came from. Africans brought to the US as slaves weren’t regarded as people; they were property, and anything that gave them other ideas were systematically removed. The effects of this are still with us, even now.

For example, let’s take a look at the most common surnames in the United States and where they came from. Smith is English; Johnson is Norman; Williams is English. Various minority groups in the US have popular surnames from their ancestral homes with two notable exceptions. For Asians, the most popular surnames are Nguyen (Vietnamese), Lee (Chinese), and Kim (Korean). For Hispanics, they’re Garcia, Rodriguez, Hernandez — all from Spain. Native Americans, whose culture was subject to similar systematic destruction, have Smith, Johnson, and Begay (Navajo) as their most common last names. For black Americans, it’s Williams. And Johnson. And Smith.

Our ancestors were stolen from their home and had their cultures irrevocably cut from them. Any culture that survived was hidden in folktales, in songs and stories. Black Americans didn’t even take last names until after Emancipation, and our only options were the last names of the people who last owned us. This is all distressingly recent history, too. The last known survivor of the Atlantic slave trade (Cudjoe Lewis) died in 1935. Eliza Moore, the last known American born into slavery, died in 1948. The last person we can confirm was a slave, Alfred Blackburn, died in 1951 — when our current President was five years old.

Ever since then, part of the black experience has been working towards the ability to decide who we are for ourselves. Our entire time in America has been marked by a dominant culture impressing its ideas and attitudes about us ON us. Black Americans are criminals, drug addicts, super-cool bad-asses, magical Negroes, thugs, loud, ignorant, troubled people in need of saving. We are angry, or lazy, or any one of the fears or hopes of our country plastered over our real selves. Ralph Ellison’s Invisible ManĀ is all about this — what it does to someone to not be seen, to only have the expectation of who they should be pushed on them again and again.

Kujichagulia is the principle of self-determination, the second one we consider in Kwanzaa. But what is it really?

First, let’s take a moment to consider how truly fun it is to say: Koo-gee-chak-oo-lee-uh. SO MUCH FUN. I love that word. Kujichagulia. Man. So great! OK, end of aside.

This is why Cassius Clay became Muhammad Ali. This is why Malcolm Little became Malcolm X. If the erasure of our ancestral culture began with names, the reclamation of our own self-determination can begin with the same thing. Kujichagulia goes so much further beyond names, though — it means that we, and we alone, own the labels that identify us.

It means black men don’t have to be dumb brutes, or crazed gangsters, or smooth-talking ladies’ men. It means black women don’t have to be plain-spoken and wise, or sassy and independent, or drug addicts and rape victims. It means the black community doesn’t have to be a place where your only options for life are the streets or the church. We don’t have to accept the images that are handed to us just because we don’t have a solid, continuous link to our past.

Kujichagulia means that we forge our own identities. That’s a tremendous power, but also a tremendous responsibility. We must consider who we want to be and what we want to represent, and we must build ourselves from the ground up to align with that. It’s a lifelong process that can be difficult, confusing, frustrating, scary.

But it can also be a source of tremendous strength, knowing that ultimately YOU must decide who you are, what you are to be called, and what you stand for. Our ancestors suffered namelessly for hundreds of years; our forebears fought and died for our right to forge our own identities; we continue that struggle, here and now, by using our freedom to decide the best within and for ourselves. We clothe ourselves with the names, ideals and culture of our own making; we dismiss the names and labels that don’t serve us.

Today, I invite us to think about the way we think about ourselves. What makes us feel like we’re the best people we can be? What diminishes us, makes us ashamed? What has been given to us that we should not or will not accept? Who are we, really — not just as people, but as a community, a nation, a race?

Self-determination isn’t just an intention or a declaration; it’s a choice, an action, a promise. It’s not enough to just say who or what we are. We must also live up to the names we give ourselves. So let’s do that.


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Kwanzaa, Day 1: Umoja (Unity)

Myth 150Habari gani?

You might not know it, but today is the first day of Kwanzaa! A lot of people tend to dismiss Kwanzaa because it’s a made up holiday, or because it promotes divisiveness by centering the African diaspora, or because the whole thing sounds so silly. But all holidays were newly made up at one point or another and we’re still doing it all the time; we’ve only celebrated Movember since 2004 and International Talk Like a Pirate Day since 1995. Kwanzaa is older than both of those, celebrated since 1966. Celebrating our culture doesn’t divide us any more than Hanukkah, St. Patrick’s Day, Oktoberfest, or Chinese New Year; being united is not the same thing as being completely assimilated into the dominant culture. And yeah, Kwanzaa is silly — but so are holidays in general. None of them would be any fun otherwise.

But what IS Kwanzaa, though? It’s just a holiday that was created in the mid-1960s to celebrate and reflect on African-American culture and values. It’s expanded to include the wider pan-African diaspora in the decades since, but it’s still a relatively obscure holiday. I personally think that’s great; because so many details of the holiday are so nebulous, that means that we can create our own traditions and make the holiday are own. As long as we do something to reflect on those daily values; honor our ancestors and the sacrifices they’ve made; and work to instill and strengthen our bonds in our community, there’s no one way to observe the holiday.

