While attending the week-long Art Basel in the Miami area, I experienced an explosion of unique people, stimulating ideas, creative representations in art, food, fashion, music, literature and other expressions of and from the African Diaspora.
There was a collision of internationalism that included a feast of black art expressions.
The week also included world-wide celebrations of Nelson Mandela’s life and legacy. These two events were marked by discussions about the impact of Africa and “Africanism” on the world.
The “Afropolitan” was in full display – a phenomenon so named around 2005 which describes Africans living abroad who express their individuality by retaining their references to Africa.
These “Afropolitans,” slick, hip, and cool, wear their “Africanism” as if a badge: their roped hair, indigenous design woven into Dutch manufactured cloth used for high fashion; expensive glass beaded jewelry that mimics a village woman’s adornment; the music of Fela on Broadway, etc. They have blended into and ‘colored’ the dominant societies of whatever land they occupy.
But the Africans in America have been doing that since arriving as chattel slaves in the 1600s.
Our ingenuity has been well-documented: the Quilts of Gees Bend; libraries of blues and jazz recordings; art and inventions are aplenty.
And that brings me to Kwanzaa, one of the most creative responses to Africans living in America, because that is what we were before we were Colored, Negroes, Black or African-Americans.
It is quite common now in Western culture, at least in the United States, to extend wishes for both a merry Christmas and a happy Kwanzaa. The former is still considered a semi-religious celebration, and the latter, a celebration of humanitarianism.
In 1966, Maulana (Ron) Karenga, a black nationalist, created Kwanzaa to reconnect American blacks, with our African heritage, and as an alternative to Christmas. It has evolved, and Kwanzaa is now celebrated by many, in addition to Christmas.
The Kwanzaa holiday was designed to reflect the best of Africa, reaffirming the dignity of the human person, upholding community and culture, the well-being of family, the integrity of the environment and our kinship with it.
Karenga had a very serious agenda and the Kwanzaa principals still resonate with strong appeal.
Nearly 50 years later, Kwanzaa, like Christmas, has its own set of rituals, songs, literature, mythology, and sadly, had been merchandised into another reason/season for buying commodities to celebrate the holiday. The seven principles on which it was founded are in scant evidence in Africa – or quite frankly, anywhere. But they should be recalled:
Umoja- unity; Kujichagulia-self-determination; Ujima-collective work; Ujamaa-cooperative economics; Nia-purpose; Kuumba-creativity; and, Imani-faith.
During Basel last week, I attended a wonderful panel discussion that introduced me to a new way of thinking about my “Africaness.” In the discussion, Lowery Sims, noted expert on African, Latino, Native and Asian American art, and who currently serves as the curator of the Museum of Arts and Design, proffered that we are experiencing a “sea of change.”
We are now seeing how the African personality, that is, the sum of the cultural value of the black culture, impacts the world, and is evidenced, for example, in the lifestyle of “Afropolitans.”
Lowery quoted Al Loving, a famed black artist, who defined this certain “Africaness” as both a physical and/or psychic space that is based on a set of agreed assumptions that are not limited to any particular African identifier; i.e., tribe, country, language, religion, hair texture or socio-economic status.
I have now been offered a new way of seeing myself in the world: expressing my singular African personality in a place and a space of my own making. Moving beyond formulas and rituals. Moving outside of the confines of established societal dictates. Living out loud in my world – the whole world.
Nelson Mandela’s passing has once again brought up the discussion about universal notions of humanity, brotherhood, kindness, reconciliation, forgiveness, etc. Sometimes wrapped up in one word, Ubuntu, it summarizes the African humanism that Karenga was promoting.
So I now say to you, Merry Christmas, Happy Kwanza and Ubuntu.