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Putting the Zaza in Kwanzaa
Collective Work and Responsibility, Cooperative Economics, & Purpose
Coming in hot and late, in true Colored Peoples fashion, here are some mediations on the holiday of Kwanzaa. Welcome back to Tiny Violences’ next installment in our Kwanzaa Series! Habari Gani?
I love rituals and all that they are meant to serve. Not all rituals are sacred either, most are our daily habits are formed organically and serve the function of being a routine meant to support our survival. Not all of them are so high stakes either. As I’ve come to understand the habitual nature of the many daily routines we make and create (a morning cup of tea, daily journaling, an afternoon doom-scroll, lunar online shopping, etc.) I’ve found more pleasure, excitement, and curiosity in the performance of rituals, that are in the name of something greater. The invocation of acts meant to serve the emotional, social, and spiritual aspects of life feel especially urgent these days. Consider the inscription of racialized-gendered-trans-queerphobic violence on this country’s legacy and the impact it’s had on this hemisphere’s most spirited cultural peoples, what does that do to the ways we internalize joy and enact celebration? Now, in the wake (or afterlife) of the converging epidemics and pandemics; Black folks have to reckon with morbid realities in tandem with state governed genocide. What makes Kwanzaa special and what I’ve observed and embodied about this time is that it feels like an important way for Black people to connect with our shared spiritual sources, opposed to the disenfranchisement that is often marked by the varying hues of our skin.
Day three of the Kwanzaa celebration is all about Collective Work and Responsibility. Ujima: to build and maintain our community together and make our brother's and sister's problems our problems and to solve them together. It is symbolized by the adinkra symbol called the Akoma Ntoaso and is literally the symbol of shared effort and obligation. A Swahili name, with a Ghanian icon. In the ways that Kwanzaa can be opaque in the why of its collaging of many African continental cultures, it’s also a wonderful confluence of histories that can compel those of us in the diaspora to look deeper into the cosmographies that ruled a large portion of the earth’s population before European empire building (aka the deliberate dismantling of indigenous culture). I can see how this ideology became a tenant of Kwanzaa, the work that the Black Panther Party did was grassroots, in many ways the Party systematized and organized the values that were and had been enacted by chosen families in the Black community for hundreds of years in the Americas (shelter, feeding, and protecting those amongst us).
In a 1970 speech, Huey P .Newton, cofounder of the Black Panther Party, the association Kwanzaa founder Karenga was tied to (and ultimately betrayed), was then formalized as “A Letter from Huey to the Revolutionary Brothers and Sisters About the Women’s Liberation and Gay Liberation Movements,” he states: “We haven't said much about the homosexual at all but we must relate to the homosexual movement because it's a real thing. I know through reading, and through my life experience, my observations, that homosexuals are not given freedom and liberty by anyone in this society. Maybe they might be the most oppressed people in this society.” Ronald K. Porter, in the scholarly essay “A Rainbow in Black: The Gay Politics of The Black Panther Party,” writes; the relative dearth of information on this text within black study circles and the passing glance by the LGBTQ historians unfortunately works to obscure not only the historical and theoretical tensions that led to the letter’s creation and the response from the Panthers themselves, but also the pedagogical implications of this story. In other words, the story of how Newton and some Panther members critiqued status quo homophobia raises questions regarding how social movements operates as educative spaces, in which participants develop new understandings of their social conditions and new tactics of agitation. This interrogation, that Angela Y. Davis described as a certain kind of attentiveness to…intersectionality has been conveniently omitted from the many people who work to keep the efforts of that critical time of Black nationalism alive.
I was today years old when I discovered this letter and its subsequent critique, and I’m sharing it today in part for myself but to illuminate how there is so much room for more collective work and responsibility. Our community can benefit from knowing that there was an intentional effort amongst the ranks of the Black Panther Party to begin to dismantle the harmful cultures of homophobia and sexism. They were beginning to examine masculinity, and perhaps the connections of patriarchal violence and systemic white supremacy. In the many waves of Black nationalism that have followed since that little known speech, there has been little done to connect the oppressive realities of those of us who are Black and…(anything but hetero-able-bodied-cis-men) in the mainstream context of that conversation. What would life look like for Trans and Queer folks and for women during the early days of the HIV/AIDS epidemic, and the war on drugs, if there was a move towards intersectional unity amongst Black folks? How would we approach the murder of Transmen and women if we had begun to cultivate a sense of responsibility for all the people in our communities?
The more collective work we do amongst the folks we have access to will be how we can gather a collective mass of responsibility for one another.
In the years since the advent of the homegrown media maker who uses the internet to proliferate ideas, few if any of these so-called neo-Black nationalists have bothered to examine their own phobias and have adopted ideas that were spawned from 19th century eugenicists. In mainstream media we see the most platformed of male voices do the work to undermine the movements they so proudly perform when it’s convenient or stylish. I am thinking about Dave Chappelle, Talib Kwali, Erykah Badu, Common, Kanye and all the dirty backpackers of the early aughts who branded themselves in such a way to be oriented towards Black liberation but are simply just entertainers employing a niche way to differentiate themselves in a marketplace that is notoriously scarce for Black people.
