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.