Queering Kwanzaa: How the seven principles remind me of QTPOC power
Umoja (unity) reminds me of my ever-growing, chosen QTPOC family.
by Loni Amor
This essay contains discussions of suicidal ideation.
Inspired by First Fruit festivals of Southern Africa, African-American civil rights activist and academic, the extremely problematic Dr. Maulana Ron Karenga established Kwanzaa in 1966. Deriving from the Swahili phrase “matunda ya kwanza”, which translates loosely to “first fruits of the harvest”, Kwanzaa offers Black Americans the opportunity to celebrate themselves and their history. The holiday promotes Nguzo Saba, the seven principles of African Heritage: Umoja, Kujichagulia, Ujima, Ujamaa, Nia, Kuumba, and Imani.
Winters of my adolescence were spent reciting these principles and their meanings in the living room with my brother and father, an African-American man from the Bronx. As soon as the clock read “12:00 am” on December 26, my father would ask, “Habari gani?”– “What’s the news?”
In my younger days, I participated in Kwanzaa celebrations for my father. I memorized each principle, I took trips to and from the craft store to put together handmade gifts for my father on each final day of Kwanzaa and I’d always ask “Habari gani?” if he had not asked me first.
As my brother and I got older, we stopped celebrating Kwanzaa together. I stopped ruminating on each principle and its meaning. I stopped making my annual trips to the craft store. I stopped asking “Habari gani?”
This Kwanzaa, for reasons unbeknownst even to me, I revisited the holiday and its seven principles. I revisited Kwanzaa as a queer, non-binary, Afro-Latinx now familiar with Black feminist theory and as someone far less ashamed of their Blackness than they were as a child receiving a private, Catholic education in a predominantly white school.
This Kwanzaa, when I read about umoja (unity), I thought of my ever-growing, chosen QTPOC family. I thought of each time we mourned a murdered member of our family here and abroad. I thought of each time we celebrated a member of our family growing into and embracing themselves. I thought of how we lost our minds during the on-campus screening of Pose, the first time we watched Dirty Computer, when we finally saw ourselves on screen, heard ourselves on the radio and read about ourselves in the classroom.
This Kwanzaa, when I read about kujichagulia (self-determination), I thought about my decision to cut my hair with a pair of safety scissors in my bedroom and to later shave it all off entirely. I thought of my decision to recognize that, though my birth name is beautiful in its own way and has served me well since it was given to me, it is time for me to choose and to embrace a new one. I thought of the “they/them” pin on my backpack, my on denim jacket, and on my wallet. I thought of when I looked a peer in the eye and said, “I do not care what wig I am wearing, my pronouns are they. This past year, I defined myself, I named myself, and I have spoken for myself.
When I read about ujamaa (cooperative economics), I thought about the amount of joy that fills me each and every time a trans person of color meets their goal for gender affirmation surgery. I thought about how many members of my QTPOC family have taken their last dollar from their wallet and given it to a trans person of color to get them out of prison, to help them cross the border, to get them the healthcare that they deserve, or to just help them get a train ticket home. When we need help, we help ourselves.
Reading about nia (purpose), I thought back to almost taking my life on National Coming Out Day after reading a series of tweets invalidating the queerness and the transness of those “staying in”, after thinking about how many years I have been forced to stay in. Had I not been approached about educational programming centered around intersectionality and QTPOC that afternoon, I cannot say that I would not have attempted suicide that evening. When I think about nia now, I think about the commitment of this community to its members – to liberating ourselves and our future children. I think about how that commitment comforts me every time I have to make the decision to “stay in”.
This Kwanzaa, when I read about kuumba (creativity), I thought of how many QTPOC used art, whether that be music, painting, sculpting, or literature, to tell our stories. I smiled at the thought of Orion Carloto’s poetry and photography, Chella Man’s drawing and fashion designs and once again about the beauty of the trans-affirming, unapologetic “Pynk” music video. I thought about the people in my life who transformed their first gay loves and their first gay heartbreaks into poems. I thought about the artists in my life who captured the beauty of queer, brown love on canvass and the beauty of Black queerness on film.
Finally, the principle Imani (faith) made me think of the space I hope to make this year for my QTPOC siblings who feel that they must reconcile their being with their faith. I thought about how faith does not always have to be related to religion or to spirituality; my faith in my community is just as important and it can move mountains and part oceans just the same.
Loni is currently studying public policy and public service (ppps) as well as journalism at Hofstra University in Hempstead, New York. In addition to being a full-time student, Loni is a community organizer most passionate about issues of or relating to racial justice, sexual and reproductive freedom, gender and sexuality and anti-war/peace.