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Kwanzaa 2020: Ujamaa

Habari gani, fam?

Today is one of my absolute favorite days of Kwanzaa, where we celebrate the virtue of Ujamaa, or Cooperative Economics. The creativity, drive, and passion of our community is unparalleled, and it’s always exciting to shine a light on the people we can support with our money, word of mouth, and even constructive criticism. The conversation that’s come in the wake of George Floyd has allowed us to amplify Black-owned shops and services like never before; from African-inspired face masks to technology companies, we have enormous opportunities to support one another in our endeavors.

I’m a part of the furry community as well, and there are so many furries of color out there doing amazing work. There are writers, artists, gamers, streamers, builders, voice artists, and more! It’s wonderful to be part of a community finding its voice, and being able to support each other as we grow into our full potential!

If you’d like to promote a business, service, Patreon, or Ko-fi here, please do so in the messages! I’ll do my best to give you a shout-out on Twitter under @jakebe or @serialjackalope; whichever is most appropriate.

If you have a little cash left over from Christmas, consider supporting one of these businesses! You get something awesome AND you get to support the work of Black American creators. It’s a win-win!

 
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Posted by on December 29, 2020 in Furries, Pop Culture

 

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Kwanzaa 2020: Ujima

Habari gani, fam?

2020 has made me keenly aware of my place within my community, and how important my relationships are to me. When George Floyd was murdered by police officers and the collective frustration of millions of Americans bubbled over into street protests, it meant a lot that folks checked in on me because that was honestly the one time this year I came close to breaking. When others struggled I tried my best to be there for them however I could — and I had to think of new ways of supporting the people and causes I cared about. Being unable to be physically present with a lot of people made me realize how much I had been taking for granted. I’m walking into next year with gratitude for my support network at top of mind. 

That’s why this year, Ujima, or Collective Work and Responsibility, feels different. Even though we all went through some pretty heavy stuff, when I look back over 2020 I remember most the ways we became more sensitive to the pain of others and treated one another with more compassion. Maybe it was the fact that our common enemy was a virus, something that transcended borders and most other kinds of division, but most of the time it felt like I was interacting with people who knew we were in the same boat. 

As a culture, we’re far more aware of each others’ problems than we were before. As a cis black man, it was a process for me to learn what women, trans and non-binary folk, other people of color, and people with disabilities have to deal with in this country. There is so much suffering caused by the way our society decides who gets the privilege of being seen as a whole person and who doesn’t. Even though the harm it does takes many forms, the root cause of the problem is the same thing: the curious lack of empathy that allows us to feel a connection to others despite our differences. It can take something like a pandemic to get us to see past that, but it also makes it easier to fight the problem no matter what form it takes. The lack of empathy is the problem; how do we solve it?

Personally, I think we expand our criteria for who gets our empathy, and who we fight for when we see they’re being pushed to the fringes of the community. We can’t leave behind our trans brothers and sisters just because it’s harder for the dominant culture to accept them (or it’s harder for our community to accept them); we fight for them the same way we would fight for anyone else in our family. The problems of Asian-Americans, Native Americans, Americans with disabilities and mental health issues, American women, QUILTBAG Americans and others are our problems, too — lack of empathy isn’t confined to one specific group or a distinct difference. If we don’t clear it away, it corrodes our connection to other people until we have only the most narrow definitions of who’s within our group. 

I know the fights we’re already engaging in are exhausting. This year has aged me seven for everything that’s happened! And there are so many different fronts that need looking after; it can be easy to feel stretched really thin caring about everything all at once. Enacting this virtue certainly isn’t easy, and I think what it looks like for each of us will be unique to our situation. But, as this year has shown us, we’re all in this together — and we can’t lift ourselves up without lifting up everyone else within our community.

That might mean some difficult self-reflection, checking our own biases and blind spots. It’s uncomfortable for me to think about my less-advanced thoughts on trans people, and I’m glad I’ve gained a better understanding. I have to continually check myself for the deeply-ingrained biases I’ve absorbed about women, and that doesn’t feel great. It’s work to unlearn the bigotry we hold, and it’s almost never pleasant when we learn about it (it’s even worse when it’s pointed out by someone else). But we owe it to each other to do this work. We can’t demand empathy for ourselves and deny that same empathy to others who are different in ways we don’t readily understand. Again, their oppression is our oppression. We can’t be free of it until they are.

