Kujichagulia (Self-Determination) - To define ourselves, name ourselves, create for ourselves and speak for ourselves
At first blush, this most fun to pronounce Kwanza theme sounds not only great, but so, dare I say, so American. I/we do whatever we want; no one determines our destiny but us! In the land of the free, who could be against that?
What you scratch the surface though, this day seems most at odds with the zeitgeist of both contemporary black America, and the nation as a whole.
Let’s start with small but significant concession to the aptness of the concept: certainly, Barack (or That [Black] One, as McCain called him) has a rise to the Presidency represents a rise to prominence like few others in Presidential history. His rise to the verge of the Presidency was not assisted by family connections (like Kennedy), a celebrity career (like Reagan), a long history of collecting favors at the national level (like LBJ), or being plucked from the back bench in an emergency (like Ford). Certainly, TBO benefitted from some fortuitous circumstances (as well as some savvy and hardball decision making) to rise to prominence statewide, but essentially his story is one of a person willing themselves to success through a great deal of moxie, to use a really old-timey word.
And as I have said on the radio, one challenge that his rise creates for black folks is readjusting our definition of how institutional racism functions, given that we can no longer say “The nation would never elect a black president.” (Shoot, I still know some black folks who are waiting to The Man to do something to keep TBO out of office.) It is time that we update our narrative, particularly the one that we tell the next generation.
As the Temptations said about Cloud 9, “You can be what you want to be.” Self-determination, indeed.
All this I will concede, but it seems that the essence of Kujichagulia is about group self-determination. It’s about the independence and agency of a group of people to define their own goals and to achieve them. And here is where the concept seems somewhat out of step with today.
For Black Folks, TBO’s election is about the way that our tremendous efforts at registering voters and turning them out combined with efforts in other communities to create an historic result. It’s all about the coalitions, baby. And it’s not just me saying that.
I recently took the electronic keypads I love to use in speeches to a social event with some prominent black men, and persuaded the organizers to let me engage a group of people around some impromptu questions; one of the questions was about the primary lesson of the election. By a significant margin, the group said the primary lesson was the importance of multi-racial coalitions.
And with all this talk of a post-racial America (a bogus but common concept, I am afraid), black folks doin’ it for themselves does not seem the current focus.
I am certainly not saying that we have ushered in a permanent ere of cooperation across racial lines. I am saying though that this historical moment seems to fundamentally not about black folks gathering in their own private corner and sorting out what they want, separate from everyone else.
The Self Determination ethos seems noticeably off at the national level as well. One could easily argue that the reason that folks around the world were jubilant on November 5 is because we are ushering out the president who has most fetishized American Self-Determination. As Bush 43 told us over and over, the US was going to do what it wanted, regardless of what others thought.
TBO represents a return to a more mindset more about America cooperating with other folks. In Barack’s own words on the Fareed Zakaria GPS show, he said his foreign policy will be more like the approach of Bush 41.
Even at home, with an economic collapse largely created by unfettered greed, government officials siding with workers doing sit ins to collect back pay, and calls for controls on CEO pay in exchange for government bailouts, there is a new wind blowing.
It could be said that “The era of Big Selfishness” is over. Seems fitting that this new time might be brought in by the President who is identified with a group whose history of oppression has meant they have always had to think about welfare of the group.
So with Barack saying “it's all about the coalitions, baby,” the idea of self-determination seems a lot less resonant than the other Kwanza themes.
So with all apologies to Mr. Karenga (inventor of Kwanza), the concept of self-determination seems a little out of step these days.
But I still love saying Kujichagulia.
Even more fun is the private joke to myself when teaching little kids to say it by sounding out “coochie-chocolate-Leah”.
Who would be against that?
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