Category Archives: Better Living Through Stories

(Movies) Oscar Season

Entertainment 150Yesterday the Oscar nominations were released, signaling the beginning of the Academy Awards season! There’s a small subset of us who love this time of year; in the months leading up to it (beginning in December), my ears perk up to see what’s opening — especially in limited release — to get a bead on what studios hope to qualify for an award. I collect accolades from the Golden Globes, the Screen Actors’ Guild, the Directors’ and Producers’ Guild of America, and best-of lists from major critics to see how the race is shaping up; it’s interesting watching movies rise and fall from the pack, and after a few weeks you hear the same actors, directors and films again and again.

Then, some magical early morning in late January, the nominations are released and we begin the breathless conjecture about the surprises and snubs, who will win and who should win, or why certain baffling choices were made. The Oscars are a big deal for cinephiles, is what I’m saying, and this year is shaping up to be really interesting based on the nominees alone.

The first big shock is the film that received the most nominations — The Shape of Water. Guillermo del Toro’s indie fantastic romance got 13 nods, including Best Picture, Best Director, Best Actress (for Sally Hawkins), Best Supporting Actor AND Actress (Richard Jenkins and Octavia Spencer), Best Screenplay and a bevy of technical nominations. Christopher Nolan’s Dunkirk, a summer blockbuster I slept on earlier last year, came in second with 8 (including Picture, Director, and Score). An interesting fact! Christopher Nolan has NEVER been nominated for Best Director before, despite four nominations from the Directors’ Guild of America for previous work.

I did not see The Shape of Water coming. My understanding of the chatter was that del Toro would likely get in for Best Director and Sally Hawkins was a dark horse for Best Actress, but the amount of love the movie got on Tuesday morning was really something. I haven’t gotten a chance to see it yet, but I’ve heard nothing but great things — it’s definitely bumped up several notches on my ‘must-see’ list. It’s really cool to see a movie like this become a flag-bearer for quality cinema in 2017, and I’d like to think diversifying the voting body of the Academy had a lot to do with it.

Get Out, the ground-breaking horror film from Jordan Peele, was nominated for four Oscars — Best Picture, Director, Actor and Screenplay. Peele is only the third person ever to have nominations for Best Picture, Director and Screenplay after their first movie, which is mind-blowing to think about. In fact, the whole Best Director field is a crazy one this year. Greta Gerwig is only the *fifth* woman to be nominated for the award (Lady Bird, which also has a Best Picture nomination); there’s Nolan and del Toro picking up his first nominations; and then there’s Paul Thomas Anderson with his second nomination for The Phantom Thread. It’s truly strange to have such an accomplished group of neophytes, especially where two white guys feel like underdogs.

Denzel Washington, the Greatest Actor of All Time Period, picked up his eighth nomination for Roman J. Israel, Esq. (who?) while Daniel Kaluuya picked up his first nomination for Get Out; this is the first time two black actors have been nominated in the category since 2001, when Denzel beat Will Smith (Ali) for his performance in Training Day.

Octavia Spencer is joined in the Best Supporting Actress race by none other than Mary J. Blige(!!!) for Mudbound, a Netflix film that serves as the streaming channel’s breakthrough to the big dance. Mudbound also boasts the first woman ever nominated for Best Cinematography (Rachel Morrison, who also filmed Dope, Fruitvale Station, and BLACK PANTHER), as well as the first black woman ever nominated for multiple awards in the same year — that’s right, Mary J. picked up another nomination for Best Original Song. Fun fact! Rachel Morrison, in addition to being my new favorite cinematographer, is in a same-sex family with her wife and son.

There are so many other nominations to be excited about. While The Big Sick only picked up one nomination, it netted a big one: Best Original Screenplay for Pakistani-American Kumail Nanjiani and his wife, Emily V. Gordon. Gary Oldman might finally get his long-overdue award for his turn as Winston Churchill in Darkest Hour; Willem Dafoe has his third nomination for The Florida Project; Allison Janney and Laurie Metcalf scored Best Supporting Actress noms with portrayals of difficult mothers; Logan(!!) picked up a Best Adapted Screenplay nomination, making history as the first screenplay adapted from a comic book to do so.

