Habari Gani? Kwanzaa and Umoja Can Be Complicated

By Iyatunde Oshunade Folayan

In 2009, I received my name at the long running Kwanzaa celebration within Detroit’s historic Black queer community. It was done in the beauty salon basement of SASHA (Sexual Assault Services for Holistic Healing) center founder Kalimah LocMama Johnson. As a part of that annual Kwanzaa ritual, Detroit performs name-giving ceremonies performed by Kofi Adoma, founder of the well-known, Ruth Ellis Center and many more Black Detroit Lesbian organizations. Indeed it was Kofi and Nigerian labor leader and writer, Dele Aileman who connected in rigor to find my new call. It is a name I wear with pride. It is a difficult one to live up to.

I did not know then that the so-called creator of Kwanzaa, Ron Karenga, was an abuser and torturer of women. I learned this on my own much later. I was stunned (into silence) how could I celebrate if this were true, and then, did this mean the whole thing was a fraud? It called too much into question, I am a survivor of multiple abusers and it was disorienting to learn. Why had it not been discussed? Why had no one told me?

That there have been articles since that time blasting his crimes against women and at the same time underscoring the importance of separating him from this Pan African holiday is symbolic of this current historical moment, representation and my direct connection to it. Kavanaugh, Cosby, R Kelly. Women have been busy betraying silences over the years.

Fewer articles talk about the role Karenga and his organization played in setting up the members of the Black Panther Party for Self-Defense, betraying the Black movement and the tragic consequences that resulted. Omissions are costly to our community. And yet, why didn’t I speak?

Invited to host a night of Kwanzaa in Detroit, I reached out to several leaders who have been holding this tradition on both coasts of Kwanzaa for Black queer folk for feedback after speaking with other individuals about their discomfort in continuing the tradition. They too learned about the crimes of Karenga on their own. This holiday season, I am reminded of the social cost of questioning traditions/authority/power, even if African or queer. It is so hard to be the one, the loner, the rebel the outsider, the troublemaker within the group, even if Black, even if queer. Trust me, there are layers of power within each that too must be held to account in our communities.

We suffer greatly when we fail to understand this.

As a truth-telling survivor, I am often not in the majority opinion of things. I live on the margins of things, even when they are Black, queer. People think I am a contrarian, when they don’t know me or fail to understand me. Yes, I have been clumsy and, yes, caused chaos at times, not intentionally.

Iyatunde (EE-yah-TOON-day) means we celebrate the life of the African daughter who is in America yet represents the respectability of African mothers and grandmothers, the mother has re-emerged, has been reborn in the Diaspora. Oshunade (oh-shoon-ah-DAY) means a princess with the anointing of the sacred Oshun River. This significant river located in the Yoruba part of Nigeria and is a source of great prosperity, healing, fertility, cleansing, miracles, and rejuvenation. Folayan (foe-lie-YUN) means someone who is selected, anointed, blessed, intentionally chosen among many, to play a particular role in the community. A special obligation is placed on this person and this person does it with dignity.

I have not always lived up to my name. For this, I have tried to make amends. It is a daily thing. But I do at least admit my faults and try to improve. And telling the truth is not an easy thing. And the difference between me and you and your safety and comfort is that my life has depended upon shattering that silence.

The truth here is that my truth speaking was delayed and it may have hurt those who might have wanted to know what I knew. Withdrawing and staying quiet was a temporary solution. The times we are in, call for direct address, transparency and accountability.

And sometimes, many times we will be alone. We will not be invited to dinner. We will not be in the clique. We will be labeled difficult. We will be dismissed and misunderstood. All in order to maintain a certain status quo. But as bell hooks wrote “there is power in the margins.”

What I have learned in my gathering of this history and consulting with leaders on why they continue to celebrate it, is that one man did not create this holiday, as the patriarchy tells us. Kwanzaa came out of the creative spark of Black Power/Black Arts. There was a collective of folk reimagining themselves and their communities at a critical time.

And if this be one of those critical times, a time of rebirthing, what will be telling ourselves, each other and our children about silence, about the erasure of women and the most vulnerable.

Silence is a deadly operator known well by the abused. It kills–the spirit first and then the mind and body.

In the article “How to Celebrate Kwanzaa Despite the Actions of the Founder,” Griffin names power wielders in Black Hollywood for the sake of representation and to illustrate principles of Kwanzaa–some are even queer. But those influencers have been abusing their community members by holding silences. Representation is not a panacea. In fact, it can be used as a weapon. It can deceive.

My truth is that I am reconciling my relationship with Kwanzaa. It’s principles are powerful. I’ve formed wonderful relationships there. It has held meaning for me and my community. It has also been a challenging space where we have protected and given space to those who are not worthy of that protection. This year may be an opportunity of transformation–to use the principles not just in theory, but practice.

The principle of umoja is unity. When I think of unity, I think about unifying with those whose names we may not know–the abused women of Karenga and the silence breakers. They, too, must be protected defended in this tradition today and beyond.

If I do anything less, then I do not live up to my names.


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