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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, 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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(Political) Social Justice Cleric

Politics 150This is the fifth Presidential election of my politically active life, and each one has taught me something about the American public and the nature of being a responsible citizen. This one taught me perhaps the most painful but also the most important lesson: a community is only as good as the people who belong to it, only as strong as the will of the people who keep it together. Over time, we’ve become less community-focused and much more self-oriented. Over on the right, groups like the TEA Party have demanded “personal freedom” to do whatever they want in their lives and businesses while also supporting legislation that dictates other people live by their beliefs. And for us on the left, we’ve come to demand respect and recognition for the groups we belong to while also having blind spots about how our actions make it difficult for those groups to organize and be effective. I understand that this is not an equivalent problem; the right is attempting to monopolize our political system to fit their political beliefs while the left is fighting to attain something resembling equality for all Americans, no matter what their race, religion, ethnic background, sexual orientation or gender identity. I also understand that not EVERYONE on the right believes in this social and religious monopoly, but the power structure in place certainly does.

As I’ve become more and more determined to resist the attempts by the GOP in its current form to subvert American democracy by claiming to uphold it, I’ve tried to find a group that I would feel comfortable fighting with. It hasn’t been easy; the Democratic Party doesn’t seem to have any idea what’s at stake for its base or what to do to stop Trump and the Republicans from rolling back rights and services for women, people of color, the poor, the disabled, and so many other minorities; the NAACP hasn’t been organized enough to galvanize black people into a strong, united community on the issues that matter most to it; several other political action groups are too small, scattered or fringe to really get behind. One of the reasons we’re in the state we’re in is our inability to set principles we can agree on as progressives and organize behind those values consistently and en masse. Who is leading the resistance against Trump and his agenda right now? Protests and congressional feedback campaigns have been largely grassroots, while none of our progressive institutions have been able to even agree on the degree or nature of its resistance.

The more I look around me, the more I see the need to build community. More than just providing a way to amplify our voices and make our actions more effective, having a community of people who strive for the same values allows us to remember that we’re not alone. There are others who believe in the fight we’re undertaking, who will have our back in times of need, who are working to build the better world we envision. That better world, for me, is a society of people who recognize the inherent responsibility we owe to our fellow men — without them, our society would be slightly poorer, less resilient, less capable of reaching our ultimate potential. We can’t be self-focused any more. None of us live in a vacuum; everything we do affects someone else, from the kind of car we drive to the things we choose to entertain us. The choices we make need to take that into consideration. How do our actions change the world around us, in small ways and big?

I understand the impulse to ditch that responsibility. None of us has asked for it, and none of us can properly understand the immensity of it. It can feel unfair to give up total freedom or unfettered individuality in order to make sure someone else can have a better life. We can feel like it shouldn’t be up to us to look out for someone less fortunate, or going through a rough spot, or who doesn’t have as much power as we do. When we work hard to make a lot of money or gain a lot of prestige, it sucks to realize that the system that allowed us to get where we are needs our help to continue so that those after us can do the same thing. All of us, from the broke and broken to the rich and powerful, want to reap the rewards of the struggles we’ve been through without having to think about anyone else.

But human beings are a social species. We’ve evolved to work together, and that evolution demands we put aside our worst impulses to continue to do so. We can’t be selfish or myopic any more. We can’t be disdainful of the different or distrustful of strangers. We can’t be gatekeepers. We have to stop reinforcing the divisions that keep us apart. We have to stop denying the basic humanity of the people we disagree with.

It’s taken me a very long time to get to this point, to know what I want to do for my community and feel as if I have some small measure of ability to make it happen, but I feel like I’m finally ready. I want to work to build and maintain the bonds that form a community, to help and heal the wounded and sick however I can, to provide for those in need and fight when necessary to protect the people who can’t fend for themselves. I want to uphold the values that make for strong connections with my fellow man, and I want to encourage others to do the same however I can. I have no idea how to actually do any of this, but it’s something I will learn in the doing. It’s not enough to believe this should be done; it’s time to do it.

I don’t have illusions that I’ll be perfect at this. I’m a fragile and struggling human being who is bound to give in to his bad impulses from time to time. But it feels like I’ve found my north star, and as long as I keep following it I know I’m going in the right direction.

 
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Posted by on February 7, 2017 in Buddhism, Politics

 

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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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