Thursday, September 23, 2010


And so, lifting as we climb, onward and upward we go, struggling and striving, and hoping that the buds and blossoms of our desires will burst into glorious fruition ere long.
--Mary Church Terrell, speaking in 1902

Today is the birthday of a phenomenal American, the suffragist and civil rights activist, Mary Church Terrell. As the child of two slaves, her educational accomplishments alone would have impressed me. But more importantly, Terrell used her abilities to improve not just her own life, but that of all her fellow African-Americans. It made sense to me therefore to remember her with a discussion of Kujichagulia (Self-Determination).

Kujichagulia (koo-JEE-cha-goo-LEE-ah) is one of the Nguzo Saba (Seven Principles) of Kwanzaa, the end-of-year holiday recalling African-American history and pride. It comes from the Swahili word meaning self-determination. Below, filmmaker and educator Masequa Myers explains what the virtue of Kujichagulia entails. (She also will teach you learn how to pronounce it!). (Sorry, I couldn't find the embedding code for the html, so you'll just have to go to the link.)

I find the idea of “naming oneself” very appealing. It taps into a certain aspect of Self-Possession (which my half-dozen readers know I consider a primal virtue). Naming of things is a very powerful form of magic. No less an authority on the virtues than Confucius himself emphasized its importance, and he cited Zhèngmíng (Rectification of Names) as a critical principle for those seeking to shape the social order. In the Analects, in fact, he states: “If names be not correct, language is not in accordance with the truth of things.” 

Speaking out about the truth of things was the life’s work of Mary Church Terrell. Born in 1863 in Tennessee, her parents, who called her “Mollie,” emphasized the importance of educational achievement. Terrell went on to Oberlin College, being the only African-American woman in a class made up of mainly white men.

Terrell’s fellow students elected her class poet, and she edited the Oberlin Review. (It’s interesting to me how many social activists also excel in the arts; at some point remind me to visit Wen (Arts-of-Peace), yet another civilizing Confucian virtue.) Terrell became a high school teacher but also freelanced for numerous newspapers. Once she married, she considered leaving activism to focus on raising children, but orator Frederick Douglass convinced her to continue her work for African-American equality and winning women the right to vote. In 1904 she attended the International Congress of Women in Berlin as the only African-American; she gave her speech to the assembly in three languages.

It amazed me to learn in 1949, six years before the Montgomery Bus Boycott, Terrell fought against segregation of restaurants in her native Washington, D.C. Her lawsuit resulted in a 1953 ruling that white-only restaurants in the district were illegal. She died the following year, but lived long enough to see the Supreme Court decision of Brown v. the Board of Education, which outlawed the segregation of schools by race.   

When I consider everything Ms. Terrell managed as the child of two former slaves, I can only shake my head in wonder and admiration. What’s really important in her story is that she used her phenomenal talent and abilities to help her fellow citizens, seeking justice and greater opportunities for those shut out by prejudice.

Take a moment today to think about how you use your own talents to propel yourself forward in service of a greater cause or vision. What (or whom) do you lift as you climb? Who in your life has given you an example of Kujichagulia? Who around you is Rectifying Names?

May we see the gates of Kujichagulia, and perhaps make a home there.  

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