Habari gani, fam?
Of all the virtues to celebrate for Kwanzaa this year, Umoja, or Unity, is the trickiest. This year was marked by sudden and surprising disconnection that we’re all still struggling to deal with. The COVID pandemic made travel — even large social gatherings — impossible, and some of us lost loved ones to it without the chance to come together and grieve. The social unrest caused by yet another incident of extrajudicial murder by the police deepened the political divisions between us around the world. Some people I had considered friends before 2016 are still estranged, and it’s hard to imagine a way to feel OK with repairing our relationship. More than ever before, it feels like we live in a world with a third of its people stubbornly fixed in an alternate reality. Any bridges between our perspectives have been burned.
But this is why Umoja is so important. In a year that has seen us hyperfocused on what’s driving us apart, now is the time to remember what brings us together. We’re all of us capable of deep compassion and terrible cruelty. All of us — even those of us pushing for an authoritarian regime that would mean the death of their fellow Americans — are human beings who want to feel safe, loved, and respected. Even the things we say and do shouldn’t deprive us of our basic humanity, and while there need to be consequences for those of us who have fallen to our worst impulses, anything that would deprive another person of their basic human rights can’t be considered justice. We can’t build a just world on a foundation of revenge and dehumanization.
The creator of Kwanzaa himself, Maulana Karenga, has a troubled history. He created the holiday in 1966 to give Black Americans the chance to celebrate themselves and their history instead of imitating the religious and social practices of the dominant culture. Because of him, I have the chance to think about my connection to my people and how it shapes my life, how I can improve myself through this reflection. But he was also arrested and sentenced to ten years in prison for assaulting his estranged wife and other women. Like so many others, Karenga has been excluded from the human family — either lionized for his activism in our community, or demonized for the horrific acts he’s been convicted of. Either of these viewpoints deprive him of his basic humanity, his capacity for good and evil. Karenga is the father of Kwanzaa, and he is a domestic abuser. He is also a political prisoner, an enemy of the Black Panthers, a doctor, a “sellout” (he was friends with Ronald Reagan), and much more. He is a mere human like you and me, with all of the potential and contradiction that entails.
This year has reminded me that all of us have been going through it for a long time. Life is not easy for anyone, and sometimes it can be especially hard for those who lack the privilege of being able to bypass structural problems, or for those of us who don’t have a support network. For Black Americans, especially, the trauma of past generations is handed down to us — not only through our history, but from the way our elders see the world and build the virtues they see as necessary for survival. Those of us who are soft and sensitive struggle to be as hard and unyielding as our parents have taught us, have chafed at the mold we’ve been forced into by our families. It can feel like we’re not seen as human beings by the people who are closest to us, and maybe we aren’t. Maybe we’re seen as soldiers, victims, guileless innocents, dangerous, frightened, ignorant, the future Kings and Queens of Black America. And, in turn, maybe we don’t see our elders as people who’ve adapted to a country that has sought to eradicate them in multiple ways all of their lives. We don’t see their hard disapproval as a mask for the fear and panic they feel over our safety. We don’t understand their trauma is an open wound made fresh every time a black body is beaten or broken or disappeared by a hostile state. Maybe our elders see the repetition of their painful history and wonder why we reject the tools they’ve made for our survival.
But the fact is, we’re all living this same trauma. It’s not as wholly different as we’d like to think it is — the same hard grip of white supremacy squeezes tighter to hold onto control. But it’s also not just the same as before, where we must think of white America as an enemy, or that their hatred makes them less than human, or that we can’t fall into the same hatred while being the victim of it. We think we’re alone, often, with our pain. But if we take a moment to look up, to see things through the eyes of our brothers and sisters, mothers and fathers, grandparents, uncles, cousins, neighbors — even the strangers we see on the street — we see a whole community of us struggling against the same current of history.
That painful history has all of us in its grip, whether we’re black, white, Native, immigrants, Republican, Democrat, fascist or socialist. We all see ourselves fighting against the worst impulses of our own humanity. We all see ourselves fighting to achieve our potential. I don’t make a claim that Republicans, authoritarians, and fascists are actually good people — but I will say that they are JUST people, like you and me. They, like us, have been driven wild with pain by our shared history. They, like us, just want this deeply-rooted pain to end once and for all. Even though it’s clear they think the only means of achieving their goals is our extinction, and that cannot be allowed, it’s also vital to know they want what we want: what’s best for themselves and those they care about. It’s a fundamental human need that all of us deserve. And we can achieve it together, if we realize that’s the only way we can.
I think this is the impulse behind the endless parade of interviews and think-pieces about the Trump voter. Their actions seem inscrutable and irrational because we’ve forgotten the things that connect us to them. We can’t see how we can share the same basic needs but diverge so wildly in what we do to achieve them. We can’t see ourselves in them. And that’s not their problem — though they have many. That’s ours. It’s something that we’ll need to overcome if we have a hope of fulfilling the promise of our first principle.
In order to be unified, all of us are going to have to find a way to make peace with our shared history. There have to be consequences to the long-standing, institutional injustices we’ve faced as Black Americans, and the people who have knowingly participated in furthering them need to be brought to justice. But justice isn’t a term that should be taken lightly. Justice, to me, is a way of mending the bonds that have been broken through injustice. It’s finding a way for us to be whole again, as an individual and as a society. How do we find a way back for the people who’ve so badly wronged us, who are even now disconnected from us within the tight grip of white supremacy? How can we build a society in which both the victim and the perpetrator of injustice can feel united in common purpose of benefit to all?
This is a question we’ve struggled with for thousands of years, and it won’t be answered by a weekend blog post. But I think remembering that all of us share our humanity is a good start. The moment we think of the people we disagree with as less than human — as monsters, or animals, or insects, or filth — is the moment we’ve failed this first principle. If we were a human being who had been driven insane by the pain and hatred of past generations, how would we want to be brought back to sanity again? What penance could we pay for the terrible things we’ve done while in its grip? How can we acknowledge the pain we cause and do our best to repair the damage it’s done? Thinking on these questions, and maybe acting on the answers we come up with, is how we honor our ancestors today. This is Umoja.