Habari 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 Man 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.
One thought on “Kwanzaa, Day 2: Kujichagulia (Self-Determination)”
Speaking from a trans perspective, self-determination — and its absence — is a huge theme that runs through trans identity and the greater gender variance community. It’s little shock to most of us that one of the most iconic photos of Nazi book burning happened with materials plundered from the Institut fuer Sexualwissenschaft. We, too, understand in a very real and present way what it means to be denied the right to be who we are.
One of my early experiences in transition was of being in a therapy group with a woman who killed herself. The family of the deceased was gracious enough to invite us to the ceremony, but our therapist warned us that they were burying her under her deadname, and that if we wanted to come, it was under the condition that we not make a scene about her gender identity at the funeral. I refused to go. I said to my therapist and everyone else that it was an insult to her memory and erasure of her identity to bury her under her deadname. I said in 2000 that their refusal to even let her be in death who they wouldn’t let her be in life was part of what cost them their daughter. The group splintered over what they saw as my “militancy,” and my therapist told me she thought perhaps I needed more one-on-one work.
Fast forward to 2017, and Natalie Nguyen. Another transwoman dead of suicide, partially from family refusal to let her embrace her identity. Another family burying a trans person under her deadname. More anger. More rejection. How far we’ve come, that the general response was about at the level of anger I had seventeen years ago. How far we have yet to go, that this is still considered acceptable.
And worse, we’ve internalized this social violence. Even within the trans community, such an emphasis gets put on passing because it’s seen as the key to being treated as who we wish to be without question. Success in our chosen path means invisibility. It means becoming who we wish to be so successfully that nobody questions our history, which means that we erase ourselves from the history books. Those who can’t pass, or choose not to do so, still routinely get left behind, and jumping to their defense is the surest way to out oneself, to open oneself to scrutiny and deny oneself the ability to be treated as who we are. To defend the right of self-determination in others is to sacrifice control over it ourselves.
I’ve read Kunta Kinte’s story on every trans person’s gravestone that bears their deadname, instead of the name they chose for themselves. Every identity erased by a family that “just wants closure” and in so doing — in being allowed to do so — is one more part of our culture lost, and this erasure is still happening today. This is why, even so many years on, I still identify as trans. I still identify myself as trans. I still come out, every year. I still introduce myself to people and talk about my trans identity. I see it as a sacred obligation to hold the door open for everyone who comes after me. I can’t prevent others from trying to erase me, but I can refuse to participate. I can refuse to erase myself. i can refuse to be complicit in history’s attempts to deny us the right to choose our identities for ourselves. I can choose who I want to be, and I can empower others to see that choice is possible.
Kujichaguila. Solid Kwanzaa, Jakebe.
Kristina “The Literorrery” Tracer