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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 ManĀ 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 2015: Kujichagulia (Self-Determination)

Myth 150I am a gay black man. I am a Zen Buddhist. (Thank you, Kevin.) I am agnostic — I don’t know if there is a God, but I don’t believe that being a good person should be dependent on that. I am a writer, gamer, geek, lover of animals, myths, and the intersection between them. I’m a morning person. I drink coffee. I believe that in order to be at my best I must be stripped down and simplified to my essence. That requires the very difficult work of scrubbing away decades of gunk that has been built to protect me from the hardships of life. (I’m stripping a cast-iron skillet over the holiday, so maybe my metaphors are going to be reflecting that today.)

I didn’t always believe this, of course. When I was a child — well, I was still called gay, and a nerd, but the connotations were negative. As I grew up, I was called a pussy, a weirdo, an Oreo — black on the outside, but white on the inside. As a defense mechanism, I took all the terrible things people said about me and turned them into positives:

“Yeah, I’m a pussy — but that means I don’t get my ass kicked on the regular or have to worry about being shot.”

“I’m a weirdo, sure, but that means I get to think about stuff that you never will.”

“Oreos are fucking delicious, and everyone wants to have them nearby. I’m crunchy AND I’m sweet, you jackass.”

These days, I don’t even engage. Of course I care about what people think about me, but at the end of the day I know who I am and what I stand for. I’ve put in the time and the work to strip myself bare, see what lies beneath my face and put myself back together to try and be the best reflection of that. It’s an ongoing process, and I will never be finished with it — that’s life, that’s self-improvement. But it is one of the most important and worthwhile things you will ever do.

The principle we focus on today, the second day of Kwanzaa, is Kujichagulia — self-determination. I love this concept; the Swahili word is so much fun to say, but it’s also one of those things that tends to work in a spiral. There are always new ways to name and define yourself, and because you’re a living being who exists in a complex and ever-evolving society, the relationship between who you are, who you want to be, and how that relates to other people demands that you constantly check yourself. But first, let’s start with the basics.

Self-determination, at its most simple, is answering these three questions:

Who am I? No really, who am I? It’s a simple question that is almost impossible to answer. You must seek and understand the core of yourself in order to do that…but is there a core there? Are we actually the tension that exists between the various aspects that make up who we are? Am I only myself because I am gay, black, Zen, geek, etc.? Am I only a series of definitions, a collection of names I have given myself? Or am I something beyond and beneath that, some unnamable, unknowable kernel? If I can’t name it or know it, how can I define it or ensure its existence? What do I think about all of this? Who is the one that is doing the thinking?

Am I really who I say I am? Determining who you are is a process that I don’t think you may ever get to the bottom of. You do the best you can with the information you can, and then you try to confirm it. I think this question forces you to take a look at your actions; if you really are who you say you are, then you would behave in ways consistent with that, correct? What are your beliefs, and how do your actions reflect them?

It can be a bit of a gut check to realize that you behave in ways that are inconsistent with what you believe. But it’s also necessary to face that down and make the changes you need to in order to re-align yourself. For example, if I look within myself and find that I’m not actually following the Noble Eightfold Path, then it’s on me to figure out what that means and how I can work my way back there. This may mean painful changes, or stepping outside of a comfort zone, but knowing yourself and being yourself is more important. This is a sacrifice that must be made for the right to self-determination.

Am I all that I ought to be? So we’ve worked out who we believe we are and determined that how we act accurately reflects that. But is that enough? Of course not. We could always strive to be something more, something better — to embody our beliefs more closely and carefully. Could I be more than who I am? What do I need to do in order to get there? Self-determination is more than knowing who you are — it’s knowing where you are going and what it takes to get there.

It is vital to know ourselves, especially as black people. My ancestors came from western and southern Africa. Somehow, they were put on ships by men who took their destinies from them and replaced them with the Middle Passage. When they arrived, they were stripped of their clothing, their cultures, their families and their very names. They were given other names, other religions, other jobs and relationships. Even after they were freed, they were told that they were lesser than their fellow Americans, forced to confine themselves to the poorest neighborhoods and work the worst jobs. This is a process that continues down to this day.

In our media we are given a narrative, a single story. Our men are called thugs and criminals; even the “good guys” are tough and physical. Our women are crazy, loud, outspoken but unintelligible; they speak almost entirely in slang and are predominantly concerned about hair, makeup, clothes and men. Our children are told they don’t have the intelligence to make it in American society, that the best they can hope for is to be athletes, drug dealers, or prisoners. Our communities are impoverished and intellectually stagnant, but the fight for better is called “disruptive,” “obnoxious,” and “unnecessary.”

We must reject that story, and find our own. Black men are smart, courageous, confused, scared and just as soft as anyone else. Black women are incredible; tough, intelligent, beautiful, complicated. Our children are precious, each a kaleidoscope of possibilities — they could be astronauts, scientists, businesspeople, politicians, artists and activists. We joined American society being told who we were and what we were, but there is no reason that needs to continue. We are who we are, and only we know what that is.

As individuals and as a culture, we must define ourselves to be active participants in our own destinies. We must fight the pressure to be defined or named by other people; we accept or reject terms based on our own principles. That is Kujichagulia. That is life.

Have a wonderful Kwanzaa today, everyone. Know yourselves. I’ll check in with you tomorrow!

 

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