Kwanzaa 2021: Kujichagulia (Self-Determination)

The Fantastic Mr. Fox opens with the titular hero plucking an apple fresh from the tree beneath a clear golden sky, listening to a song about the King of the Wild Frontier. It ends with Mr. Fox admiring the artificial stars on the genetically-modified apple glinting in the fluorescent light of the supermarket that has replaced the wildlands he and all his forest friends call home. Beneath that harsh glare, he dances with his family and friends as the camera pans back to reveal a bleak, industrial dystopia where trees and dirt once stood. Even though the Fox family lost their world as they knew it, they’re celebrating their post-apocalypse. It’s a tragedy with a thoroughly happy ending.

I’ve thought about the ending a lot after watching the movie again over Thanksgiving. Mr. Fox — and the rest of his community — end up living in the sewer beneath the supermarket owned by his three greatest enemies after losing his tail, his home, his whole world. How in the world could he be dancing at a time like this?

As much as the movie feels like a “man (or fox) vs. Society” story the ending makes the most sense when you think of it as a “man (or fox) vs. Self” story. The narrative Mr. Fox constructs for himself leads him to court trouble throughout the movie, not only alienating his long-suffering wife and weird, frustrated son but also his friends and business partners, eventually the whole community. He’s a rapscallion meant to have a twinkle in his eye and a chicken in his teeth. Using that story he digs himself a deeper and deeper hole, and he only begins to dig himself out of it once he adopts a different one. His wild nature is not some helpless impulse that leads him to his bad decisions; it’s the gift he can use to adapt to whatever life throws at him.

To me the celebration at the end of The Fantastic Mr. Fox is for Kujichagulia, the discovery of the power of self-determination. Even though to the outside world his story is a bleak one, Mr. Fox knows that he has the power to create one much more fulfilling. It’s a lesson I’ve held close to my heart over the past month.

My mother died almost two weeks ago. Our story has not been a happy one; my earliest memories of her are of anger and rejection. When I think of her, her face is always hard-set and looking away from me. This was the woman who left when I was eliminated from a spelling bee in 1st grade and never came to another one because she didn’t want to see me lose. The woman who never spared the rod on me and especially my sister, so that I really only remember the fights they had between them. This is the woman who didn’t want me to touch her when I came out, because she didn’t know where my hands had been.

After she disowned me, I gave myself the role of orphan without a family. I didn’t have people I came from, just a childhood full of trauma I had been lucky to escape. My mother wasn’t a parent; she was a disappointment, a reminder of the support I had lacked growing up. In her later days she represented a knot of frustration I could never untangle. Her fogging mind and habitual denial of responsibility for our situation ensured I would never see closure. When I received calls from her hospice service and nursing home about her imminent passing, I couldn’t bring myself to see her one last time. What would be the point? If she was lucid, she would just blame me for where she was. If she wasn’t, I would just have to sit with the woman who had damaged me and my sister in ways we could never repair.

When she passed, I went back home to Baltimore to arrange services with the family. I got to reconnect with my extended brood of cousins, aunts, nephews and other relatives — all of whom knew different pieces of Mom. I learned how our household had been seen by the rest of my clan, and how self-imposed my exile had been. I learned how many pieces of our collective history had been missing, and how easily they could be filled just by talking with one another. Best of all, I got to remember Mom as a whole person — how she came up, how much she loved her family, and how selfless she was with what little she had. In just a week I was able to reconnect with my roots in a way I hadn’t thought possible. By the time her services were over, the story I had told myself had been replaced with one that allowed for my experience with her but also expansive enough to see the hole that had been left in our family.

My relationship with Mom was a complicated one, but I can recognize now that she loved me in her way and that the chasm that prevented us from truly seeing each other is one that so many others in our situation struggle to navigate. Yes, she was abusive. Yes, I have trauma from my time with her. But she isn’t a monster, just a woman who didn’t have the tools she needed to deal with a hostile world. She was tremendously flawed, but she did the best she could.

All of us have stories about ourselves that fuel the way we see the world, the way we move through it, the way we see and hear other people. We give ourselves roles in these stories that become core parts of our identity; we take on the roles others saddle us with whether they know us or not. And most of the time, we don’t step back to examine these stories or how they serve us. If we hold on to our roles too long, they feed into needlessly destructive narratives that put us out of step with what’s really happening around us. They alienate us from our friends, family, colleagues, community. They keep us feeling lonely, unhappy, afraid, angry, full of resentment and distrust and hatred. Our stories can curdle over time if we don’t take them out every once in a while and clear away the parts that have begun to rot.

We have the power to determine for ourselves what our stories will be. We don’t have to hold on to the roles that no longer serve us, and we don’t have to accept the roles that a hostile world tries to force upon us. What stories can we tell ourselves that allow us to dance in the supermarket? What roles can we give ourselves that make us more honest, more compassionate people? What tales can we spread to make our communities more whole, to make our world one of possibility? It’s time we used this power to take the best lessons from our past to build the best future we can.

Happy Kwanzaa, everyone. May we determine our lives for ourselves and encourage the same clear and honest work in our communities.

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