jakebe: (Mythology)
Happy New Year, everyone! Aren't you glad that words typed on a scream can't shout? I sincerely hope that this first day of a brand new year is a great one, and that you are able to spend it doing exactly what you want to be doing -- whether that's recovering from last night's festivities, getting a jump-start on your New Year's Resolutions, or anything in between.
This last day of Kwanzaa is the first day of 2016, and it is meant to be spent in quiet reflection and meditation. We are supposed to ask the three questions of Kawaida, what we tackled when we spoke about Kujichagulia. Who am I? Am I really what I say I am? Am I all that I ought to be?
Imani, or Faith, is not necessarily a religious faith -- it is a belief with all our hearts in ourselves, our people, our parents, teachers and ancestors, our communities and the righteousness and eventual victory of our struggle. It is the belief that despite our flaws and mistakes, that we can achieve greatness in ourselves and our communities; that the problems we face aren't impossible to overcome; that by applying the Seven Principles to our lives every day will see us through.
One of the dangers of being an idealist is burning out on hope. When I look at the shape of the world today, it's really easy to do. We've known about the dangers of greenhouse gasses since the 1960s and scientists have been sounding alarms about the effects of climate change since the 1980s, but we still have to go around in circles about whether or not it's a real thing and the worth of adopting more environmentally-friendly policies that reduce our reliance on fossil fuels -- a non-renewable resource that will likely run out within our lifetimes. We must still remind people what happens when fear creeps its way into the core of our politics and way of life; how it makes us ugly, intolerant, even insane as a society. We must engage with illogical mental and philosophical gymnastics just to prove that the way racial, religious and other minorities are treated in this country is not OK -- and in fact runs counter to the tenets of Christianity and our Constitution. We are still debating issues that have the potential to tear our civilization apart, pushing us past the time for immediate action.
When I think about where we are as a society and the progress we're likely to make within the next generation, it's easy for me to despair. I don't think we'll be able to get our act together in time; I think even if things can get better, they're far more likely to get worse. I feel that my purpose, to connect people and promote and practice compassion, is simply putting a finger in a dyke that is failing. There are so many problems in the world, and so little being done about them. It feels hopeless.
Imani is our bulwark against that fatalism. It starts with ourselves, believing that we can change our thoughts and behavior to become the best version of who we are. We can take that progress to our communities, our fellow human beings, and band together to make our societies the best version of what they are. Our community can then rise up and be a beacon of light, or progress and greatness, that others can use as encouragement to continue the work that they're doing. Eventually, somehow, the world becomes a better place -- a kinder, more compassionate place; a just and equitable place; a sustainable, respectful, responsible place. But not until each and every one of us takes on the work to become kinder, compassionate, just, equitable, respectful and responsible people.
This is why we must ask ourselves who we are, whether or not we really are who we say we are, and whether we're living up to the fullness of our potential. Because the immense problems facing us won't be solved until we start working on us.
I may not have faith in the world, but I have faith in myself and my values. That will have to be enough for now; as I bring my progress to my community, I will see the strides taken by everyone around me; I will see how our self-improvement contributes to the improvement of my people; and I will see how the improvement of my people makes the world at large a better place. Think globally; act locally.
I have spent several days contemplating these Seven Principles and how they apply to my situation. Now, as I face a new year, it is time to put those principles to action. Today, I will contemplate how to start that process, how to continue it, how to encourage it in everyone I see.
Happy Kwanzaa, everyone. Happy New Year. Let's work together to make 2016 a great one.
jakebe: (Mythology)
2015 has been an amazing year for me in a lot of different ways, but one of my absolute favorites is learning about the wonderful people who are putting themselves out there with their stories. This year I got to meet Nora Jemisin (author of "The Hundred Thousand Kingdoms") at Writers With Drinks in San Francisco; I saw "Danger Word", a short film put together by Tananarive Due at WorldCon -- and I got to speak with her for a long time about black horror, writing and storytelling; I learned about Afro-Futurism and its history from Ajani Brown at WorldCon as well; I was introduced to Mark Oshiro, Arthur Chu, Mary Anne Mohanraj, Troy Wiggins, K. Tempest Bradford, Daniel Jose Older, Ta-Nehisi Coates, G. Willow Wilson and so many others who are shaping the discourse of what it means to be a minority in the science-fiction and fantasy space. There is a community of people out there working hard to show the world the power of a distinctive voice. It really has been amazing to discover this; it's instituted a shift in my thinking about what I can do with my own writing, what I should be doing.
