I have this odd habit of remembering the first time I encounter new words. More than meet-ups with new faces and new places, the circumstances surrounding my new word encounters are inscribed on my brain’s memory card.


Take this word: kujichagulia.  The first time I heard someone use this word in a non-Kwanzaa context was a mother admonishing her daughter to take responsibility for her actions. Using Kwanzaa principles as year-round parenting tools struck me as a pretty cool thing to do, so I adopted it. (Perhaps to my progeny’s chagrin).


The first challenge is getting the pronunciation right. Koo-jee-cha-goo-LEE-ah. (Some say koo-jee-CHA-goo-LEE-ah.)


Next is figuring out when to use this.


Just as I reserve the full name call out for those special occasions when I want to get my child’s attention, so it goes with Kwanzaa principles. A daily dose of umoja, ujima, and ujamaa is just a recipe for ignoring mom. Using these words sparingly makes an impact.


Kujichagulia means self-determination.


The first time I heard the words self-determination uttered I was sitting in a college classroom in a fancy-schmancy Ivy League school.  The professor had titled his book (required for the course, of course) The Quest for Self-Determination


I had no idea what he was talking about, having been educated in public schools in a conservative part of the country. Self-determination wasn't part of my high school civics curriculum behind the Orange Curtain.


Self-determination? Is that when you are determined to do something and not let anything get in your way?


As it turns out, my guess wasn’t too far off the mark.


Even though my professor reserved his use of “self-determination” for nation-building and other grand scale enterprises, the concept works for many contexts.


I like this definition best:


Kujichagulia (Self-determination) – To define ourselves, name ourselves, create for ourselves, and speak for ourselves instead of being defined, named, created for and spoken for by others. (From Synthia Saint James’ children's book The Gifts of Kwanzaa).


Given the context of Kwanzaa as a heritage-affirming secular holiday for African-Americans, I think it is pretty obvious why a person or a group of people would prefer to define themselves instead of being defined by others.


In my field of disability studies, we have a slogan: Nothing about us without us


The basic idea here is that if decisions are made that affect people with disabilities, those decisions should involve a process that is collaborative and inclusive. These decisions should not follow the historic pattern of excluding people with disabilities from the process.


Nothing about us without us works as a rallying cry for able-bodied folks as well. You can map this on to just about any group of people who have been disenfranchised.


Historically this country has seen an evolution in terms that name Americans with African heritage.  Colored, Negro, B/black, people of color, and African-American are just few terms used to refer to people with African heritage in this country.  And I’m sure that you can come up with other historical terms that are much more offensive.


What puzzles me is the backlash against self-determined language.


Some people proudly label themselves anti-PC.


I’ve been in more than one situation where someone has dismissed my identity preference and asserted his own language in its place.


("Deaf and Dumb”? You are really going to call me this? With a straight face? In an introduction to an audience?  Seriously?)


We’ve also seen this recently in New Mexico.


The former San Juan pueblo is now Ohkay Owingeh.  Some people still call it San Juan out of habit. Others may call it San Juan from discomfort – just how do you pronounce Ohkay Owingeh? Some people may have cultural reasons of their own for calling it San Juan. And still others will refer to it as San Juan based on anti-PC sentiments.


In case you are wondering how to pronounce Owingeh, give this clip a listen. Select the Tewa langauge button. At about 16 seconds, you'll hear "Owingeh". You're on your own for pronouncing Ohkay - OK?


On a more light-hearted note, consider the tension between those who favor “Burque  over “The Q”. And those who reject both monikers in favor of Albuquerque. I suppose there might even be a few traditionalists who are rooting for R over Q, as in a return to AlbuRquerque.


The Burque/Albuquerque discussion raises an interesting question: in a diverse community, who has the ultimate authority to name?


Some Duke City natives have dismissed “Burque” as a hipster invention; others claim their grandparents used “Burque” decades ago.  As a non-native, I’ll leave the questions of epistemic authority to those with more knowledge.


On this second day of Kwanzaa, here’s to Kujichagulia! May we all strive towards self-determination in the coming year.













Views: 132

Comment by Barelas Babe on December 27, 2010 at 3:47pm

For social history, Ben, I think direct quotes with footnotes are fine.  

LOL'd at your OATHAY story. I had something like that happen quite recently, but now I don't remember what it was. Will post if I remember.  