This tangent was brought to you by the point I’m trying to make about Ujima, and it’s that we cannot depend on people who have popularity because of corporate machinations to do the work that is crucial for Black liberation. And the more collective work we do amongst the folks we have access to will be how we can gather a collective mass of responsibility for one another. I lit another red candle on my internal kinara when thinking about the ways my community has showed up for me and how through dialogue we look at, and examine culture, our opinions and the choices we make for ourselves that will likely have some form of impact on Black futurity.
Ok now to the zaza! Cooperative Economics
or C.R.E.A.M. Two interlocking half circles – the Nsibidi symbol of togetherness and family symbolize Ujamaa. To build and maintain our own stores, shops and other businesses and to profit from them together. No, this is not the tricknology that Hov was philosophizing about on Twitter a few months back, this is not Black capitalism. Cooperative economics is the idea of keeping wealth within the community, to quote Billy Paul it’s about letting the dollar circulate. Not just hoarding the money. The grim reality is that because of systemic disenfranchisement, akin to supply chain redlining and the deliberate refusal of the banks that benefitted from our ancestor’s free labor to lend capital, Black folks have been locked away from creating systems where this can happen at a scale where there would be meaningful impact. I try to imagine a world where for example: a Black owned farm, had Black laborers, Black trucking/distribution channels, Black owned supermarkets and were situated in Black communities. This dream is possible but not without a concerted effort by those who have access to wealth and resources who could orchestrate such a thing. Even then, I consider the gross efforts the State makes to terrorize those who attempt to make insular Black supply chains. From Tulsa to MOVE there are always deadly consequences for this kind of Black empowerment. We are contending with real terror.
But still… instead of buying that Ace of Spades for my NYE celebration, I could get some collard greens for all the gatherings we have every year? Does anyone have Jay-Z’s number or email? Would you mind forwarding this paragraph to him? I think we need to workshop this in a twitter circle. For shits and giggles here’s a list of Black owned spirit brands and weed businesses that you can support, if you get festive that way for the upcoming New YearS celebrations. Maybe you can pour a little out for those we have lost, or add an ancestor’s favorite cocktail to the altar.
Today marks the Fifth day of Kwanzaa, Nia. And I cannot even think about this day without thinking about the fine ass actress Nia Long, who has played a purpose driven woman in the iconic films she’s starred in. Shout out to her, and her problematic but equally as fine sister Sommore (an original queen of comedy).
Nia means Purpose and as defined for Kwanzaa more specifically: to make our collective vocation the building and developing of our community in order to restore our people to their traditional greatness. The Official Kwanzaa Website delves a bit deeper into the concept of Collective Vocation: a commitment … to building, developing, and defending our community, its culture and history in order to regain our historical initiative and greatness as a people and add to the good and beauty in the world. The assumption here is that our role in human history has been and remains a key one; that we as an African people share in the great human legacy Africa has given the world. The ancient Egyptian hieroglyph, Nefer, is the symbol used to recognize this day. Nefer has many meanings including: to be good, good, pleasant, beautiful, excellent, well-doing, gracious, happy, pretty, to progress favorably in sickness, to recover…
I am of the mind that Black folks need to gatekeep certain cultural motifs, for my concern, (and I’m not alone here) is that they will be coopted, commodified and then de-co-lored. But in the twenty years or so I’ve seen the bodies of Black women and some Black Transwomen being literally recreated for the aesthetic fantasies of nonblack people – and I’ve come to accept that there is no measure that folks will take to usurp the inheritances of Black peoples. When thinking of a collective vocation, culture is the first to come to mind; when framed as a fluid and variable. Culture is not static and shifts with the needs and inventions of its creators.
Enclosed within the camouflage of Black respectability and it’s politic are all sorts of rules and hierarchies of how we measure culture and what is deemed valuable. Often cultural practices meant to uplift the race are really those that attempt to mimic Eurocentric and white American values. The culture that seems to be born from those of us who are poorer or labeled hood or ghetto are devalued. What I’ve seen is that younger folks are taking appraisal of what is important into their own hands. They understand there’s room for more than the binaries of high and low culture. Chic and crass and cheap and cache can exist all at once at the same time in a cultural milieu. This feels like a horizon for Black folks, and one that should be celebrated on a day like today, the fifth day of Kwanzaa. I hope you take the time today to enjoy the ALL the contributions Black culture has made for the world and how this certainly will continue as long as Black people are here (and we ain’t going nowhere!)
The year is steadily coming to a close and with it, the second installment of our time thinking about the importance of Kwanzaa. Let me know what you’re thinking about of the principles of Ujima, Ujamaa and Nia in the comments or leave me a ❤️🖤💚 to let me know you made it.
See ya soon!