I come from a multifaith family of Christians and Muslims. This isn’t a source of tension for us, and joyfully, we spend much of the holiday season in December celebrating Kwanzaa. As a nonreligious, pan-African holiday, Kwanzaa was and is for my family—and many people throughout the African diaspora—a time to celebrate the best of our history, heritage, and culture as black people. Our religious differences don’t matter.
The end-of-year holiday season is always a complicated one for me. I struggle with bouts of seasonal depression and despair over having lost my maternal grandmother and my father between Thanksgiving and Christmas when I was twelve. In my most balanced moments, the season provides a wonderful opportunity for critical reflection and assessment of how I spent the year and how I might make the coming twelve months more meaningful. Kwanzaa gives my family a chance to reflect together on our commitments to our highest, most deeply held principles.
Founded in 1966 by Maulana Karenga, Kwanzaa is an annual cultural celebration that runs from December 26 to January 1. Each day is dedicated to a principle; those seven principles together, known as the Nguzo Saba (N-Goo-Zoh Sah-Ba), provide a basis for reinforcing the value of family, community, and culture. The principles of unity, self-determination, collective work and responsibility, cooperative economics, purpose, creativity, and faith together provide a framework for assessing how one lived during the year. In my family, as we gather around the Kwanzaa table and light the kinara candles, we talk about how each of us endeavored to exemplify those principles in the months leading up to the end-of-year observance.
As a child, each day I’d look forward to receiving Kwanzaa gifts that my parents carefully chose as a way to honor the principled commitments we’d upheld during the year. Those gifts were special because they served as an acknowledgement of our efforts to live as congruently as possible with a set of ideals that encouraged us toward righteous action, community building, and justice making.
My family began observing the holiday in 1967, so I’ve never had a year of my life without the holiday. (I was born in 1979.) This year’s observance feels especially important to me. As a black woman who claims Unitarian Universalism as my faith identity, I have felt compelled to clarify and yield to what’s truly most important to me in the last few months. The election and subsequent outrage, confusion, vitriol, and violence that has shown up in its wake have encouraged me to reaffirm my commitments to working for justice, as well as to recommit to protecting those who are most vulnerable, shaping my life in such a manner that it responds to and reflects what my values are as a black woman of faith in this tradition.
One reason I am a Unitarian Universalist is because it is a faith where I can bring all of the best of what I was taught growing up in my multifaith family and because, as a religion grounded in principle and reflection, justice-making and righteous action are essential to our faith, not something ancillary. This resonates deeply for me, and connects to my grandparents’ social justice efforts as members of Baptist and African Methodist Episcopal Zion congregations and to my parents’ legacy as socially conscious, progressive Muslims. My deep sadness as a Unitarian Universalist is that while this faith community has always been a space that welcomed my varied religious heritage, my blackness hasn’t always felt at home here. That is to say, I have never been able to take for granted that I would be welcome in UU spaces as a black woman. No matter how long I’ve been a member, what committees I’ve served on, or the number of times I’ve been a GA delegate, I’ve never been able to take for granted the sense of home and welcome and connection that I see my white UU siblings proudly proclaim.
Still, there are resonances that keep me going. I am motivated as deeply by the seven principles of Kwanzaa as I am by the Seven Principles upheld by our association and member congregations; these are all touchstones of my personal theology. The Seven Principles of Black Lives, created in 2015 by the Black Lives of UU Organizing Collective, act as another bridge for me, connecting me ever more deeply to this faith and to the work of the Movement for Black Lives.
This holiday season, I will reflect upon and affirm these ideals that encourage me toward principled, justice-making action. These principles give me the courage to face the future, no matter what comes, grounded by faith, sustained by culture, informed by heritage, and committed to dismantling the oppressions that deny our collective humanity.
Blessed be. Happy Holidays.