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  • Dr.Obari Cartman

Why #BlackLivesMatter needs Kwanzaa

Comparisons between the Black Lives Matter movement and the Civil Rights movement have been increasing and appropriate. The marching, lynching, boycotts, state surveillance of young activists, and ideological squabbles have been as familiar as grandma’s pudding, or her rifle, depending on who your grandma was.

I used to be drawn to the Black Power movement more than Civil Rights. These days I’m more interested in the bridges between them. I appreciate how the Black Lives Matter movement has re-popularized conversations about race, privilege and structural inequities. It’s missing something though. The problem with race is the problem of definition. To the extent that race is a sociopolitical construct, conversations about it are influenced by those with sociopolitical power. So Black Lives Matter feels like it’s always behind the 8 ball, always reacting. The very assertion that our life matters is a response to non-Blacks suggesting the contrary.

With all due respect, Kwanzaa can come off a little corny. The candles, kente kufi and passing around a unity cup is a hard sale for adults who didn’t grow up with it. And there’s no escaping the baggage of its creator, but this is so much bigger than him we don't even have to say his name. When I hear young activists saying “ashe” after they speak at protests I feel like there’s some yearning to connect the movement with more than police and policy. We all have a vague sense that we’ve been lied to, disconnected from something, we feel a certain pull towards Africa, but we’ve gotten too smart to trust info about authentic African culture that also fits our progressive leanings. Questions about race compare Black to others. Questions about culture are just for us. The more we focus on us, build and strengthen us, we’ll be less concerned about what others think or do. And when we do decide to respond to them we will do so from a position of increased power and clarity.

Spending some time with “who are we?” and “what are our cultural values?” is especially important for so called African-Americans. We think it's a deficit because we can’t recall a specific language like Mexicans, or have cultural centers in major cities like Chinese, or identify with an ethnic group like continental Africans. But we’re approaching it wrong. The mixing of bloodlines through the traumas of the maafa did not leave us with no connection to none of Africa. Instead it allows us access to all of it. We merged into one on those torture ships, cotton and tobacco fields. Our survival depended on it. Our tribe is pan-African. Our homeland is diaspora.

Sure Swahili is an arbitrary language to choose, but any of them would be for most of us. Sure he just picked 7 principles that he liked and applied them to a whole continent of people. Sure there’s some romanticization of African culture. But we’ve had to find ways to rationalize all kinds of cultural realities seeking worthwhile benefit. How many Black people do you know that celebrate St. Patrick’s day? Or Cinco de Mayo? Or speak English. Or have a passport, drivers license or social security number? Or still carry their oppressor’s family name?

The advantage of Kwanzaa is that it’s value based. The whole point is to reflect on principles that could be useful toward our collective liberation. To debrief with family and friends about gains and losses. To set intentions for the upcoming year. And if there’s been work done, to celebrate that. If there hasn’t been, to figure out why. It sounds so simple, why don’t people celebrate it? Most just don’t know what it is, or think it conflicts with Christmas. I also hear people that just have an aversion to the language. Kujichagulia is too cumbersome in their mouth, even if they can pronounce Schwarzenegger. Attempting to use the language is important though, it makes the concept more potent. We all know what you mean when you saw “creativity” but when you say “Kuumba” it adds a dimension of resistance. It transcends time and space to connect us with our ancestors who uttered the same word. We use English for convenience, but there’s no reason to only pass that adaptation down to our children.

Let me give an example of why I think Kwanzaa is useful. If the focus is on the seven principles (Nguzo Saba) it can provide structure for some of the critical conversations we need in our movement work. These are my interpretation of the principles, which I’m sharing instead of the official definitions to demonstrate how Kwanzaa can be used as framework, with the flexibility to meet specific needs of our families, organizations and communities.

Umoja (Unity): Each of my 8 siblings have different tastes in music, food, style, religion. We disagree about politics, culture and economics. We still have obligations to each other and are all more powerful because of it. I have that same approach for all Black people.

Kujichagulia (Self-Determination): We get excited when the state closes 50 schools in our community because it remind us of our ability to educate our own children.

Ujima (Collective Work and Responsibility): All hands on deck – doctors, lawyers, construction workers, engineers, computer scientists, etc. Instead of asking children what they wanna be when they grow up, and teaching them to go to school to get a job, we start asking: what are your talents and how can they applied to our liberation?

Ujamaa (Cooperative Economics): Spend with us first always, unless you absolutely cannot. Not unless you don’t feel like driving the extra 12 minutes.

Nia (Purpose): There’s no such thing as not fulfilling a purpose. Everything you do serves someone. There’s a meeting happening right now with folks trying to determine how they can use your gifts, energy and labor.

Kuumba (Creativity): Art is one of the most powerful forces on the planet. It can teach, entertain, and motivate. It can be a weapon and it can heal.

Imani (Faith): Truth doesn’t require belief. Connecting to something bigger whether it’s nature, your family ancestors or a God idea, is for you to stay focused and hopeful.

Kwanzaa is our opportunity to coalesce our power. It’s a focal point. It’s the first step towards a collective declaration of independence. It’s not gonna save us though, it’s just one small piece in a constellation of necessary pieces. It’s a declaration of your life mattering that doesn’t beg someone else to be convinced. There’s a bunch of good reasons not to celebrate it, but none of them are better than the possibility that our children would collectively benefit from us all embracing it.

~Dr. Cartman is the author of a new book that teaches young men about culture, family, purpose, and manhood. Click below to purchase:

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