The principle we focus on today, the sixth day of Kwanzaa, is Kuumba or Creativity. I took this to mean that today we celebrate the different perspectives we have in viewing the world and how that translates to our stories, which I can totally get behind. Telling stories to make sense of our environment is one of the oldest and best things we do as humans, and I don't think that its given the proper appreciation.
However, in researching up a bit on the theme for today, Kuumba can also mean "continuous improvement". It's not enough to just "get by", or to "do all right". We must keep striving for the ideals we set for ourselves -- there's always a purer, uncomplicated expression of it that we can aim for. Kuumba is having the insight to see the many different facets of Nia; to see the shapes and sides it can inhabit. How can we stretch our purpose even further to be better people, to encourage our communities to be better?
Ryan and I watched the final few episodes of "How I Met Your Mother" yesterday, and there was an exchange that blew me away. One of the characters is having a crisis about what to do in life, and someone asks her what she wants her life to be about. She says, "I want to end poverty," and her friend says "Well, every choice you make in life should be in service to that." It's such a simple idea, so powerful, but so incredibly difficult.
Applied to myself, I have to think about how every decision I make serves my purpose -- to connect people to each other, to make them feel more comfortable with their world, to be OK with the fact that change is constant and they can weather it. How do my stories serve that purpose? How do my blog entries? How can I creatively refine my actions to make sure they achieve that?
My favorite protagonists in stories are the paladins -- not the people who sit on a mountain and reflect upon some ideal without having to make the attempt to engage it in the real world, but the people who come down off that mountain, who struggle to be the living embodiment of those ideals, who have to find ways to uphold it in the complicated and messy struggle of life. I believe that being an idealist means becoming intimately connected with failure. We're imperfect creatures moving through an imperfect world, giving ourselves over to a perfect idea that we'll never attain. But the struggle to achieve it means that we accomplish amazing things in the meantime.
Creativity is about so much more than telling stories, but that's one of my favorite expressions of it. It requires creativity to make it through life, simply to improve yourself when there are restrictions and road-blocks in front of you. Creativity is one of the best expressions of intelligence, making connections that aren't readily apparent, improving our understanding of life by viewing it from a radically different perspective. Creativity is a requirement for empathy; you can't put yourself in someone else's shoes without it.
It allows us to take ancient lessons and apply them to modern, more complicated times. It allows us to replace the lessons that don't work anymore because our understanding of the world has changed so much. It allows us to accept the tragedies in life with the hope that we can move past them and become better people. It makes us better thinkers, more compassionate people, more connected and sensitive to what's around us.
Over the next year, I will try to strengthen my creativity -- I will do my best to find creative ways to deal with the challenges in front of me, and to deal with people I might find challenging as well. I want to live and breathe the stories I create, and the stories I take in. I will use my creativity to sharpen my purpose, to make my actions precise and efficient, to trim the fat in my life. I will use my creativity to make myself lean, powerful and focused.
I would just like to thank all of you for reading these essays this week; your response has been amazing and much appreciated. I was very nervous about tackling this -- Kwanzaa does not have the best reputation among the people who know about it at all, and while I really wanted to make this holiday my own I was also sensitive of the history it comes with and the possibility that I wouldn't understand or explain the principles well at all. This has been a wonderful learning process, and I'm so glad we got to go through it together.
Have a joyous Kwanzaa today, folks, and a wonderful New Year. I'll check in with all of you tomorrow -- probably after I've recovered from my hangover!
jakebe: (Mythology)
Why are we here? The answer to that question depends on who you are and what you believe. Many people believe that we're here to reflect the glory of God and praise His creation; there are a lot of different ways to do that, but if it leads you to a more positive and compassionate life that's a good thing. Others believe that there isn't a purpose to life; we're here to survive long enough to pass on our genes, make the human race stronger in the next generation, and that's it. Again -- if it leads you to a more positive and compassionate life, more power to you.