This requires introspection, a sense of perspective, and a heart willing to embrace that which it doesn’t always understand. It also requires a measure of trust in the humanity of others; even if it’s not readily visible, or expressed in ways we don’t appreciate, it’s there. We’ve spent a lot of time this year drawing lines in the sand about what’s acceptable and what’s not, and much of that has been long overdue. But let’s not forget our collective responsibility to nurture the best in ourselves and others. That work is valuable, too.

 
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Posted by on December 29, 2020 in Buddhism, Politics, Self-Reflection

 

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Kwanzaa 2020: Kujichagulia

Habari gani, fam?

Today we focus on the principle of kujichagulia, or self-determination. Any people that have struggled to throw off the legacy of slavery and institutional racism fundamentally struggle for the right to determine who they are themselves, instead of accepting the role the dominant culture pushes on them. As Black Americans, we deal with these false narratives all the time because we live in a country that has not been able to properly reckon with its own racism. We’re not human beings to many people; we’re an inscrutable other prone to behaviors that are impossible to understand. We’re not fathers, mothers, sons, or daughters. We’re felons, welfare recipients, gang members, hoodrats. Our individuality is stripped from us every time one of us is pulled over because we “fit the description”, every time someone mispronounces our names, every time our accomplishments are overshadowed by our political reality.

I am an invisible man. No, I am not a spook like those who haunted Edgar Allan Poe; nor am I one of your Hollywood-movie ectoplasms. I am a man of substance, of flesh and bone, fiber and liquids – and I might even be said to possess a mind. I am invisible, understand, simply because people refuse to see me.

Ralph Ellison, Invisible Man

The basic power to define ourselves is under assault every day for black Americans. The dominant culture wants to put us in a box that absolves them of facing history one way or another. Our own culture demands us to be the perfect defiance of that narrative, tells us that there’s only one way to forge our own path. Within these twin pressures bearing down on us, it’s vital to remember that we get to say who we are — no one else. The power of self-determination can only be used, though, if we bear the responsibility of behaving in accordance with what we’ve named ourselves. These labels often only have the power of the will behind it. 

There’s a diagnostic for this concept that I actually really like. In order to truly wield the power of self-determination, we must ask ourselves three questions.

Who am I?

We’re starting off with the most basic and difficult questions, right? In order to answer it honestly, we have to spend some time getting to know ourselves: not just the people we want to be, but the people we are right now, flaws and all. We have to have a sense of perspective about ourselves that might be humbling. We’re all the heroes of our own stories, of course, but no hero can be blind to the reality of their situation. 

This year I turned 40 years old. I am not who I thought I would be at this age; nowhere near as successful or driven, nowhere near as much wealth as I thought I’d have. I don’t have the experience or talent I wanted to have cultivated by now. I’m a lot more naive than I thought I’d be, a lot less perceptive, a man frozen by fear far more often than I’d like.

I also know that I am incredibly resilient, and I am persistent towards the goals that really matter to me; it might take me a while, but if I want to do something I’ll eventually figure out a way to get there. I’m kind, and earnest, and care a great deal about doing the right thing well. I’m smart — in my way — and I have a natural aptitude for numbers, details that are easy to overlook, and maybe even social dynamics. I’m devoted to my loves, my friends, my chosen family. 

It’s taken me a long time, but I’ve learned to be comfortable within my own skin, with its limitations and destructive loops and vast, unrealized potential. I know that the worst vices within myself are harder to fight because of where and when I was born, and what my culture has decided me to be. I have decided to accept this burden with as much equanimity as I can muster, hoping that the way I live my life can be a refutation of this grave social injustice. I am as decent a human being as I can be, and I am always striving to be more decent than that. I have chosen to tell you who I am by what I say, what I write, what I do.

Am I really who I say I am?

This is the reality check. How do we know we are who we say we are? It’s recommended that we have and employ a cultural criteria of authenticity, i.e., criteria of what is real and unreal, what is appearance and essence, what is culturally-rooted and foreign.

But what the hell does that mean?