Traditionally, though, Kwanzaa features a few central things: a kinara, or ceremonial candle holder; the Mishumaa Saba, or seven candles that represent the Seven Principles; mazao, or fresh fruits that represent African idealism; muhindi, or corn, representing our future; the Kikumbe cha Umoja, a cup we share in celebrations honoring and thanking our ancestors; and a mkeka, or mat that all of these things rest upon. You could also have a poster of the Nguzo Saba, or Seven Principles; a bendera, or pan-African flag with the colors of black, red and green; a dashiki, or traditional West African garment; gifts, books, art, or music featuring the culture of the Pan-African diaspora.

Kwanzaa is always celebrated over seven days between December 26th and January 1st. The names we give for things come from the Swahili language, which was a major influence in the Pan-African movement of the 60s and 70s. However, since most of us African-Americans have ancestry in West Africa, there are a lot of influences and traditions from that part of the world as well. Each day, we greet each other with the phrase “Habari gani?”, or “What’s the news?” You wish people a Joyous Kwanzaa, though personally I prefer to say “Have a Solid Kwanzaa” because it’s SO much more awesome. Not all black Americans share my aesthetic, though, so among strangers or acquaintances it’s best to use the traditional holiday wishes.

If you look at the roots of Kwanzaa and particularly the man who started it (Maulana Karenga), you’ll find that the original intention of the holiday did indeed foster a separation between African-Americans and the dominant Western culture in the United States — but that language has softened with greater understanding of our place in the lands we inhabit, and a greater desire to connect and communicate with others. Kwanzaa isn’t an isolationist holiday, and it shouldn’t be; the whole point is to rediscover our roots and share the hard-won perspective and wisdom that has grown out of our shared cultural experience. Kwanzaa centers us at the end of our year, reminds us of what we truly value, and reminds us that we are part of a community that needs us. Our hard work and success is that of the community; when we lift up our brothers and sisters, we lift up ourselves.

Which might be why the very first of the Seven Principles of Kwanzaa is Umoja, or unity. Today, we remind ourselves to strive for and maintain the unity of our family, community, nation, and race. Looking back over the past year, where there have been so many forces that seek to fracture us, it’s easy to see why this principle is more important than ever.

Unity is one of those ideals that are frequently misunderstood and misrepresented. I’ve thought a lot about what unity means to me, and personally it’s the simple fact that we’re all in this together and we should treat each other accordingly. The human experience is astonishingly varied and complex, and our individual perspectives lead us to many different conclusions. Some of us prize compassion as a virtue above all; some of us think loyalty is more important; for others, it’s justice. When the importance that we place on these virtues cause conflict about the correct course of action, we very often begin to paint those who disagree with us as the enemy, or as monsters lacking some basic trait of humanity. Often that’s simply not true — some people just don’t care about a virtue as much as we do. It doesn’t mean they don’t care at all. Sometimes, other things are simply more important.

As frustrating as this can be, it’s important to remember that these people are in the same boat as us and we’re often working towards the same ends. We all want a better world for ourselves, our family, our community. We all want fairness and equality for people. We all want to be safe, healthy, and happy.

Obviously, I don’t mean those whose vision of a ‘better world’ means getting rid of the other people in our boat who aren’t like them, or who think that those of us who are different are somehow inferior and not worthy of the same treatment. That ideology — and the people who take action based on it — must be purged completely if we want to have any hope of true unity. We can’t be united if we don’t include everyone in the boat.

A lot of us think that unity means that we must stand together against something, but that’s not true either. We can — and should — stand united FOR a common purpose. We can come together to make our family, community, nation, and race as great as it can possibly be. The difference here is that instead of uniting to fight against some negative influence, we choose to direct our attention to the positive, the uplifting, the healing. We promote the things we value, instead of simply condemning the things we don’t.

I’m not going to lie — this is hard work. It can be difficult, especially in the midst of disagreements, to remember that the person I’m engaging with is a brother or sister and that we’re both in the same boat. It’s all too easy to unite against something and pour my energy into the things I want to eradicate instead of the things I want to nurture and protect. It’s hard to remember that someone believes as they do because of their own direct experience and that is different from mine. I get it wrong again and again and again. I can be divisive in so many ways.

But that’s OK. It’s human nature, and I’m only human. What’s important is to continue striving for unity, not just as a nebulous and vague concept but as a tangible, graspable goal. We can unite. We can work together. In fact, we must.

So how can we work towards being united? How can we bring together our families and communities? It starts with us. We must learn to recognize which differences can be accepted without change and what is truly necessary for us to agree on in order to be united. If someone thinks that hard work is the way out of poverty and not a strong social safety net, for example, ask how they promote that value in impoverished communities instead of pushing back. Our problems are complicated enough that there is no single solution, no magic bullet, that will untangle those knots. We can work with each other according to our individual values to eradicate poverty — that IS a distinctly American value, after all. E Pluribus Unum — Out Of Many, One.

I welcome all of you to think about what unity means for you, and how you can promote it within your family, community, and nation. Really drill down into the specifics; make it real. Then, think about what actions you can take today to bring us together as one people. It’s a small, but very real thing we can do to honor the sacrifices our ancestors made to give us a better life.

I wish all of you a Solid Kwanzaa. See you tomorrow, brothers and sisters.


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