Sunday, December 26, 2010


I'd like to set down the political and ideological frame of reference under which I try to live. Simply stated, it is that Everything is Everything. We are all interrelated and interdependent; either everybody owns everything or nobody owns anything.
--Melvin H. King, from A Professional and Personal Agenda (1976), quoted in the Boston Phoenix, June 26, 1979 

Today marks the first day of Kwanzaa, the week-long African-American cultural festival. Tonight, the central candle of the kinara is lit to celebrate the first of the Seven Principles or Nguzo Saba of this holiday, the virtue of Umoja (Unity). We can find this idea in the vibrant work of a founder of the community development movement, technology activist Melvin King.

As with all the Nguzo Saba, Umoja takes its name from the Swahili. The founder of Kwanzaa, Dr. Maulana Ronald Karenga, originally defined Umoja thusly: “to strive for and to maintain Unity in the family, community, nation and race.” Critics of Kwanzaa have noted its separatist overtones, especially in its early days, when co-celebrating the festival with other holidays, such as Christmas, was discouraged.

Today, though, most who mark Kwanzaa do so in an ecumenical spirit, and modern celebrations hew more to the idea of joyful Remembrance of roots and Self-Empowerment rather than of separation. Just last year Dr. Karenga remarked on the “inclusive freedom” of Kwanzaa, and the broad application of Umoja:

Surely, in a world ravaged and ruined by war, defined by division, oppression and varied forms of greed, hatred and hostility, the principle of Umoja (Unity) invites an alternative sense of Solidarity, a peaceful Togetherness as families, communities and fellow human beings. It teaches us the Oneness of our people, everywhere, the common ground of our humanity with others and our shared status as possessors of Dignity and Divinity. But it also encourages us to feel at one with and in the world, to be constantly concerned about its health and Wholeness, especially as we face the possibility of climate change and other disasters around the world. [caps mine]

Indeed, I see in Umoja echoes of similar virtues from around the world, such as the Zulu virtue Ubuntu and the Tswana-speaking people’s principle Botho, both of which have to do with finding one’s worth through one’s place in a larger community. The Hindus take this idea even further, describing unity with the family of the enitre world in the term Vasudhaiva Kutumbakam (Kinship with the Earth). The Lakota, too, have this virtue, which they call Otaku'ye (Kinship); the Lakota prayer which starts “mitakuye oyasin” (“all my relations”) addresses all the world, including not just the humans but the rocks, plants, and animals--the entire landscape of Nature.

Seeing and strengthening the Interconnectedness of human lives across a landscape certainly describes the life of Melvin King, who has brought together people across lines of race, class and education. By teaching the use of the internet to the working poor of Boston’s South End, this M.I.T. professor has given people a cybernetic Umoja. His South End Technology Center describes its mission as moving people “from being consumers of information to producers and creators of knowledge.”

A Southie native, King got a mathematics degree before returning to teach high school there. In the late 50’s through the 1960’s he worked in community organizations, insisting on putting urban renewal programs in the control of community residents rather than government or even NGO officials.

King gained national attention in 1968 when he led neighbors to build a tent city on a site the Boston Redevelopment Association had cleared of homes in order to make a parking lot. Ultimately the place became a low- and mid-cost housing development called... Tent City. (!) King told reporters that the key to the project was convincing ordinary Bostonians that they “had to play a role in the development of their neighborhood.”

Last year King released a book of poetry, called Streets, about his life and work in community organizing. (This once again reminds me to someday discuss how art and activism intertwine in the Confucian virtue of Wen, the Arts-of-Peace.) At a reading for his students and neighbors, one audience member commented that "The sense of family and togetherness that filled the room... reminded me why I love the South End-Lower Roxbury community so much." An Institute founded in his name continues to work with him to realize his vision.

So think about the marvelous story of Mel King and the virtue of Umoja tonight, even if you don’t pass around the Kikombe cha Umoja (Unity Chalice) or light a kinara. Consider how to increase your sense of Unity with your own community, whether connected by streets of concrete, paths of rich soil, or gossamer waves of light and silicon.

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

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