Umoja- Unity

December 30, 2014 at 12:07 am Leave a comment

The first of the Nguzo Saba (7 Principles) of Kwanzaa is Umoja, Unity. The central black candle on the kinara is lit, representing all Black people around the world.  Umoja is about finding commonality and empathy among the diverse cultures and peoples of Africa and the African/Black Diaspora.

The Umoja, unity cup is used to pour libations as offerings to the ancestors. Now that is certainly a tradition I recognize- it is common not only in traditional African cultures, but in European and Asian spiritual traditions as well. I would recommend find a cup or chalice that is of good quality, that is either neutral looking or has African decorative motifs. Using a family heirloom that can serve as a vessel would also be suitable. For the libations, use water or fruit juice. If your ancestry is only African simply by virtue of being human, honor historic or more recently deceased people of African descent, and another suggestion is you can honor Mitochondrial Eve, a woman who lived in or near Ethiopia about 200,000 years ago that biologists say all current humans are descended from.

Here in the Twin Cities, we have many immigrants from Ethiopia, Somalia, Liberia, Ghana and other lands, people from Jamaica, Haiti and other countries in the Caribbean as well as folks whose families came to this continent longer ago than some of my ancestors did. Since their connection to Africa is rather distant, and it’s hard to tell which nations they are descended from (though modern DNA tests make that somewhat easier) many prefer to call themselves Black or Black American rather than African-American.

My father, a former NAACP activist, fastidiously uses the label African-American, but after attending a mostly African-American high school, it seems like an out-of-place white liberal affectation than an authentic identity. Immigrants from various lands identify with the country they are from- often even more so the nation (tribe) since the borders drawn up by colonial European powers completely disregarded cultural territories. So with this cultural gap in experience between the long-time American-dwelling descendants of slaves and more recent refugees and seekers of economic opportunity- do they have anything more in common than any other group of native-born and non-native-born Americans? I can’t really say, since I belong to neither group.

But part of my interest in Kwanzaa is due to also being a member of a diasporan people- the Irish and the Scottish, or the Celtic peoples more broadly. Though I have not yet traveled back to the Isles, I suspect my experience will be in some respects similar to the lady in the article above writing of her travels to Kenya- a feeling of home-coming, yet feeling like that sense of belonging should be there more than it actually is. I know Europeans and people of many other lands often roll their eyes at visiting Americans and Canadians who proudly recite a list of fractions of ethnic ancestry that they claim- a quarter Greek, an eighth Norwegian, another quarter Scottish. They don’t care- we’re just Americans! Upon hearing that we crumple, wondering what we can claim as our own. Whether kidnapped and sold as slaves, dumped as the unwanted poor and colonized bastards of Europe, indentured servant, sharecropper or factory worker alike, now we awkwardly apologize for our presence come each Columbus Day or stubbornly insist on a  fable of melting pots and rugged individualism.

I think when a diasporan and a native son or daughter can both find humility in themselves and admit that their experiences and perceptions of their culture are not the only valid ones, and that they are open to other ways of seeing, hearing, tasting, worshiping, singing and dancing, then we will find Umoja.

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Entry filed under: Concepts & Definitions. Tags: , , , , , , , , .

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