Personally, I believe there's no inherent purpose to life, no grand design. But far from being a depressing realization, I find it's actually liberating and exciting. Because that means we get to make our own, tailor-made to our temperament and experience. We can decide how we will spend our lives, what we want to leave behind as our legacy, and what we'll be remembered for. The objective purpose of life is to find our own purpose, and once having done that, work towards it to the best of our ability.
The principle we're focusing on today, the fifth day of Kwanzaa, is Nia or Purpose. According to Dr. Maulana Karenga, this means "to make our collective vocation the building and developing of our community in order to restore our people to their traditional greatness." That's a concept I can get behind, actually -- how awesome would it be to lift African civilization and the African diaspora to great renown? How great would it be for our culture to be known the world over as the most advanced, responsible and utopian in human history? The more I think about it, the more I would love to see more stories featuring Black Panther's Wakanda -- an Afrocentric culture that has dedicated itself to achieving as much as possible.
We don't have many stories like that, in fiction or in real life. Positive steps towards uplifting our communities aren't reported very often; peaceful protests, community clean-up initiatives, organized benefits don't get the same kind of air time that disruptive things do. In America, stories featuring black people far too often revolve around death and poverty. In Africa, all we know of the continent is sickness, war, famine and death. We think of it as the continent of the Four Horsemen, a hellish landscape where there is never enough to eat and mortality is a daily fact of life.
Chimamana Ngozi Adichie tells us about the danger of a single story here. She writes about an Africa most people in the West never see, and encourages us to think about the people and the continent in a more holistic way. Yes, there are warlords and corruption, famine and sickness, but there are also people who are doing everything they can to make their world better. There are thinkers and creative people; friendly, hard-working dreamers; people who are proud of their community, tribe, country and continent. Africa is an immense place. It is diverse, wonderful, and so much more than most of us know.
The purpose I've found in life is to encourage people to become more connected with the world around them, more accepting of their fellow human beings, more comfortable with change and differences. What I want more than anything is to initiate and continue dialogues that allow us to know each other better, foster empathy that lets us step outside of our own experience to genuinely see things from another perspective. I want to understand you. And I want you to understand people like me. Humanity is a social species, and we are at our best when we come together for a common purpose.
So much about the black experience -- and the human experience -- is about alienation and disenfranchisement. The most dangerous thing I see about our future is giving ourselves over to apathy and disconnection, this idea that "as long as I've got mine, that's all that matters." We do not exist alone. We exist inextricably connected to an immense and complicated framework of socio-political, environmental and interpersonal factors. We are affected by the actions of our fellow man. Everything we do affects someone else.
A lot of us who have grown up being bullied or ostracized internalize the idea that we don't matter. We grow up really believing we're alone, and that it's entirely possible no one would miss us if we disappeared. We think that the consequences of our actions, such as they are, are ours alone and no one else has to worry about them. We feel so powerless and small, and can't possibly understand how each and every one of us has the power to shape our world -- and the responsibility to use that power wisely.
My purpose is to use that power to the most positive end I can manage. I'm still learning the full shape and force of it, and I'm still learning the limits of it. I still need to learn how to use it responsibly. But that's the thrust of my existence; I have my entire life to learn this. And I'm genuinely excited to do that.
What's your purpose? How are you fulfilling it? What are you doing to contribute to the restoration of greatness for the human race? This isn't a judgement question: I really want to know. What do you think about your purpose?
Have a solid Kwanzaa, everyone. I've been sick for the past few days, but developing a writing habit in the mornings has been something I very much look forward to. I'll check in with all of you tomorrow.
jakebe: (Mythology)
Want to know something really great? Read the Wikipedia entry on Ujamaa here. Julius Nyerere developed a political and economic blueprint for lifting Tanzania out of poverty back in the 60s. The idea was to remove barriers and dividing lines between the people within Tanzania and replacing them with incentives to fostering a national identity with a focus on shared wealth and community. It didn't quite work -- mostly due to circumstances beyond Nyerere's control -- but it was a noble experiment that the hip-hop scene in Tanzania is trying to bring back.
