Habari 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.