02 January 2018 ~ 0 Comments

The Seven Principles of Kwanzaa Illustrated Pt. 1: Forging Umoja Abroad

This year, I took the liberty of writing personal messages illustrating what the Nguzo Saba (Seven Principles of Kwanzaa) mean to me and how they’ve impacted my life since I first celebrated the holiday at 6 years old. So I shared some thoughts on each day of Kwanzaa.

I posted these on Facebook as I wrote them but I thought I’d share them with you guys here. So, if you want to know about Kwanzaa in real life, here’s your chance.

The first part I call: Forging Umoja Abroad. It’s actually the speech I gave at my annual Kwanzaa in Yokohama event. (I have video but it wasn’t done so well…I may post it once edited).

Let me begin by saying what Kwanzaa isn’t.

It isn’t Black Christmas, or Christmas in Africa.
In fact, it’s not a religious holiday at all.
It’s not even African in the literal sense…

Kwanzaa is an American holiday, conceived by an American. His name is Dr. Maulana Karenga. The year was 1966. Karenga was an educator on the front lines of both the Pan-African movement and the Black Power movement. And he founded Kwanzaa with both movements in mind.

Pan-Africanism is an effort to bring African countries and the people of the African diaspora together politically, culturally and spiritually. Think EU or NAFTA, only on a global basis and with more than economic prosperity in mind. It was about addressing and repairing the cultural and spiritual damage caused by over 400 years of European exploitation, imperialism, enslavement, and slaughter of black bodies. Pan-Africanists believe that unity is vital to economic, social, and political progress and that the fate of all African peoples and countries are intertwined.

The Pan-Africanists believe WE are ONE.

In fact, this was the impetus for people formerly labeled niggers, negroes, colored and blacks, by their former slave masters in the US, to take on the moniker: African-Americans…
African Americans were systematically stripped of our original identities for profit, and the effort to forge our own identity, a new identity…well that effort continues. And this effort is at the heart of The Black Power Movement.

The Black Power Movement is often symbolized by the afros and raised fists of the 60s and 70s. Slogans like “Black is Beautiful”, images of The Black Panther Party, Angela Davis and Huey P. Newton tend to come to mind. But it was so much more than that.

The BPM was a revolutionary political movement that spring out of the civil rights movement in the US. While MLK gets the lion share of the press of the time, due to his advocation of non-violent, Christianity-fueled, Ghandiesque-oriented approaches to addressing white supremacy, racial violence and inequality, the Black Power Movement leaders often get marginalized as violent radicals and socialists.

But the truth is, these were intellectuals, activists and community leaders who didn’t subscribe to the notion that turning the other cheek was the only effective way to address the violence aimed at people of African descent. They Sought and established to some extent community control, founding scores of institutions and services, including black-owned bookstores, food cooperatives, media, printing presses, clinics, and even schools.
Including the school I attended as a child, Uhuru Sasa Shule.

I think a more fitting description of the Black Power Movement would be as a much better organized, much more aggressive and effective earlier iteration of Black Lives Matter (one of many over the course of American history). An excellent compliment to the Pan-African movement.

Dr. Karenga incorporated elements of both these movements, as well as some black nationalist principles, into his original concept for Kwanzaa. The good doctor based Kwanzaa on an Afrocentric philosophy known as Kawaida, decided an African language, Kiswahili, would be used, and that all the symbolism would be of African origin.

Karenga’s position was clear: African-Americans have been estranged from their natural African cultures and have been dysfunctionally affected by the dominant European American society. Therefore, to rectify the socio-cultural imbalance and counteract the psychological effects of oppression, there needs to be social and cultural reconstruction.

And Kwanzaa is a product of this line of thought.

The seven principles of Kwanzaa are as follows:

Umoja means Unity…which is today’s principle. But I’ll come back to that.

Kujichagulia means self-determination- Basically to define yourself, name yourself and speak for yourself, instead of leaving that to others. In fact, my name, Baye, is a result of Kujichagulia. It’s a Senegalese name meaning “straight forward,” a moniker I took on at the age of 6. As is the case with people like Muhammad Ali, Kwame Ture, Kareem Abdul Jabbar, and many others who have discarded this shackling of Europeanization in favor of names more reflective of who we are and where we’re from.

Ujima is collective work and responsibility, basically a call to look out for one another, to become our brothers and sisters’ keepers. Practicing Ujima would certainly bring about safer communities, address the issues of crime and drugs, and give birth to programs that uplift.

