Kwanzaa Reflections – Umoja

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By roxymanning

As the year comes to a close, I’ve decided to share a little of my family’s tradition. When my children were born, I wanted to be choiceful about the holidays we celebrated. In addition to acknowledging the traditional holidays observed in our families of origin, we wanted to find a way to mark each year, to harvest our learnings and have it guide us as each new cycle of the earth begins. We wanted to bring intentionality and reflection into our life. We wanted to honor each of our unique voices and dreams while celebrating and contributing to the threads that weave families, friends and communities together. An Afro-Caribbean person raising bi-racial children, I felt the thrill of resonance when I read about Kwanzaa. The seven principles spoke to me – captured the sense of pride, the joy in our community, the honoring of interdependence and self-reliance, the sheer perseverance and hope of people across the African diaspora.

This year, I realized how much, seemingly more than ever before, I needed to ground in the principles of Kwanzaa. In addition to the severing of community connections the pandemic have caused, we in the US (and around the world) have been confronting our ongoing struggle with anti-Blackness and the impact of generations of systemic inequities. Since Breonna Taylor’s and George Floyd’s murders, at least 11 other Black people were killed by police in the US this year. Andre Maurice Hill died on December 23 in Columbus, OH this month. The CDC reports Native American, Black and Latino folks in this country are 2.6 – 2.8 times more likely to die of COVID than white folks in the US.

There’s so much I can write about these facts. So much grief and rage and fear and longing has been swirling in my body for most of this year. As I sit with those emotions, I draw strength from the generations of Black ancestors who have survived. For the folks who dreamt of what is possible. Sitting in their strength, I will write each day as I reflect on the Nguzo Saba (the seven principles) of Kwanzaa.

Reflections on Umoja

Today, December 26, is the first day of Kwanzaa. The traditional greeting, Habari Gani, means “What’s the News?” And the traditional response is the principle of the day. Today’s principle is Umoja. Umoja — unity, togetherness — can occur on many levels. We can consider togetherness with our families, across generations, throughout our neighborhoods and communities, with people of African descent worldwide.

When I reflect on unity, I realize it needs to start from within. So much of my sense of self has been impacted by the many messages I’ve internalized throughout the years. Who am I? What do I stand for? How has decades of messages directed towards this Black body from a young age, saying, “You’re not smart enough, fun enough, beautiful enough, good enough” impacted my sense of belonging, my capacity to see my unity with others? This year, I commit to challenging these internalized beliefs that prevent me from trusting my connection with others.

And as I look outward, I realize how active I must be to create the unity I long for. Unity is, for me, not a passive thing that exists or doesn’t exist between me and any individual or community. It is something that I create. I create unity when I own the stereotypes about Black people and so many others that burrowed into my subconscious and actively challenge them so that I can see each person in front of me as an individual. When I notice who I call on when I teach; who I turn away from. When I ask myself who I’m being impatient with. When I question the qualities that all of my cherished friends display, asking if and how they have been shaped by dominant culture, and who, not having those qualities, is not in my inner circle.

I can take steps for unity in my world when I invite myself to connect to the elders and youth in my circle. It’s easy to move away from them – to let the quiet voice that says I have nothing to contribute prevent me from just showing up. Instead, I can risk reaching out through my vulnerability to just be present. To listen, to witness, to care.

I can create unity in my community when I witness the many things that can remain hidden without effort. When I reach out past the bubble that many people have helped weave around me by supporting my education, career, skills. A bubble that makes it tragically possible not to see the struggles of those with less resources, less support, less hope. And when I reach out, I can do so not just as a passive witness, but instead seek to perceive what is needed and take steps to contribute. Unity can develop when I move away from the emphasis on independence, on a solitary belief, reliance and pride that one’s accomplishments arise solely from our own abilities. Instead, I can celebrate with gratitude how I’ve been uplifted by so many people believing in and supporting me. Then I can actively find ways to connect those threads of support and belief reaching from them to me on to my Black siblings, mothers, fathers, grandparents, children – to the many others of my community. When I do that, I create unity.

What aspects of unity are important to you? What can you do to build unity, starting now, despite how separate we feel in a pandemic? What can you do to dismantle the structures that keep you separate, afraid, unable to see yourself in another person?  What can you do to celebrate and support unity in members of the African diaspora, however you identify?

Happy Kwanzaa,

PS – read the annual message from the founder of Kwanzaa, Dr. Maulana Karenga or visit the official Kwanzaa website to learn more about Kwanzaa.

Read my reflections for the 7 days of Kwanzaa
Day 1: Umoja – Unity
Day 2: Kujichagulia – Self Determination
Day 3: Ujima – Collective Work & Responsibility
Day 4: Ujaqmaa – Cooperative Economics
Day 5: Nia – Purpose
Day 6: Kuumba – Creativity
Day 7: Imani – Faith