It means that we must have a way other people can decide whether or not we’re being true to ourselves. Others, trusted within our communities, tell us if we’re actually resilient or if we’re just presenting the illusion of resilience. If we determine who we are as a culture, we have to agree what’s a part of it and what’s not; what others can participate in and what they can’t; how to tell someone “of the culture” and someone who’s not. 

Self-determination, by nature, is an act of artifice. We decide how we want to present ourselves to the outside world, but we also have to back it up with action. We construct ourselves through our words, then by the deeds we perform to back up those words. The way we define ourselves is not how we find out who we really are; it’s merely using a common language to form an image others can relate to. This language is built on what we value and how we reflect those values. If there’s a gap between what we value in ourselves (decency) and how we define decency by our actions (being an all-purpose jerk), we mislead others and make it harder to truly know ourselves. 

I love this check because it marries the theoretical (what we say) to the tangible (what we do). Once I’ve defined myself, it makes my choices a lot easier. If I’m, say, roasting someone online, and I think “Is this who I really am?” — I’m likely going to answer “No.” I am not the kind of dude that just roasts people online. If it’s fine for you, great, I’m sure you have your reasons. But that’s not me. 

Am I all that I ought to be?

Now that you’ve taken care of who you are really, you have to take stock of who you want to be. If you’re exactly the person you want to be, keep on rocking! But what’s the next step in living your virtues? How can you make that happen? What would your life look like if you took the things you cared about to the next level?

This is an excellent time of the year to check in on that. If I’m not really who I say I am, I have to reckon with that and change what I’m doing. If I’m not all that I feel I ought to be, I have to take stock of why not and how that can be changed. 

These three questions also force you to think about what’s within your control and what isn’t. Ultimately you can’t control how other people see you, or whether they accept you or not. But if they don’t see you the same way you see yourself, it helps to think about why that’s so. Are you invisible? Or do the effect of your deeds differ from your intentions? 

It also provides you with a way to think about your ideal self with a built-in reality check. You look at where you are and where you want to be, and you think about how to bridge that gap. It may take time — years, decades — but just the progress is enough to make you feel better about yourself. When that happens, it’s easier to shrug off the pressure of being told who you are. Because you know. You’ve thought through it, and you’ve aligned your will and effort into being your best self. No one has your experience being you, except you. And if you’re honest with yourself, you know what’s true and what’s not. 

At least, I hope so! Living with mental illness means living with the fact that my perspective may be distorted heavily, so I need to lean on the people I trust more than most to tell me when I’m not being who I want to be. For some reason, you may be in the same situation. But, at least for me, the more I check in with myself, the more I practice radical self-honesty and self-acceptance, the easier it is for me to just ken when I’m on my track and when I’m not. 

That being said, I know I’m not all that I ought to be. But I’m happy with who I am, even as I take steps to be better. Being able to define myself, and hold myself to that standard, is a big reason why.

 
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Posted by on December 27, 2020 in Buddhism, mental-health, Self-Reflection

 

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Kwanzaa 2020: Umoja

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.

 

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Kwanzaa, Day 7: Imani (Faith)

Myth 150Habari gani, brothers and sisters? Happy New Year!

I’m pretty sure most of us (myself included) are spending the final day of Kwanzaa somewhat sleep-deprived and hungover, so I’ll speak quietly and wish you the tastiest of greasy breakfasts and a quick recovery so you can start 2018 getting your shit handled. No matter how you woke up today — groaning and regretful, or clear-eyed and ready — I have faith in you and your ability for greatness. You can do whatever you set your minds to!

Today’s principle is Imani, or Faith. Faith is a tricky concept to talk about because it’s so nebulous; it means something very specific to our religious fam, while it might mean something entirely different (or nothing at all) to the rest of us. If you’re Christian or Muslim, faith means belief in a higher power as well as the righteousness of the rules as they have been set down in holy texts. The rules are often a constant source of confusion and conflict for us, though — so many of us in the diaspora are excluded by them, and our personal experience might tie the worst memories to the way religion has been used to drive a wedge between us. If you’re like me, Christian faith is most likely one of the most destructive influences in your life.

It can be hard to reconcile our experience with the positive aspects of faith, especially when the actions of the faithful can be so hurtful. It can be hard to have faith when you’ve seen what it does to people. The idea of putting your faith in something larger than yourself can be tremendously scary, a fool’s errand that only leads to the worst outcomes.

