Kwanzaa 2015

KwanzaaI celebrated Kwanzaa only once in my life when I was about 8 years old. I remember my mother taking my brother and me to some eclectic store in town, looking for all the symbols to use on the alter. I remember all the effort she put in to make it a meaningful addition to the winter holidays and the emphasis she placed on her mixed-race children having a strong sense of cultural identity, but I also remember paying as much attention as would be expected of an 8 year old.

Nearly 20 years later, a lot of life has happened. Partly in an attempt to understand my own life situation and experiences, in my teens I grew into a social justice activist type, with my mind on revolution. Ironically, I also spent the better part of my teenage/young adult life disowning and trying to get far away from my “blackness.” I stayed out of the sun, I obsessively straightened my “good hair,” and wouldn’t you know it, I could “pass” for just about anything other than black. But it never did take away my suffering, the racism, or my yearning to “go home.” And for one reason or another, in one way or another, my ancestors were showing me things, calling me and moving me – bone marrow deep – so much so that they were the ones who allowed me to “go home” and find love. Everything is shifting in my world (and around the world). So I think it’s the right time to reflect on what that might mean, in light of the 7 Principles (Nguzo Saba) of Kwanzaa, for myself and for others of mixed-race.

This year, the holiday’s founder Dr. Maulana Karena asks of those who value and believe in the 7 Principles (Nguzo Saba) of Kwanzaa to embrace the principles and the practices rooted in them in the sense that we “grasp and hold tightly and firmly as an expression of affection and commitment.” These principles are meant to ground our view of ourselves and how we move forward in the struggle for collective liberation, justice, and well-being.

Day 1: Umoja, Unity

To strive for and maintain unity in the family, community, nation, and race.

If there’s one thing I’ve learned being multi-racial – especially being multi-racial in Hawaiʻi – it’s that skin color and bloodline matter much less than cultural identity and political allegiance. Unity is about the oneness of our people and our humanity, the importance of our interrelatedness as a community in all areas and scales of life. Our cultural practice is how we learn to articulate, experience, and embody our values. They are not a-political. Is your cultural practice on Wall Street and at the shopping mall? Or is your cultural practice storytelling, caring for the land, or marching in the streets? Cultural practice is a collective effort. Those practices re-enforce (or not) our relationships and accountability to one another, whether we are near or far from each other (and in the context of the African diaspora, it is often far from our communities). No matter what divisive racial stereotypes, expectations, or categories of blood quantum and phenotype we may fall under, no matter how we may often fall short or find ourselves off track in our journey toward justice and pono-ness, we are one community, accountable to our ancestors, to our collective struggle, to one another, and to ourselves. Unity is a matter of integrity.

Day 2. Kujichagulia, Self-Determination

To define ourselves, name ourselves, create for ourselves and speak for ourselves

If there’s a second thing I’ve learned being multi-racial, it’s that you are the one who gets to define you and what you’re about. We are 100% of each and every one of our ancestors. We take our responsibility in this life from them, as well as our cultural and ethical grounding. It is our inherent right to choose our path in life and create the world we want to live in – in accordance with life-affirming principles, and in righteous opposition to genocidal policies of occupation and war and systems of oppression that want us to forget who we really are and what our lives are worth. We do not have the luxury of indulging in self-pity or in low self-worth. Greatness is demanded of us, not only because our ancestors laid the foundation for us in their very act of survival, but because the healing and well-being of our entire planet depends on it.

Day 3. Ujima, Collective Work and Responsibility

To build and maintain our community together and make our brothers’ and sisters’ problems our problems and to solve them together

Due in large part to the circumstances of my upbringing, I grew up believing that I not only needed to develop a thick skin and a tough heart, but also a fierce and radical independence that would (supposedly) protect me from all the disappointments and betrayals that I saw others around me suffer. The function and deep value of cooperative circles that support our emotional selves was something I took many years of self-rejection and resistance to appreciate – and to understand what a tremendous impact it has on our relationships and the broader effectiveness of our work in social justice. The work we do to create a more just and unified (global) community is one that cannot be completed through individualism and ego-driven leadership. And we can’t succeed in creating healthy relationships at any scale if we are always acting as if we have something to prove (to ourselves or to others). We need to constantly create the opportunities and loving spaces where we can unpack and transform our inner demons (e.g. self-loathing, fear, hopelessness, internalized racism, etc.), and hold that space for others to find their own clarity as well. We are so much stronger for ourselves and for one another when that inner work is shared. The important thing is not to bury or suppress personal and intergenerational trauma, or to stop ourselves from feeling the sadness and anger, but to leverage it constructively – together.