Here in the United States and Western parts of the African diaspora, Ujamaa is the principle we focus on today, the fourth day of Kwanzaa. While it doesn't quite go as far as promoting the African socialism of Tanzania, it does encourage the idea of cooperative economics; this builds on the concept of Ujima quite well, turning the social idea into a financial blueprint. We are meant to build and maintain our own stores, shops and businesses, and profit from them together. In black America, we go into businesses that serve our people and community, and small (or large) business owners use that generated wealth for the good of the neighborhoods they're in.
This could mean shopping at the local corner store when you can instead of heading to a convenience store chain like 7-Eleven; it could mean choosing hair and skin care products made for us, buy us; it could mean supporting black artists and creative people by buying and promoting the work that offers us reflections of our culture that are more nuanced, positive and engaging. Ujamaa is an immensely broad concept, and one of the great things about it is there are so many different ways to practice it.
One of the great joys for me this year was the discovery of the small business online and the popularization of sites like Kickstarter, GoFundMe and Patreon. It was a great way for small businesses and artists to make their pitches directly to their customers, and for the customers to respond in kind with a financial statement. Each donation or pledge told these people that we believe in them and their work, and we would like to see it come to fruition. In gaming and fandom circles, there are now artists who can do what they do full-time because they now have a mechanism that allows them to be supported by an appreciative and engaged audience. For me, these sites are a wonderful way to bring Ujamaa into the 21st century.
It also means encouraging responsible use of the wealth we create. One of the big difficulties in impoverished communities in general is the understanding of how to use money wisely. I'm not talking about poor people buying televisions or tennis shoes; I'm talking about finding ways to make what little money we have work harder for us. When a financial windfall comes, we're often faced with the choice of getting ahead on bills (which really sucks all the joy out of having unexpected money) or doing something fun with it. All too often, there's a sense that the game is rigged and any effort taken to get ahead will ultimately be wasted. And to be sure, there are all kinds of ways the poor are unfairly taxed in this country. But come on -- black people in this country have had to maintain ourselves during slavery, segregation and Jim Crow, and the continuing structural discrimination that makes it so hard for us to get a leg up in this world. With time, patience, effort and intelligence, we can beat that too.
This year, I vow to continue what I've started in 2015 -- to seek out, promote and shop at minority-owned and -operated businesses. Because I'm such a geek, it's been a genuine pleasure to find creators of color whose works I'm totally down with. Are you aware of The Pack, a graphic novel about African werewolves? Or the many, many, MANY sci-fi/fantasy writers of color out there? I'll talk a bit about these folks in a couple of days, but if nothing else 2015 has really opened my eyes about what minorities are doing in genre spaces and just how exciting it is.
I'll also do my best to be smarter about managing/eliminating my debt this year, and making sure that my money is going places that help me, my family, my community and my people. I'm very fortunate to be in the financial situation I'm in, and I could be doing better things with it. I'll be devoting time and energy to figuring out how.
As always, Ujamaa doesn't JUST have to be focused on the African diaspora. We all belong to communities, close and online, that could use a bit of care. How are we using our money wisely? How are we promoting good in our lives through our dollars?
Have a solid Kwanzaa today, everyone. I'll check in with you tomorrow.
jakebe: (Mythology)
The principle we focus on today, this third day of Kwanzaa, is Ujima. It's a word that points to the idea of collective work and responsibility, which is a concept that I feel is missing from so many of our communities. One of the things that binds a society together is this very ideal, that the problems of one of us are the problems of all of us. If just one of our number is struggling to feed themselves, we are all impoverished. If one of our children is having a difficult time in school, we're all concerned with educating him. If one of our people is misunderstood, rejected, alone, then it's a failing of our community. Ujima, to me, means that we are our brother's keeper. His happiness is ours, his sorrows are ours. No one is alone; we're all in this together.
I think this principle is a little different for me because I've been on the outskirts of the black community pretty much all my life. I've never felt a sense of kinship with my family or my neighbors growing up, and even now, as I'm making the first tentative steps back towards the community, I feel hesitant about it. I am very different. What if those differences are too great and I find myself pushed to the outside again? One of our blind spots is the treatment of those who have a different sexual orientation or gender identity. Gender roles tend to be rigidly defined in our black communities, and transgressions of those roles are not looked upon favorably.