But here’s the thing: faith is necessary to push our ideals forward. If you’re religious, putting your faith in God means putting your faith in Their creation. The people all around you are made in God’s own image, which means that divinity exists in each and every one of us. Recognizing and respecting that divinity is one of the most important ways we can act on our faith — every interaction we have with someone else is another opportunity to connect to the divine spark within our fellow human beings, and the work of Moses, Jesus, and Mohammed pointed us to doing just that. It can be exceedingly difficult to find the divine righteousness in some people, but faith isn’t easy. Even with the understanding that God is present in all of us, having faith that we can connect to it in another is something that escapes us too often.

For me, personally, these past couple of years has largely destroyed my faith in humanity as essentially good. It’s hard to believe that we are basically kind and wise creatures when we seem so hell-bent on our own division and destruction. Over the past year, we’ve thrown away our standards for truth and compromise just so we can cater to our darkest impulses. We’ve begun to question ideas that were settled decades ago, and fostered an environment where knowledge and morality aren’t concrete, tangible things — they’re just details that can be swatted aside for something that feels better. Instead of admitting our ignorance and mistakes, we’ve become ruinously arrogant even in the face of direct contradiction. Our collective id has crowded out our sense of perspective; the only thing that matters is our personal gratification at this point.

It’s hard to see, especially when there are so many real problems that we refuse to face. We’re pushing our environment to the brink of collapse even though we’ve had more than fifty years to deal with climate change; we’re astonishingly willing to entertain fascist and totalitarian ideas in our political process, especially if it means a win for ‘our side’; we’ve stopped listening to one another for so long we can’t even understand each other any more; we don’t think of those less fortunate than us as anything but a drain on our society. At the precise time we should be shaking off the worst excesses of our civilization for the continued survival of our species, we seem to be choosing a bender of oblivion, drunk on fossil fuels and anti-social capitalism.

I’ve struggled to push through this year with any sense of purpose. What’s the point of anything if we’re so willing to destroy ourselves if it doesn’t mean making hard changes to our lifestyle and understanding? It’s been impossible to shake the feeling that we’re just doomed and that the world has effectively ended; we just don’t know when or how.

Faith helps so much to combat this narrative in my head. If I believe in anything, it’s the strength, resilience and ingenuity of my fellow human beings. We’ve had the chance to control the way things change in our future, but we’ve missed it for the most part. It’s up to us NOW to take quick and decisive action to make sure our future is the best we can make it; that’s going to require us to put our faith in each other and our own better natures.

As a Buddhist, this means putting my faith in the idea of enlightenment for all beings. We all have the capability of expressing our unique Buddha-nature for the benefit of all humanity. Your expression may be closely following the teachings and attitudes of Jesus Christ; or the wisdom of the prophet Muhammed; or the ancient, living Mosaic Law. It might be communing with the seasonal magic of the natural world, or following a humanist philosophy, or simply being who you are to the best of your ability. There is no one thing that means nirvana; our own paths take us to our innate epiphany.

My faith rests in the journey that all of us are taking to be better people. I have to believe that this journey will find us working together to take care of each other over time, and that we will come to celebrate and respect our differences while realizing we’re so much more similar than we thought. My faith means looking for the Buddha in every person I meet and finding ways to connect with them. It means hoping the best for everyone while not expecting everyone is at their best.

In order to make the most of the new year and to fully embrace the Nguzo Saba, I have to embrace the faith that we can turn this around. I must have faith in my ability to live up to my principles, no matter how hard it might be. I must trust in you. And I do.

Let’s make 2018 a great year. I have faith that it will be, because I’ll be trying every day to make it so.

 
 

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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 5: Nia (Purpose)

Myth 150Habari gani, brothers and sisters?

Today’s principle is Nia, or Purpose. This is another one of those blue-sky concepts that could mean a lot of different things to a lot of different people and that can make it a little difficult to talk about. What context should we place Nia in? How does it fit in with the Nguzo Saba and our cultural identity as a whole?

This year I wanted to make sure I talked about the Seven Principles and how I think about them today, while drawing a direct line to our history to prove why they’re necessary. Dipping back into our shared history, we can see that so many things have been made possible when we unite under a common purpose — neighborhoods are transformed, rights are earned, our self-image is restored. Our best achievements as black Americans have come from a sense of purpose, a drive to achieve something. The civil rights movement, the Harlem Renaissance, Black Lives Matter and the election of Barack Obama all came out of that sense of purpose.