Comment by Granjero on December 27, 2010 at 9:53pm

I was a little curious about this: "I had no idea what he was talking about, having been educated in public schools in a conservative part of the country. Self-determination wasn't part of my high school civics curriculum behind the Orange Curtain"


Perhaps I'm misreading, but to me, conservatisim is about self determination and this country was kinda created on that idea. 


I think I would label myself, "Anti-PC".  While I certainly understand the psychological implications of someone referring to someone in a derogatory manner,  and then wanting to create for yourself your own identity so that you have the power so to speak, I also disagree with the concept that I am obligated to go along with you.  "you" being the general you...


It just gets too complicated.  If I decide I want to be referred to as Scotch-Irish-Cherokee American, should I expect everyone to concede to that, when white is just a hell of a lot easier and less of a label.  I'm also bald and extremely good looking but people hardly ever refer to me as a bald handsome american. (crazy I know :)  )

Indian/Native American.  Black/African American.   Ya know, alright. 


Self Determination, by that definition you refer to is okay.  Be who you want to be.  Call yourself whatever ya want.  I will too.


I'm a white guy.  Some white guys have done some amazing things.  Some have done some pretty horrible things too.  Same can be said of blacks, Indians, Mexicans and any other group label out there.  If you label yourself as something, your telling the world that's who want to be like.  Africans have slaughtered, raped and enslaved other Africans for generations.  Native Americans made war, tortured and enslaved and wiped out tribes of other Indians long before the white guy came. 


I guess my point is, if you want to be known for where you come from and what your ancestors have done, by labeling yourself, then shouldn't that also include the horrendous along with the wonderful? The "PC" part of that is what?


(I come across a lot harsher and trollish sometimes, when in reality I'm just a big ole teddy bear who loves everybody... I just don't let everybody dictate what I say or think...Anti-PC  - its very revolutionary)





Comment by vinceinburque on December 27, 2010 at 10:32pm

This is a powerful discussion and I really like the definition of kujichagulia and the rallying cry of "nothing about us without us".  I work in criminal defense and as a result I work with the labels "felon", "addict", "sex offender", "abuser", "gang member" and the list goes on and on.  These are all trigger labels, which when added to a person's name evokes a negative social response.  Yes, who indeed labels people?  But more importantly, do those who label realize how much labels cripple and destroy?  I know so many men and women who are unable to reintegrate themselves into mainstream society because of labels.  Determined as they may be to move forward and move passed their past they are relegated to the fringes and expected to suceed.  An easy answer is to say, "they made their bed so let them lay in it" but I don't believe that's a good way to practice humanity because it absents one self from each person's ability to really overcome.  Granjero makes a good point about people choosing to label themselves and I suppose most people do that because they are proud of that identity.  On the other hand when someone labels another in a harmful way then it limits both from discovering the fullness, the richness of the other.  So I submit that if a person carries a label, postive or negative, then perhaps we need to listen to him/her and learn that the label is not the person, and the person is so much more than any label can explain.

Comment by Barelas Babe on December 27, 2010 at 11:04pm

@Granjero (or should I say handsome bald American, heh) - I was being quite literal. The term "self-determination" was not taught in my high school civics class.  Of course the idea that a people would define and create themselves is a fairly old idea. My reference was to cultural conservativism - terms that were percolating in ivory towers were not likely to be taught in my hometown until the passage of time made them more familiar. My guess is that this is probably a concept that is taught at my alma mater today. Hope this is more clear.


On another note - I think the argument for self-determination can also be made from the liberal political tradition - one could argue that a right to liberty is a necessary condition for self-determination. I wonder if we might be operating with different definitions of conservativism re: self-determination.  My understanding is that a conservative political tradition is one that preserves traditional institutions and generally resists social change. Given this, a group of people who wish to change their circumstances by defining and speaking for themselves (say the American revolutionaries) would be decidedly not conservative. Then again, I'm sure my definitions are influenced by how they are used in the academy - the "man in the street" definitions of these terms could be quite different.





Comment by once banned twice shy on December 28, 2010 at 9:38am
All I know about "Burque" is that it is also the name of a local gang.  Don't know how old the gang is--next time I'm at the jail, I'll ask one of the Burque gang members if it is a new group, or a long-standing group.
Comment by vinceinburque on December 28, 2010 at 10:58am
@ once banned twice shy - Really?  I never heard that, of course with hundreds of little (and not so little) gangs in Albuquerque who can keep up?
Comment by Barelas Babe on December 28, 2010 at 12:12pm
OBTS - I didn't know that either. Would love to learn what you find out.  (And what brings you to the jail...)


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