Day 4. Ujamaa, Cooperative Economics

To build and maintain our own stores, shops, and other businesses and to profit from them together

Living out our most fundamental values demands that we not be lazy or conveniently selective in where we choose to apply them. The Civil Rights movement was just as much (if not more so) an economic movement as it was a social and political one. Our economic relationships are foundational to bringing into being all the possibilities we envision for ourselves in the future. If we value things like equity, honesty, and self-determination, what then does it look like to put those values into practice in the way we share and exchange resources with one another? Does it look anything like the economic system we have in place today? At what point do we decide doing the difficult work of shifting oppressive systems (including economic ones) is more important and valuable than the short-term comfort, convenience, and familiarity of Starbucks every morning or having strawberries all year round? What can we learn from the successes of our ancestors and then apply? How can we facilitate these shifts from within our different spheres of influence?

Day 5. Nia, Purpose

To make out collective vocation the building and developing of our community in order to restore our people to their traditional greatness

I take the position that the purpose of life is happiness (and increasing/nurturing happiness). “Happiness” is distinct from its more shallow, ungrounded representations that allow people to believe that seeking merely sensual pleasures, material abundance, popularity, etc. is equivalent to fulfillment, contentment, and joy. The things that fill us with the most profound sense of satisfaction and love are the virtuous pursuits that human beings around the world have held up for thousands of years as the highest Goods. They are the creative pursuits and values that generally increase abundance and sustainability in our lives and the lives of other being on the planet. Compassion, curiosity, friendship, self-knowledge, art, music, science (decolonial, please), conversation, etc. etc. They allow life in all forms and expression to thrive. We find the tools for our survival and our flourishing as self-actualized, empowered, and compassionate human beings in the fundamental teachings of our ancestors, expressed through cultural practice.

Day 6. Kuumba, Creativity

To do always as much as we can, in the way we can, in order to leave our community more beautiful and beneficial than we inherited it

Dr. Karena describes the principle of Kuumba as the urging for us “to practice the ethical teachings of The Husia that put forth the concept of serudj ta, the moral obligation to heal, repair and transform the world making it more beautiful and beneficial than we inherited it.” As the decedents of many ancestors from many different places and ethnicities, in our own way we are living expressions of the hope and possibilities held in their love for their grandchildren. It’s not just some romantic notion, because undoubtedly we’ve all had plenty of ancestors who were racist, petty, or unloving. But given the full spectrum and picture of where we find ourselves in history and in relation to all that has given us life and belonging in this newly “globalized” world, love and responsibility come out on top. We are the generations called at this time to be healers – to heal our lands and ourselves, as much on their behalf as for our own sake. And that love and responsibility demands our creativity in discovering how we devote and best apply ourselves to the greater good of our communities and the next seven generations.

Day 7. Imani, Faith

To believe with all our heart in our people, our parents, our teachers, our leaders and the righteousness and victory of our struggle.

I am not at all person of religious “faith.” For those who are, I believe it is their calling to uphold unconditional love in the name of justice and freedom and truth, in the face of abounding radicalism, oppression, and bigotry. Knowing your history (religious and otherwise) and acting on it is invaluable to living up to this responsibility and truly acting on faith. I’ve continued to believe that I don’t do any of the work I do because I necessarily expect to “win,” I do it because it’s the right thing to do. I have “faith” in the righteousness of our collective struggle for independence, de-occupation, and liberation in all forms across the world. We have been victorious even in the simple act of waking up to our political and cultural consciousness, in waking up our friends and families, in sparking the fire in the naʻau of so many others. Victory is so much bigger and deeper than The Man gettin’ his. Time is cyclical, history is cyclical, victory is cyclical. There is no end goal per se; there is only constant evolution, re-cycling, re-membering, re-claiming. I have faith and trust in the beauty and healing of this process that the earth and our ancestors have gifted us.

Happy Kwanzaa to all, and to all a good fight~ 😉


One thought on “Kwanzaa 2015

  1. Thanks for sharing these insights, Emily. As your Swedish-Italian-Irish mother I especially appreciate your thoughts on the 7 Principles, and this childhood memory. After your father & I divorced I often worried that you & your brother would suffer a disconnect from an important part of your cultural identity; hence, the Kwanzaa celebration. Actually, it was in Florida at the now closed Tehaj Books that we went to participate in Kwanzaa activities and food. I still have the book and candles from that store!
    Anyway… Lots here to consider as I continue on my own journey of Kujichagulia, Nia, Kuumba, and Imani.

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