But there are also aspects of our history that show what can happen when we don’t align under that common purpose. Our own ancestors sold their own people into slavery; African history is marked by tribal warfare, genocide, and humanitarian crises; so many African governments are corrupt and unconcerned about the atrocities visited on people. Here in the United States, our culture chases after the material wealth dangled in front of our eyes instead of focusing on the enrichment and well-being of our community. So many of us have adopted the worst excesses of individualism and the wealth gospel; we only look for the best status symbols, the trendiest clothes, all empty symbols meant to cover up our intellectual and spiritual poverty.

What is our purpose, as individuals and as a people? What is our life’s work? What are we doing, each day, as a small gesture to get closer to that purpose? Again — it’s one thing to say who we are, to speak our identity into being, but it’s another thing to live that identity. It takes work, risk, sacrifice, and patience. Who we imagine ourselves to be is quite different than who we turn out to be, even as we take strides to live up to our best ideals.

My purpose, personally, is to help people feel more connected and engaged with the world around them. In my mind, the great sickness of our age is the lack of empathy and compassion for our fellow human beings. We’re so quick to judge other people. We’re so quick to judge ourselves. Learning to accept who we are is important because we can then extend that acceptance to other people; our family and friends; our neighbors and community; strangers, and eventually the entire world. That work is incredibly difficult, though, because of the culture we’ve built around us. We hate things within ourselves but refuse to do to the hard work necessary to change them; then we see others projecting those things and hate them for it, too. We hate people we see as failures — the homeless, the poor, immigrants, minorities. We hate people we see as successes — politicians, entertainers, athletes, business owners. It’s become too easy to see the people around us as signposts for what’s wrong with the world, but for the most part they’re simply who we would be in that position; just human beings struggling to do their best.

The older I get, the more I recognize the value of community. Human beings are social animals, and we need to identify with something larger than ourselves in order to be whole. That doesn’t need to be religion, mind you; it can just as well be the potential of humankind to achieve things that are currently only in our imaginations. I want to give myself over to the ideal that we can overcome the things that divide us while celebrating the things that make us unique; I know that if we come together our collective brilliance can make a legitimate utopian society. I also know that we have a long way to go in achieving that dream, precisely because the kind of person I would need to be is so far off.

So my purpose is to learn how to connect and engage with the world around me, to accept myself and others as they are. By speaking up and sharing how I stumble towards that purpose, perhaps I can help other people avoid similar pitfalls or come up with better ways to navigate around them. Perhaps I can encourage other people to loosen their judgements of others and see why they are worthy of love and respect just as they are. Perhaps I can help others fight against ideologies that prevent us from coming together.

As I get older and wiser still, my sense of purpose may change. How I expect that purpose can be achieved may change. But that’s OK; it’s important to adjust your beliefs based on new experiences, insights, information. All any of us can do is the best we can, but it’s important to know what you’re pouring your effort into, and for what reason. It’s definitely difficult to do, especially at first, but the more we think about it, the better we get at aligning our actions towards it.

Today, I invite all of us to think about our Purpose — not just for individual success, but for the success of the people we care about, the groups we belong to, the human race. Those huge, over-arching goals can be tied to the little things we do every day by thinking about what we’re doing, why we’re doing it, and whether the action moves us closer to or further away from our purpose. Then, we adjust accordingly.

This is an especially good practice right before New Year’s, I have to admit. I’ll be thinking a lot about this as I make my goals for 2018.

 
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Posted by on December 30, 2017 in mental-health, Politics, Self-Reflection

 

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Kwanzaa, Day 4: Ujamaa (Cooperative Economics)

Myth 150

Habari gani, brothers and sisters?

So a number of studies have been released teasing out the role that race plays in upward mobility — in other words, how easy it is for black vs. white families to rise out of poverty. There’s this study from the Brookings Institution about the economic mobility of black and white families from 2007. There’s this article from the Washington Post, discussing the findings of Harvard economists on how children in majority Black cities are far more likely to have a lower income or chance of upward mobility than poor children in other parts of the country. There’s this longitudinal study from Johns Hopkins University, measuring the economic performance of nearly 800 low-income children in Baltimore as they grew up, from 1982 – 2007. There’s even this research (again from the Brookings Institution) discussing the wide gap in education between black and white students and how firmly that’s tied to the history of black education in this country.

