Note: I originally wrote this piece for Mutha Magazine, but they aren’t going to publish it there until Kwanzaa of 2014. Michelle Tea, the editor of that awesome site, assures me she doesn’t care if I preview it here. So here you go.
I’ve never really thought about Kwanzaa much before. But this year, as the queer white mother of a twenty month old African-American boy, I’ve found myself seeking out information. I want not to appropriate a holiday which was not mine growing up, but learn about a holiday designed to celebrate people who look like my son, who have my son’s ethnic heritage. It’s a fine line, and I’m doing my best not to cross it.
The first principle of Kwanzaa is “umoja” which means “unity.” Immediately my first thought was of my union organizing days, Unity is another word for solidarity, the idea that we are all stronger when we stand together. But how do we stand with people who want to push us away? What if we need to stand with them, or near them at least, even if they reject us? I’m thinking about this as I look at the flyer for Kwanzaa events in my town, and one the last night, the only day with a time that is good for toddlers, says “all Afrikan/people of color space.” Obviously our toddler can’t go alone, so I guess we’ll go another night. Will he want to go to such spaces without us when he’s older? I need to be a part of the African-American community for his sake, but in some ways I never will be.
The second principle of Kwanzaa is Kujichagulia, or “self-determination.” According to Nguzo Saba, this is defined as the ability “to define ourselves, name ourselves, create for ourselves and speak for ourselves.” Man, this is this an important one in ways I can only imagine now, but will become more and more real for my son as he moves through the world. What will it mean for him to have two moms, two white parents, to be adopted? There’s so much the world is already projecting onto him as a man, as a black boy, as an adoptee, as a southerner by birth, as the child of queers. I want to shield him from it and tell the world to fuck off, he will be who he wants to be and name himself as he chooses, if he chooses, when he’s ready. But there’s a great line of advice in the kids’ book I picks up recently called Only One You: “Blend in when you need to, but stand out when you have the chance.” Both are equally important and valid.
The third principle of Kwanzaa is Ujima, which means “collective work and responsibility.” One blogger I found pointed out that “collective responsibility works only when each member of the collective assumes responsibility as individuals. Only then will the community benefit from the efforts of all.” And there’s the problem. This is beautiful principle but is it ever even remotely attainable? Or do some people just continue to shoulder the load while others take advantage of them? My cynical side wants to say that this is counter to human nature, but the rest of me is constantly wanting to tell the cynical side of me to shut up.
The fourth principle for Kwanzaa is Ujamaa, or “cooperative economics.” What’s amazing about this is that Kwanzaa was founded in 1966 by Maulana Karenga. I’m not sure most contemporary white folk had ever heard of the idea of cooperative economics before Mohammad Yunus and Kiva. Of course, there’s an important difference – Ujamaa emphasizes the importance of having black-owned businesses, whereas Kiva is international. But the way I use Kiva is to support woman-owned businesses, so that’s the feminist equivalent of Ujamaa. And Mohammad Yunus originally conceived of his cooperative economics as a way to lift his nation of Bangladesh. As a white parent of a black son, this reminds me to expose my son to black-owned businesses and black-made products, and encouraged the innovator and entrepreneur inside him as he gets older.
The fifth principle of Kwanzaa is Nia, or “purpose.” This word means so many things, especially in this context, but as a white parent of and adoptive child, I am mostly aware of what it doesn’t mean: my family’s purpose doesn’t mean we’ve rescued or saved our son. It doesn’t mean we can afford to be colorblind because we’ve adopted transracially. And just because he will grow up with some of the privileges of having white, middle class parents doesn’t mean that as soon as he is out there in the world as an adult, without us around, he won’t be perceived as a young black man, just like Barack Obama or Trayvon Martin.
The sixth principle of Kwanzaa is Kuumba, or “creativity.” As a poet, fiction writer, and playwright, as well as an expressive arts therapist by profession, this is a concept near and dear to my heart. But the direct meaning and interpretation of creativity in the context of Kwanzaa is also very much in line with my beliefs: making the world more beautiful and more liveable through art and other creative acts. It’s why I love murals, graffiti, and other public art so much.
The seventh principle of Kwanzaa is Imani, or “faith.” For our family, this is grounded in the Jewish faith. And I’ll leave you with an anecdote about being a transracial, queer Jewish family – a few Friday afternoons ago, my not-yet-Jewish spouse (that’s another story entirely) was picking up challah at the Orthodox-owned bakery. My son walks in and sees all the challah loaves and starts saying excitedly “Challah! Challah!” It took the staff by surprise, but there was no denying it – despite your preconceived assumptions about what Jews look like, he’s a Jewish kid. And he’s got faith in challah. What do I have faith in? On my good days, the process. As in, trusting the process, trusting that if I keep making the best decisions I can, one step at a time, things will turn out OK. But some days, it’s easier to have faith in challah, which when you think about it, is kind of the point of religious ritual.