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Self Determination: What I learned on the Subway at 2am

With the recent celebration of Kwanzaa, I am reinvigorated with hope as I learn to internalize the principles each day offered. I couldn’t help but place special emphasis on the principle Kujichagulia (Self Determination) which means, “To define ourselves, name ourselves, create for ourselves, and speak for ourselves in order to stand up for ourselves.”

During my time in New York City, I learned a lot about this concept, both in reaching back into our history as well as by opening my mind and heart to the brothers and sisters that exemplify this principle around me:

While I was riding the D train back to Harlem, a few brothers came on board around Jay Street selling “nutcrackers”, these homemade bottled mixed drinks popular in our community here. They also had clothing, movies, food, incense, oils, and other goods, all of which came out of two suitcases upon request. The ingenuity here is mind blowing. Seeing as most were on the way to clubs and bars, these $2.50 drinks made more sense.

Another brother from the back of the train shouts, “Why are you negroes hustling Black people?! Why you trying to hurt and hustle these Black people? That’s the problem. Selling liquor. You negroes are killing Black folks.”

Here’s the point where many would say, “Right On!” since alcoholism is a major destructive force in our communities, however in this case, the whole situation got flipped, and I and everyone on the train witnessed something quite amazing…

The brother catches wind of what is being said about him, and turns his attention to the man, still shouting “negroes” left and right. He then says, “Oh! I thought I recognized you! You’re the negro that told on Harriet Tubman.” His partner adds, “Nah, I think he was tap dancing for the man on some Sambo shit.”

Right then, I knew this argument was gonna get real deep.

After silencing the brother in the back of the train, they then shared their perspective: “Before you open your mouth and judge me, you need to learn a few things.” [“You don’t know nothing! Get a real job negro!” yells the guy in the back.] He continues, “You talk like I don’t know anything. I know quite a lot of things. My swahili is immaculate my brother. I know what Kujichagulia means. You?!” (silence)

“I know that Kujichagulia means Self Determination. I know that Ujamaa means cooperative economics. (partner adds: “That Umoja means unity”) And I can see that you ain’t standing for none of that shit. You need to walk your sellout ass on out of here.” The guy in the back continues to lose ground, and slips off the train unnoticed at the next stop.

I couldn’t help but admire these brothers on a very deep level. While plenty of the people on the train laughed, I think my mouth hung wide open in astonishment of the schooling that just happened. I think of Nas’ “Get Down” courtroom scene, “I want to crack a smile when I see him, throw up a fist for Black Power” That scene that I witnessed was just…amazing. While we can debate over the centrality or usefulness of alcohol, a few things were clear:

It was about Self Determination: Ridding ourselves of destructive dependencies on white owned clubs, entertainment, bars, and stores. It was about Cooperative Economics: working together to realize economic freedom from our oppressors through providing resources, goods, and services collaboratively. It was also about Unity: The brother who yelled from the back did so in the presence of Black and non-Black folks who found the division extremely entertaining. Others probably felt that his condescension and judgment was warranted given the tone and framing of mainstream accounts that criminalize the ingenuity of our people. I just felt fortunate to have witnessed the whole thing. Sometimes those lessons and reflections come to us when we least expect them. Now, let’s take this lesson on a micro level, and begin applying this to our understanding of housing, food justice, environmental justice, security, welfare, and health care.

A self-determined community is one that amasses its collective social, political, spiritual, and economic power to provide basic needs for all people. In the coming weeks, I will provide a series of reflections based on my research and understanding of the promise of self determined movements in our global community. I especially look forward to highlighting our local youth-led movements that aim to determining a better future for the families of Los Angeles, and the surrounding communities of Watts, Compton, Carson, Long Beach, and Inglewood.

In the meantime, to the “What does this look like?” question, begin by exploring the self determined communities of Black people in Durham, Allensworth, Tulsa, Oaxaca, Michoacan, Oakland, Atlanta, Cuba, Bahia, Haiti, Zimbabwe, and Ethiopia among countless others. Determining resources and a future for ourselves. “Who is ‘we’ and ‘our’ referring to? Anyone who invests themselves in social, political, and economic equality and justice.

Enjoy Blackstar’s “Knowledge of Self (Determination)”

Peace and Love,

Richard