Personally, I struggle with the idea of being my brother's keeper when that brother has distanced himself from me because of who I love. I find it hard to be a part of a community that spends so much energy ostracizing people like me who don't "act like a man," or who still uses "faggot" and "gay" as one of the worst verbal attacks you can make on a guy. How do I take responsibility for the problems of my fellow man when I *am* their problem? How do I embody the concept of Ujima?
Like so many things in life, all we can do is the best we can do. Even though I may be on the fringes of my community -- even though I may never be fully accepted -- I'm still invested in the problems and issues that face it. I still want to see my fellow black Americans live in a country where they are treated equally, where the institutions of our government and society is working to remove the discriminations that were baked into their foundations, where economic and intellectual poverty is not a default and the full expanse of the American dream is available to us. I want what's best for my people; if that feeling is not returned, I have no control over that.
This year I've learned so much more about the myriad problems facing the black community. Our children tend to be disciplined more frequently and more harshly in our schools; we're taught from a very young age that the authority structure will come down harder on us than it will for other kids. Our women frequently don't have a place at any table but their own when it comes to issues of equal pay, sexual liberation and safety, the respect of their colleagues and inclusion in art and entertainment. Our men face the actions of a society that fears and hates them; we're less likely to get good jobs, more likely to be arrested, brutalized and killed by the police, only see ourselves on TV as criminals, toughs or stereotypical smoothies. There are issues we face in just about every aspect of American society, and even if those issues don't directly affect me it's my responsibility to help solve them.
The concept of Ujima can be taken outside of that context, too. In the broader geek space that I inhabit, it's difficult for us to band together to take care of problems that affect our spaces. So many fandoms have become toxic in-groups that violently reject anything that threatens the mono-culture people insist on maintaining. Women in gaming, sci-fi/fantasy entertainment, costuming and so many other areas have to face down so much bile just for trying to enjoy the same things we do, or demanding the same respect given to others. It's a serious problem, and as fellow geeks Ujima calls on us to make it ours and fix it already.
Our communities will not cohere unless we learn to have empathy for our own. I talked about how self-determination may lead us to a greater understanding of ourselves yesterday, but we must also understand how that carves out different paths for the people in our community. Not everyone in our group will like the same things, or like the same thing for the same reasons. We have to strive to understand and respect that, to acknowledge the challenges our brothers and sisters face, to reach out and help them overcome them when we can.
But how do we do that? I'm still figuring that part out, to be honest. I feel I've taken the first step just by being educated on the work to be done and shouldering some of the responsibility for it. Where do I go from here? Do I become more socially active? Do I join groups that have organized to advance solutions to these problems? Which problems do we focus on first? That requires a lot more thinking, and I'll do my best to come up with *something* to answer those questions.
For now, I'm in this with all of you. There's work to do. Let's pitch in to get it done, yeah? Have a joyous and wonderful Kwanzaa today, and I'll check in with you all tomorrow.
jakebe: (Mythology)
I am a gay black man. I am a Zen Buddhist. (Thank you, Kevin.) I am agnostic -- I don't know if there is a God, but I don't believe that being a good person should be dependent on that. I am a writer, gamer, geek, lover of animals, myths, and the intersection between them. I'm a morning person. I drink coffee. I believe that in order to be at my best I must be stripped down and simplified to my essence. That requires the very difficult work of scrubbing away decades of gunk that has been built to protect me from the hardships of life. (I'm stripping a cast-iron skillet over the holiday, so maybe my metaphors are going to be reflecting that today.)
I didn't always believe this, of course. When I was a child -- well, I was still called gay, and a nerd, but the connotations were negative. As I grew up, I was called a pussy, a weirdo, an Oreo -- black on the outside, but white on the inside. As a defense mechanism, I took all the terrible things people said about me and turned them into positives:
"Yeah, I'm a pussy -- but that means I don't get my ass kicked on the regular or have to worry about being shot."
"I'm a weirdo, sure, but that means I get to think about stuff that you never will."
