Let’s get something cleared up right now. Kwanzaa is not a religious or political holiday and can be celebrated by any culture that believes in its principles. “Kwanza” is Swahili for “First Fruits” and is comprised of “seven principles” called the “Nguzo Saba” in this African language. Swahili is used by over 60 million especially in Eastern Africa, but it serves as the official language of five nations: Tanzania, Kenya, Uganda, the Comoros and the Democratic Republic of the Congo. When Dr. Maulana Karenga established this celebration here in 1966, he added an “a” to the end of “Kwanza” to stand for the African-American culture being highlighted. The seven principles of “Kwanzaa” are Unity, Self-Determination, Collective Work & Responsibility, Cooperative Economics, Purpose, Creativity and Faith. These principles are seen as key in reinforcing family, community and culture. Giving of your “first fruits”, is giving your best!
As we focus on the first day of Kwanzaa, traditionally the day after Christmas but can be celebrated anytime, we practice its principle of Umoja which is Swahili for UNITY! “Unity is both a principle and practice of togetherness in all things good and of mutual benefit. It is a principled and harmonious togetherness not simply a being together,” as stated on Prema’s Kwanzaa site.
An important component of unity, is as Queen of Soul, Aretha Franklin sang, R-E-S-P-E-C-T! I believe that we must:
- Respect ourselves: We must carry ourselves in a way that show we honor that which we claim to value especially our family, our culture and our God or higher power, regardless of religion. We must also treat our minds and bodies with the discipline that promotes health, education, sobriety and chastity. Better educating our children on saying no to drugs at all costs, is the priority of the day! At the end of the day, we must seek or provide healing as needed to set examples of sobriety in our families and communities.
- Respect others: We shouldn’t seek honor by ruling negatively with gold, but by honoring the Golden Rule of treating others as we positively want to be treated.
- Respect peace: We must seek peaceful ways to resolve our conflicts. Violence is destroying our communities! “Tragically, more than 38,000 people died by suicide in the United States in 2010. Homicide claimed another 16,000 people,” according to the Center for Disease Control and Prevention. In addition to respecting current life we must respect the power of producing life. Avoiding sex outside of marriage is important to reduce teen pregnancies and the many challenges that face many, single parent families.
- Respect property: We must not vandalize others property or do graffiti on them without consent of owners. Graffiti done constructively can be a positive art form of Kuumba or creativity. We also must care for our communities and not use their streets as wastelands. Littering is something we can easily change while also helping the environment.
- Respect elders: We must learn to listen to what many senior citizens have to say especially regarding their experiences and lessons learned in life. This doesn’t only make them feel good but it can do you some good to learn from them without repeating some of their mistakes. Listening to them can help you to find solutions to problems they discovered and you haven’t.
- Respect laws: We must not only honor the laws of the land but also God’s laws and relationships or those of your higher power. It is important to pray for strength to “resist temptation” to break His laws, and yes, everyone will be tempted in some way.
- Respect “teamship”: It’s important to realize that it is not just “about us”. We must appreciate the contributions of others as well as taking action to fulfill our Nia or purpose. We must also be able to cordially work outside of our “cliques” and comfort zones. This relates to other principles of Kwanzaa such as Ujima (Collective work and Responsibility) and Ujamaa (Cooperative Economics).
- Respect history: We are steeped in a rich history of heroes and “sheroes” who overcame overwhelming obstacles with faith and dignity. Once, while worshipping at Trinity United Church of Christ in Chicago, I heard Pastor Jeremiah Wright, Ph.D. speak of Sankofa. Sankofa is derived from West Africa’s Akan people and means to remember your past. Going forward sometimes means going backward to learn and draw strength.
Part of unity is also not allowing petty differences prevent you from working together or supporting each other positive outreach. Too often, things like jealousy and various forms of prejudice, don’t show “respect for others” and hinder our abilities to focus on the important work before us. I believe some are so afraid that others might outshine them or might gain influence that they themselves seek. Long-term unity likely will not be achieved with this kind of fear as a guide. I’d rather be a part of a blessing than to try to prevent someone from being blessed. Jealousy or envy can be very destructive and can exist in your community, your school, your workplace, and yes, in your family, your church and even in your heart. According to DifferenceBetween.com, “Jealousy results due to the intolerance in connection with the wealth, position, achievement, status and the like of another person.” Positive criticism shared directly can be helpful. But people who are jealous often try to turn others against the person of whom they are jealous and not support their causes and constantly cast “excessively critical” eyes toward them. You might have seen some of this play out in today’s politics as well. This might also be referred to in some arenas as “hating”. From my vantage point, jealousy or envy can also cause some whom you thought were supporters to gravitate to those who appear not to be for you, as that can make them feel superior. Wikipedia says, ” Envy is best defined as a resentful emotion that “occurs when a person lacks another’s (perceived) superior quality, achievement or possession and wishes that the other lacked it.” According to authors, Parrot and Smith, “Envy occurs when someone obtains something another lacks, whereas jealousy occurs when someone is fearful of losing something”. But we must not let others or other things decide for us who we are or who we will support which is the second principle of Kwanzaa, kujichagulia or self-determination! We must stand up for what is right even if it’s our family, friends or church that is cosigning such behavior by not speaking against it!
On this day of Unity, the first candle is lit – which is black, standing for the people, and is in the center of the kinara or candle holder. The lit Mishumaa Saba or candles symbolize the sun’s power. Each day, a candle is lit for that day’s principle, then the prior candles, initially starting with the red candles on the left for our struggle, followed by the green for hope for future growth. Respect and Unity often come after much struggling, but we must remain hopeful and work diligently toward achieving this discipline in Imani or faith. There can be other important components of unity, but mastering the art of “respect” is a powerful step toward creating unity in our lives! It creates a light that shines like the sun. Surely we’ll make mistakes. But we must grow from those mistakes and do better. Solidarity – mutual agreement and support, harmonies of interests and responsibilities – can’t be achieved without having some discipline that shows we respect these important areas of our lives. It is our commitment to this discipline that promotes unity and prosperity. As stated by Mattie Stepanek, a poet and peace advocate who died a teen, “Unity is strength… when there is teamwork and collaboration, wonderful things can be achieved.” As we say in PTA, TEAM – Together Each Achieves More!