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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 1: Umoja (Unity)

Myth 150Habari gani?

You might not know it, but today is the first day of Kwanzaa! A lot of people tend to dismiss Kwanzaa because it’s a made up holiday, or because it promotes divisiveness by centering the African diaspora, or because the whole thing sounds so silly. But all holidays were newly made up at one point or another and we’re still doing it all the time; we’ve only celebrated Movember since 2004 and International Talk Like a Pirate Day since 1995. Kwanzaa is older than both of those, celebrated since 1966. Celebrating our culture doesn’t divide us any more than Hanukkah, St. Patrick’s Day, Oktoberfest, or Chinese New Year; being united is not the same thing as being completely assimilated into the dominant culture. And yeah, Kwanzaa is silly — but so are holidays in general. None of them would be any fun otherwise.

But what IS Kwanzaa, though? It’s just a holiday that was created in the mid-1960s to celebrate and reflect on African-American culture and values. It’s expanded to include the wider pan-African diaspora in the decades since, but it’s still a relatively obscure holiday. I personally think that’s great; because so many details of the holiday are so nebulous, that means that we can create our own traditions and make the holiday are own. As long as we do something to reflect on those daily values; honor our ancestors and the sacrifices they’ve made; and work to instill and strengthen our bonds in our community, there’s no one way to observe the holiday.

Traditionally, though, Kwanzaa features a few central things: a kinara, or ceremonial candle holder; the Mishumaa Saba, or seven candles that represent the Seven Principles; mazao, or fresh fruits that represent African idealism; muhindi, or corn, representing our future; the Kikumbe cha Umoja, a cup we share in celebrations honoring and thanking our ancestors; and a mkeka, or mat that all of these things rest upon. You could also have a poster of the Nguzo Saba, or Seven Principles; a bendera, or pan-African flag with the colors of black, red and green; a dashiki, or traditional West African garment; gifts, books, art, or music featuring the culture of the Pan-African diaspora.

Kwanzaa is always celebrated over seven days between December 26th and January 1st. The names we give for things come from the Swahili language, which was a major influence in the Pan-African movement of the 60s and 70s. However, since most of us African-Americans have ancestry in West Africa, there are a lot of influences and traditions from that part of the world as well. Each day, we greet each other with the phrase “Habari gani?”, or “What’s the news?” You wish people a Joyous Kwanzaa, though personally I prefer to say “Have a Solid Kwanzaa” because it’s SO much more awesome. Not all black Americans share my aesthetic, though, so among strangers or acquaintances it’s best to use the traditional holiday wishes.

If you look at the roots of Kwanzaa and particularly the man who started it (Maulana Karenga), you’ll find that the original intention of the holiday did indeed foster a separation between African-Americans and the dominant Western culture in the United States — but that language has softened with greater understanding of our place in the lands we inhabit, and a greater desire to connect and communicate with others. Kwanzaa isn’t an isolationist holiday, and it shouldn’t be; the whole point is to rediscover our roots and share the hard-won perspective and wisdom that has grown out of our shared cultural experience. Kwanzaa centers us at the end of our year, reminds us of what we truly value, and reminds us that we are part of a community that needs us. Our hard work and success is that of the community; when we lift up our brothers and sisters, we lift up ourselves.

Which might be why the very first of the Seven Principles of Kwanzaa is Umoja, or unity. Today, we remind ourselves to strive for and maintain the unity of our family, community, nation, and race. Looking back over the past year, where there have been so many forces that seek to fracture us, it’s easy to see why this principle is more important than ever.

Unity is one of those ideals that are frequently misunderstood and misrepresented. I’ve thought a lot about what unity means to me, and personally it’s the simple fact that we’re all in this together and we should treat each other accordingly. The human experience is astonishingly varied and complex, and our individual perspectives lead us to many different conclusions. Some of us prize compassion as a virtue above all; some of us think loyalty is more important; for others, it’s justice. When the importance that we place on these virtues cause conflict about the correct course of action, we very often begin to paint those who disagree with us as the enemy, or as monsters lacking some basic trait of humanity. Often that’s simply not true — some people just don’t care about a virtue as much as we do. It doesn’t mean they don’t care at all. Sometimes, other things are simply more important.

As frustrating as this can be, it’s important to remember that these people are in the same boat as us and we’re often working towards the same ends. We all want a better world for ourselves, our family, our community. We all want fairness and equality for people. We all want to be safe, healthy, and happy.

Obviously, I don’t mean those whose vision of a ‘better world’ means getting rid of the other people in our boat who aren’t like them, or who think that those of us who are different are somehow inferior and not worthy of the same treatment. That ideology — and the people who take action based on it — must be purged completely if we want to have any hope of true unity. We can’t be united if we don’t include everyone in the boat.

A lot of us think that unity means that we must stand together against something, but that’s not true either. We can — and should — stand united FOR a common purpose. We can come together to make our family, community, nation, and race as great as it can possibly be. The difference here is that instead of uniting to fight against some negative influence, we choose to direct our attention to the positive, the uplifting, the healing. We promote the things we value, instead of simply condemning the things we don’t.

I’m not going to lie — this is hard work. It can be difficult, especially in the midst of disagreements, to remember that the person I’m engaging with is a brother or sister and that we’re both in the same boat. It’s all too easy to unite against something and pour my energy into the things I want to eradicate instead of the things I want to nurture and protect. It’s hard to remember that someone believes as they do because of their own direct experience and that is different from mine. I get it wrong again and again and again. I can be divisive in so many ways.

But that’s OK. It’s human nature, and I’m only human. What’s important is to continue striving for unity, not just as a nebulous and vague concept but as a tangible, graspable goal. We can unite. We can work together. In fact, we must.

So how can we work towards being united? How can we bring together our families and communities? It starts with us. We must learn to recognize which differences can be accepted without change and what is truly necessary for us to agree on in order to be united. If someone thinks that hard work is the way out of poverty and not a strong social safety net, for example, ask how they promote that value in impoverished communities instead of pushing back. Our problems are complicated enough that there is no single solution, no magic bullet, that will untangle those knots. We can work with each other according to our individual values to eradicate poverty — that IS a distinctly American value, after all. E Pluribus Unum — Out Of Many, One.

I welcome all of you to think about what unity means for you, and how you can promote it within your family, community, and nation. Really drill down into the specifics; make it real. Then, think about what actions you can take today to bring us together as one people. It’s a small, but very real thing we can do to honor the sacrifices our ancestors made to give us a better life.

I wish all of you a Solid Kwanzaa. See you tomorrow, brothers and sisters.

 

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