I’m really looking forward to watching as many of the Oscar-nominated movies as I can, speculating on what will win, debating which movies I like best with my husband and friends, and hosting a party to watch the ceremony in just over six weeks. I’m deliriously happy that our activism for diversifying the Oscars — both the Academy membership AND the nominations and awards — is starting to pay off with exciting filmmakers being recognized for telling exciting, unique stories. There’s still a long way to go, mind — representation for Asian, Native American, LGBQT (ESPECIALLY trans people), and people with disabilities is still an issue that needs to be addressed. But this year the nominations aren’t a parade of period pieces or biographies; the Best Picture line-up of the last several years have really broadened to reflect the best (and even most popular) films of the year.

Over the next few weeks, I’ll post thoughts about the Oscar race, especially as I see more and more films. I hope you don’t mind me geeking out about movies, because that’s what’s happening next.


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(Fandom) Afrofuturism and Furry

Fandom 150Over the weekend I attended Further Confusion 2018 with over 3,400 other furries in San Jose, CA and let me tell you, it was a pretty great time. I got to catch up with a lot of friends from all over the country and meet a few new ones, including folks I’ve had an internet crush on for a good little while now. Nice seeing all of you, and I hope you folks come back next year!

The highlight of the convention for me was getting to run my very first “Afrofuturism and Furry” panel on Sunday. I had a good little group come in to listen to me jaw on about the Afrofuturist movement, its history and purpose, and why it actually makes a good fit for furry fiction. Whenever I talk about race in furry circles, I worry about the pushback — it can be a surprisingly touchy subject for those of us who pretend to be talking animals, especially in this political climate. Everyone was awesome, though, and I appreciate the openness and respect from the audience as they asked questions and related some of their hesitations about tackling things. When the panel was over, I promised the folks in attendance that I’d write up a follow-up here so they could grab additional resources if they wanted.

First, here are a few good places to go if you want to learn more about just what Afrofuturism is:

Now that you’ve got a primer, here are a couple of places you can go to sample Afrofuturist music:

If you’re interested in a few essential Afrofuturist stories, don’t worry man — I’ve got you covered:

And finally, a few furry-specific Afrofuturist stories:

  • Elephantmen! (Image Comics) – I included this here because of the many parallels between the titular genetically-engineered chimera and the historical experience of black Americans; brought to a strange country for a specific purpose that has now ended, with a history forged by the theft and ruination of black bodies and a present that alienates and disrespects them.
  • The Pack (Midas Monkee) – This is a comic about a pack of Egyptian werewolves, which is LIT AS FUCK
  • Yohance (Midas Monkee) – Space opera with a purely African aesthetic and absolutely amazing art.

Afrofuturism deals with the alienation of belonging to a group that has been historically segregated; the reclamation of an identity that was lost long ago; the water that both erased our cultural connection and serves as a fertile environment to uncover new life; and how being who you are disgusts or angers people who have nothing to do with you. It is longing and sorrow, hope and determination, anger and defiance, provocation and self-reflection. It asks us to know who we are, know how we work within a culture that is hostile but promising, what values we want to take with us into the future. It challenges us to question so many of the assumptions we’ve made about science-fiction and storytelling in general. There’s so much that can contribute to furry writing and deepen the themes we deal with in our fiction. I highly recommend checking out a few of the links above; there’s bound to be something for just about anyone!


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(Fiction Friday) Veniamin Kovalenko: Werebear Detective

Writing 150For Fiction Friday this year, I’d like to play around with a new setting or character every month. Chances are this will settle in to a rotating band of settings that I’ll return to again and again, just to play around with various aspects of writing. One of the things that have been setting me back is a reluctance to just play around, to write for the sheer joy of it. So that’s what I’ll be doing here.

This month I’m going to dig into Veniamin Kovalenko, a character I played in my husband’s Dresden Files game. Veniamin is a Californian of Russian descent (obviously), but with deep ties to the Golden State as well as Alaska. His family’s birthright is the ability to change into a bear pretty much at will, something that serves most of them pretty well. His mother and father own a little hotel in the forests just a little way south of Silicon Valley; other family have installed themselves as park rangers and workers in various state parks.

Veniamin, however, has chosen the path of the private detective to the supernatural creatures in and around the San Francisco Bay. He’s seen too many good monsters do stupid things and meet their end because of it; he wants to protect folks with too much power and too little sense from making bad choices, and make sure ‘regular folks’ aren’t victimized by those they have no defense against if he can help it.

I rarely write in first person because I’m just not good at plugging in to a drastically different voice from my own, so that’s my challenge this month: try on a writing style that’s distinctive and alien.


