My family celebrates Kwanzaa. We do not wear kente cloth, pour libations or leap toward beating drums, though I believe those traditions are beautiful. Our celebration is simpler than that. On each of the seven nights after Christmas, we light a candle.
My son’s eyes are bright in the soft light cast by tiny flames. Before he blows the candles out for the evening, we talk about the day, what the Swahili term associated with that particular day means and why the principle of the day is important to us. Sometimes, friends and family members visit. We eat Christmas dinner leftovers while the children play with their new toys.
Lighting the candles is a lovely focal point to the evening, a moment we all share to talk about an idea: unity, self-determination, collective work and responsibility, cooperative economics, purpose, creativity, faith. These are the principles, and thinking about what they mean is an empowering way to end the year and ring in the new. Now, more than ever before in my lifetime, I think the nation needs these principles to guide us forward.
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In Japan, the Kanji Aptitude Foundation recently named the “Kanji of the Year,” inviting ordinary people living throughout Japan to select a kanji character that best captures the feeling of the previous 12 months. The winner of the popular vote for the feeling of 2018 was, literally in a word: disaster.
A riot of natural disasters assaulted Japan in 2018: earthquakes, typhoons, landslides, floods, record-breaking heat waves. The list reads like the bullet points summarizing a Trump administration climate change report sure to be controverted by Trump himself. While Japanese kanji voters were thinking of natural disasters, here in the US, it is impossible to discuss traditionally banal topics like the weather in apolitical terms because of Trump’s violence.
The year 2018 was a disaster: Central American children separated from their families and held in cages; the largest terror attack targeting Jewish people in the nation’s history; the Trump administration’s attacks on transgender Americans, which attempt to erase their very existence; Kavanaugh.
How can my African American family and others use this holiday season not only as a time to renew and to settle into the restorative power of silent nights as an act of self-care after an exhausting year of rising sea levels, but also to recommit to the work required to improve politics and the nation in 2019? How do we reverse the tide of Trump that has led to rising tensions, rising mass shootings, rising hate? How do we avert the disaster?
We can start with “Umoja,” or unity — the principle that asks Black people to strive for and maintain unity. We as a people have been so unified in the state of siege we occupy, in our experience with the unrelenting pressure of white supremacy and white privilege, that we know a neo-Nazi when we hear one. The early reluctance of some to explicitly call racism on the White House’s policies and pronouncements has surely earned a response of, “Well, we did tell you so” by now. But we do not want to dwell in the chasm that system-controllers are trying to widen between us. There is more that unites us than the superficiality of racial identity that conquers and divides with such stunning automaticity.
White progressives are, I think, starting to listen to Black people, especially Black women and other women of color, now that we have gained the House in record numbers. Let’s remember Umoja, and the equity that real unity demands, to work as one body and dismantle these social constructs, like race, that would fracture us into easily exploitable parts of the machine generating unshared power. In my family, we will recommit to the unity required to remain whole.
“Kujichagulia” is my family’s favorite principle. Kujichagulia means self-determination, and reminds Black people of the focused determination required to achieve personal and professional goals. Kujichagulia reminds us to define, name, create for and speak for ourselves. I think Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez has this principle built in her marrow. The verbal dexterity needed to deliver a powerful counter-narrative to Trumpisms like “lock her up” and “build a wall” cannot rely on the final outcome of the Robert Mueller investigation for inspiration. The voiced expression to articulate freedom will not come from the top; it will come from the people who have been silenced for too long. As women like Deb Haaland, Rashida Tlaib and Ilhan Omar speak truth to power in 2018, know that they articulate the future of our nation.
Day three of Kwanzaa is “Ujima,” or collective work and responsibility, and day four is “Ujamaa”: cooperative economics. These principles ask Black people to build in and support each other in community and in business. Allies can support this work by recognizing the history of public policies that successfully disenfranchised generations of African Americans and supporting efforts to dismantle the barriers that remain in place.
Kwanzaa cycles through day five, “Nia” or purpose; day six, “Kuumba” or creativity; and the seventh day of Kwanzaa: New Year’s Day — “Imani” or Faith. These principles lie on a continuum to enable resolution in the push forward. In my family, we talk about our purpose in the new year, what creative strategies we will employ to honor this purpose, and our enduring faith in ourselves and our people to light the path forward. People in the US need to do the same. Who are we? What is our society’s purpose, and what creative efforts will we employ to drive us forward, renewed in our faith in our own power as a people?
The US’s purpose was ugly from the start: “Manifest destiny” was genocide; “Southern heritage” was enslavement. But this nation’s history also contains seeds of resistance and beauty: Immigration is beautiful, public protest is beautiful and freedom is so beautiful. We must renew our commitment to these forms of resistance and liberate the US from the state of siege we have experienced under Trump. We have the creative energy to make the next year more brilliant than the last. I have faith in us.
During Kwanzaa, we ask, “Habari gani?” This Swahili term means, “What’s the word?” Let’s claim our word, not for 2018, but for 2019. Let’s claim a renewed resistance. Kwanzaa’s seven principles can provide the framework for a national progressive strategic plan — one that launches the next round of the resistance in 2019.