"Oreos are fucking delicious, and everyone wants to have them nearby. I'm crunchy AND I'm sweet, you jackass."
These days, I don't even engage. Of course I care about what people think about me, but at the end of the day I know who I am and what I stand for. I've put in the time and the work to strip myself bare, see what lies beneath my face and put myself back together to try and be the best reflection of that. It's an ongoing process, and I will never be finished with it -- that's life, that's self-improvement. But it is one of the most important and worthwhile things you will ever do.
The principle we focus on today, the second day of Kwanzaa, is Kujichagulia -- self-determination. I love this concept; the Swahili word is so much fun to say, but it's also one of those things that tends to work in a spiral. There are always new ways to name and define yourself, and because you're a living being who exists in a complex and ever-evolving society, the relationship between who you are, who you want to be, and how that relates to other people demands that you constantly check yourself. But first, let's start with the basics.
Self-determination, at its most simple, is answering these three questions:
Who am I? No really, who am I? It's a simple question that is almost impossible to answer. You must seek and understand the core of yourself in order to do that...but is there a core there? Are we actually the tension that exists between the various aspects that make up who we are? Am I only myself because I am gay, black, Zen, geek, etc.? Am I only a series of definitions, a collection of names I have given myself? Or am I something beyond and beneath that, some unnamable, unknowable kernel? If I can't name it or know it, how can I define it or ensure its existence? What do I think about all of this? Who is the one that is doing the thinking?
Am I really who I say I am? Determining who you are is a process that I don't think you may ever get to the bottom of. You do the best you can with the information you can, and then you try to confirm it. I think this question forces you to take a look at your actions; if you really are who you say you are, then you would behave in ways consistent with that, correct? What are your beliefs, and how do your actions reflect them?
It can be a bit of a gut check to realize that you behave in ways that are inconsistent with what you believe. But it's also necessary to face that down and make the changes you need to in order to re-align yourself. For example, if I look within myself and find that I'm not actually following the Noble Eightfold Path, then it's on me to figure out what that means and how I can work my way back there. This may mean painful changes, or stepping outside of a comfort zone, but knowing yourself and being yourself is more important. This is a sacrifice that must be made for the right to self-determination.
Am I all that I ought to be? So we've worked out who we believe we are and determined that how we act accurately reflects that. But is that enough? Of course not. We could always strive to be something more, something better -- to embody our beliefs more closely and carefully. Could I be more than who I am? What do I need to do in order to get there? Self-determination is more than knowing who you are -- it's knowing where you are going and what it takes to get there.
It is vital to know ourselves, especially as black people. My ancestors came from western and southern Africa. Somehow, they were put on ships by men who took their destinies from them and replaced them with the Middle Passage. When they arrived, they were stripped of their clothing, their cultures, their families and their very names. They were given other names, other religions, other jobs and relationships. Even after they were freed, they were told that they were lesser than their fellow Americans, forced to confine themselves to the poorest neighborhoods and work the worst jobs. This is a process that continues down to this day.
In our media we are given a narrative, a single story. Our men are called thugs and criminals; even the "good guys" are tough and physical. Our women are crazy, loud, outspoken but unintelligible; they speak almost entirely in slang and are predominantly concerned about hair, makeup, clothes and men. Our children are told they don't have the intelligence to make it in American society, that the best they can hope for is to be athletes, drug dealers, or prisoners. Our communities are impoverished and intellectually stagnant, but the fight for better is called "disruptive," "obnoxious," and "unnecessary."
We must reject that story, and find our own. Black men are smart, courageous, confused, scared and just as soft as anyone else. Black women are incredible; tough, intelligent, beautiful, complicated. Our children are precious, each a kaleidoscope of possibilities -- they could be astronauts, scientists, businesspeople, politicians, artists and activists. We joined American society being told who we were and what we were, but there is no reason that needs to continue. We are who we are, and only we know what that is.
As individuals and as a culture, we must define ourselves to be active participants in our own destinies. We must fight the pressure to be defined or named by other people; we accept or reject terms based on our own principles. That is Kujichagulia. That is life.
Have a wonderful Kwanzaa today, everyone. Know yourselves. I'll check in with you tomorrow!

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