#1: Bearbaiting

San Francisco didn’t even have the decency to be sweltering when that demon from Hell walked through my door. If this were Sacramento, he would have slipped in all covered with flop sweat, dark stains on his shirt where perspiration soaked through, panting and stinking of whatever garbage he could afford from the vending machine on his salary. But the City By The Bay barely cracked 80 in a heat wave, so all I had to announce his presence was the faint whiff of sulphur and subway piss.

He wasn’t an actual demon, but he might as well have been — maybe something worse, like one of those parasites that feasts on souls or a Kardashian. He stood in front of my desk with his hands clutching his hat, his shabby uniform neatly pressed and creased. The six-pointed star caught the little bit of morning light that made it into the room and glinted right into my eye, making me squint. Almost like he was mocking me, he squinted too — at the tumbler of whiskey I had in my hand.

“Isn’t it a little early for that?” He said, frowning at the smell.

“Ain’t it none of your business?” I splashed back the three fingers in the glass, slammed it down, swiped the bottle and refilled it so I could take another sip. “I don’t go to your box outside of Hayward Station and judge you for your life choices.”

The man sighed and looked around the room. I couldn’t lie, my office had seen better days — the couch on one side of the room had been mangled a few nights ago after a particularly epic bender when I blacked out and shifted, and there were claw marks all over the wall and floor there. The trash bins were full of empty alcohol bottles, my desk was buried under empty pizza boxes, and the air was full of stale food, drink, and bear. It hadn’t been a good time these past few weeks, but that was just part of the deal in my line of work. If this prim little asshole had been through what I had, he’d drown his sorrows in extra cheese and Johnnie Walker too.

“Can I help you?” I leaned forward and put my tumbler down. He didn’t look like he wanted to be here, and I sure as hell didn’t want him here. So the sooner we got done with…whatever this was, the better it would be for both of us.

“Oh…uh…” He stopped trying to work out what had happened to the couch and looked back at me. Then he looked down. Then he fiddled with his hat. “I…uh…I hope so.”

Something wasn’t right here. The BART police officer in front of me was a lot of things, but hesitant wasn’t one of them. I tried to clear the fatigue and booze out of my head so I could put my finger on it, but when I did that all I got was a headache. Still, I could tell even then that he looked pretty shaken. Maybe he had seen something. Maybe he was in over his head.

“All right then, Mr. Nunes, sit down and tell me what’s on your mind. Though if it has anything to do with BART I’m afraid I’m not your guy. Still banned for two more months, remember?” I straightened my tie and smiled to take the edge off that last bit. If he was coming to me, he had to be three shades of desperate and it’s not in my nature to be that tough on a desperate man.

“Well…yes.” Nunes sat down across from me and stared down at his stupid hat for a while, gathering his courage. If it weren’t nine in the morning — and he weren’t a police officer — I might have offered him a shot. But he came around eventually. “I might be able to do something about that.”

“Yeah? Why?” It had been ten months since I’d been busted trying to sneak into the BART tunnels, on the trail of some wild fae who had been doing who knows what in there. Nunes was the officer who caught me and, when I couldn’t talk my way out of trouble, got me banned. I had my own car anyway, so it wasn’t too big of a deal, but it was the principle of the thing. It really sticks in my craw when I get punished by the people I’m trying to protect just for doing the right thing. What’s the point of having the law when it doesn’t actually help?

“Because I think you know there’s something in the BART tunnels, and I need you to find out what it is.” It took a lot of effort for him to look me in the eye when he said that, I could tell.

I gave Nunes a good, long look. It really doesn’t do anyone any good to know what’s really out there; it’s more trouble than it’s worth for people like me. Even if you’re just trying to live your life, people get really afraid, and that fear makes them do all kinds of stupid, destructive things. But he clearly saw something that spooked him, enough to come to the last person he should expect help from.

Still, keeping up the cover is important. I leaned back in my chair and shook my head. “I really don’t know what you mean, Officer. I was chasing a lead for a client when I was sniffing around there. Turned out to be a dead end, though. Given all the trouble that came my way the last time, I’m not inclined to go back down there.”

“Please, I…I don’t know what you know, but I know it’s more than I do, OK? Something in those tunnels have been taking the homeless. I don’t know what it’s doing, but…but it’s…” Nunes stopped then, looking down into his lap, clutching his hat. Goddamnit. I was going to have to help this asshole.

I took a deep breath and tried not to let my shoulders slump too much while I grabbed a notepad and pen. “All right, Nunes. Just start at the beginning. Tell me what you saw.”