Attempts to address the educational and economic disparity between black and white families have been fought at every turn. The Reagan administration worked to stop school desegregation programs, despite good evidence that they actually worked. This American Life released a two-part episode on what happened when desegregation efforts were rolled out near Ferguson, MO and Hartford, CT and how local governments and parents fought against it tooth and nail. Over the years, affirmative action — making sure that universities and workplaces have student or employee bodies that more closely match the diversity in broader society — has been rolled back steadily and surely. The Trump administration, just this past August, has announced plans for the Justice Department to investigate and restrict race-based admissions into universities. Applicants with black “sounding” names are less likely to be called in for an interview; another study found that racial discrimination against black workers has been largely unchanged since 1989.

This, unfortunately, is nothing new. Racial education and economic inequality in the US has its roots all the way back to the slave trade, and there have been a number of institutional influences aimed at maintaining the status quo. The segregation of schools after emancipation is well documented. The practice of redlining, or making sure minorities didn’t have access to certain housing markets, financial services, or businesses, has codified the make-up of cities for decades. There’s the “school-to-prison pipeline“, which disproportionately affects children of color and makes it much harder for victims to get decent jobs. Racial inequality in criminal justice affects black and Hispanic Americans in general and has for decades. Voter suppression aimed at reducing the political power of people of color in the United States happened in a multitude of ways post-slavery, during Jim Crow, and is becoming an increasing problem today. When black communities have been able to build economic success for themselves, such as Greenwood, OK in the 1920s, there is often a devastating backlash.

With so many external institutional pressures against the success of the black community, it’s vital that we focus on doing what we can to promote its success whenever we can. That’s the idea behind Ujamaa, the fourth principle of the Nguzo Saba. It means ‘cooperative economics’, working with one another to raise our collective standard of living.

This can be done in any number of ways, of course — the only limit is your will and imagination. We can make sure we buy from black-owned businesses and support our brothers and sisters in their financial endeavors. We can also push back against those external pressures by fighting the systems that promote educational, economic, and social inequality where we live. We can invest our time and resources into programs, services, and organizations that help those affected by those pressures. We can build new programs and initiatives designed to help our neighbors and local businesses not just survive, but thrive.

Of course this doesn’t just mean buying products with the FUBU mindset; it means investing locally wherever we happen to be. A healthy economy, we know, depends on the movement of capital from one place to another. This is more likely to happen with local small businesses no matter who happens to be running them. Large corporations owned by the ultra-wealthy act as capital sinks; money flows towards the top, where it is then hoarded away from anyone else. It doesn’t go anywhere, and this doesn’t help anyone. Putting money in the pocket of our neighbor through our business helps our community. That comes back to us eventually. It’s one tangible, important aspect of Ujima; by investing in the work of our neighbor, we share responsibility for its success.

We can also make sure our schools have the best chance possible to teach our children what they need to thrive in the future, not just push them into the early path of criminality. We can empower our brothers and sisters with political insight and knowledge; we can hold our elected representatives accountable for ensuring our well-being and continued success. We can save our people from financial ruin, when possible, by donating our time, our money, and our knowledge where it can serve the most good. Most importantly, we can stop the tendency to tear down our brothers and sisters for being successful and teach each other that success can come in many forms. There’s nothing wrong with owning the corner store, or being a good mechanic. It’s OK to be a scientist, a ballet dancer, or a security guard. There’s no one path to being black and successful.

In our lives, we learn to stand united for our community; we learn to take control of our identities; we learn to work hard and share responsibility for our success; and we learn to cooperate with our social, financial and political capital towards that end. Whatever you can do to help your neighbor and community flourish is appreciated. It helps all of us, and it builds closer connections to each other. Most importantly, it weakens the powerful forces that would seek to keep all of us poor, afraid, ignorant and divided.

 
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Posted by on December 29, 2017 in Politics, Self-Reflection

 

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Kwanzaa, Day 3: Ujima (Collective Work and Responsibility

Myth 150Habari 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.

 
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Posted by on December 28, 2017 in mental-health, Politics, Self-Reflection

 

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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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