Ujamaa is Cooperative Economics, the principle for a community-based economy where the buying power of the community supports and uplifts the community itself. Karenga believed that if the substantial spending power of black communities went into black-owned businesses in that community, then that money could be kept in the community and it would flourish. Instead, then as now, money flows out of the community into the hands of corporations never to be seen again.

Nia means purpose, and in this case that purpose is working together to build the businesses and institutions that Ujamaa would be supporting.

Kuumba means creativity, to bring beauty into the world, whether that be artistically, or musically, or even via the expression of a beautiful thought. This principle asserts that we should all endeavor to leave the world a better, more beautiful place, than the one we inherited.

And lastly there’s Imani which means faith- Not necessarily in a superstition or a religion, but in our own people, as well. Dr. Karenga knew that if black people were to accomplish any significant goals we would need to not only enlist the support of whatever spiritual support we could access, but also overcome some significant internal trust issues. We still struggle in this regard.

I’ve had many years to think about what Kwanzaa means to me, and that meaning has evolved over the years. In the beginning it was about just doing what my parents and teachers told me to do, but later I did so willingly, and even later with increased enthusiasm.

Over the past several years though, my thinking on Kwanzaa has evolved once again.

It goes back to the initial line of thought that conceived Kwanzaa itself. Yes, in the minds and hearts and even in the bloodstreams of the people of the African Diaspora, there is still Africa. But, I believe, while there are still clearly some dysfunctions in the black community, we have evolved into something unforeseen and frankly more powerful than we anticipated…even reaching the pinnacle of power in the US.

And I came to hold this position partially because of what I observed during Barack Obama’s ascent and presidency, as well as observations I’ve made since coming to live in Japan. So in part I have the Japanese to thank for this realization.

You see, here in Japan when a child has parents of different races, they tend to call them ha-fu, half Japanese and half something else. Half makes them sound handicapped or disadvantaged in some way. And truth be told, in Japan, they will likely be disadvantaged in some ways because of their biracial status depending on how conspicuous it is.

Same is true of African-Americans in some respects. We were no longer African and not accepted as full Americans, either.

However, some people here have taken to calling ha-fu, DOUBLES, acknowledging that they are not disadvantaged by having HALF of two cultures, but have the advantage of ALL of two cultures, and in some cases even more than two.

Double! Something about that perspective works for me.

I came to think of the African diaspora as the ha-fu of the world. We’re no longer fully African, nor fully whatever country we landed in. Be it Brazil or Jamaica or England or the US. We are something new, and something else, which causes all kinds of problems for the labelers. Double trouble.

When Dr. Karenga created Kwanzaa, he did so to address the problems at his doorstep utilizing Kawaida-based philosophical principles. But I think he might have overlooked or underestimated how universal the principles of Kwanzaa potentially are, that these very same principles could be applied to the doorsteps of people of diverse backgrounds struggling similarly around the globe.

I’ve seen them work here in Japan with ha-fu, for example. Seen them use umoja to unify into a community, and seen them derive strength from that community. I’ve seen them self-identify regardless of what those narrow minded “full-blooded” Japanese think.

Even Obama wasn’t disadvantaged by his literal ha-fu status. In fact, arguably, it was to his advantage that he represented something that the labelers couldn’t lockdown. And ultimately he came to represent the very best of us. And throughout his ascension I saw the 7 principles of Kwanzaa, unbeknownst to him likely, being utilized.

For example, his motto: Yes We Can! Umoja, today’s principle, is the very essence of Yes We Can!

I think Dr. Karenga was focused so intensely on addressing the inhumanity aimed at the African diaspora that perhaps he overlooked the fact that, ultimately, on a long enough timeline, all of humanity is part of the African diaspora.

We truly are ALL one!

So, I concluded that the principles of Kwanzaa are simply too expansive to tether to one people. We could no more keep Kwanzaa tethered to blackness than we could keep Jazz or Rock & Roll black.

No more than the Indians could keep Yoga or Buddhism to themselves,

No more than the Saudis could keep Islam to themselves,

No more than any culture can keep anything inherently inclusive to themselves. Humanity just doesn’t work that way.

Whether it’s shared or borrowed or stolen, some way, somehow, it will out! And I’m of the mind that that’s potentially a good thing…particularly if it’s shared voluntarily.

I believe that Dr. Karenga has, perhaps unknowingly — but I doubt a man of his intellect didn’t see this far ahead– but nonetheless he’s created a holiday that, if appreciated and practiced appropriately, could result in a unity forming between peoples of diverse cultures and backgrounds.

Much like the unity we’re forging here tonight!

And it is in that spirit that I introduce kwanzaa to all of you.

Thank You!

Pt:2 Kujichagulia coming soon

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