I fished a (sort of) clean tumbler out of a draw, poured some whiskey into it, and slid the glass towards him. To my surprise, he took it. Then he began to talk.


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(Personal) My 2018

Self Improvement 150So now that the dumpster fire that is 2017 has been officially extinguished, it’s time to look ahead towards the bright, shiny new year and plan how to make it better. I’m not going to lie; I’m one of those people who love to think about New Year’s Resolutions — but I’m sure you know that by now. It’s one thing to make public declarations on the Internet for what I’m going to do, but it’s quite a different thing to follow through and hold myself accountable for failures.

I’ll try to do something a little different this year, especially in regard to my writing. While I’ll definitely be aiming for pretty ambitious goals at the start of 2018, I also realize that it’s possible I won’t be able to meet them for some reason. Perhaps family issues will flare up again and I’ll be forced to slog through some difficulty. Maybe something will happen with my day job or my mental health and I’ll need to drop everything to take care of that. Or perhaps shit hits the fan in the United States and survival becomes the overriding focus of our short and brutal existence.

No matter what, the goals I have in mind for the year will serve as a North Star for what I’d like to do. Even if I know I won’t be able to meet them, I’ll still get as close as I can for as much as I’m able. Achieving the goal would be nice, but ultimately it’s not the point. The goals are a means to an end, that end being encouraging behaviors and developing habits that will make a more consistent, more productive writer.

For The Writing Desk, I’m aiming for one hundred posts in 2018. That actually shouldn’t be too hard to manage; if I keep up a regular output of three posts a week through the year, that would put me right around 150 by December. However, I know there’ll be times where I’ll need to take a week or two off to tackle other work — or I’m working on an essay or two that requires extra time and polish. This year, though, I’d like to focus on minimizing those interruptions and communicating in advance when they’re going to happen. Becoming more professional and accountable to myself for what I do is a big thing for me this year, and this little corner of the Internet will be an excellent first step for that.

Another good reason for making sure I’m consistent here is that it trains me to write to deadlines. If I actually want to make a living on this, I’m going to have to be able to produce a certain output on time. I know that at first any polish I’ve got here might suffer, but that’s fine. I can learn how to write about involved or difficult subjects and still be on time through this. There may be a few bumps in the road, but that’s in service to progress.

For the Jackalope Serial Company, I’m aiming to publish 50 ‘episodes’ of serial in 2018. This will be a lot more difficult, since it means I’ll need to make sure I have at least one piece of serialized fiction up on Patreon every week this year. There’s no way around it, I’ll need to make sure I’m working ahead of what I post in order to make this goal, and that’s a very good thing. It means that success will force me to plan ahead and work consistently; there are going to be weeks where I just can’t write, but if I’m diligent I’ll have a backlog to catch me for a bit. I’ll even give myself two weeks this year where I can be ‘off’, and I have a good idea about when I’ll take them. But in order to be a storyteller, I’m going to need to learn how to tell stories. The Jackalope Serial Company will be an excellent proving ground for that.

Finally, I’d like to write and submit ten short stories to various publications this year. One of the best things about 2017 is the sudden expansion of minority voices in the science-fiction/fantasy space. I’d love, more than anything, to become a part of that wave. I hardly expect that any of my work will actually be accepted or published, but it’s well past time that I put myself out there. Writing stories is only one part of the vocation; learning how the industry works and engaging with it as much as you can is a big part that I’ve neglected for far too long.

I fully expect that I’ll be submitting more stories towards the latter half of the year than the former. For the next few months, anyway, I’ll be focusing mostly on The Writing Desk and the Jackalope Serial Company to make sure I’m consistent there. Once I feel more comfortable with my writing routine, I’ll begin to branch out with standalone short stories written for the wider SFF or furry markets.

So, these are my three big goals for 2018: write 100 posts here, write 50 serial chapters, and submit 10 short stories to publications. That’s a LOT of writing, and again — there’s no expectation of making the goal. That’s not really the point here. The point is to push myself further than I have been, to develop a consistent writing practice, and to submit work on a reasonably predictable schedule. Every month, I’ll reflect on my progress on these goals, talk a bit about what’s working and what I still need to focus on, and discuss my game plan for the next month. We’ll see how that goes, but for now, I’m really excited about the chance to ‘earn’ my label.

What are your New Year’s Resolutions, and how do you plan on meeting them? Let me know!


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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 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 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.


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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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