Kujichagulia: Affirmations from The Wire’s Marlo Stanfield and African American Poet June Jordan

Today is the 2nd Day of Kwanzaa and the principle for today is Kujichagulia which means Self-Determination.

I was told by one of my mentors that one of the most important tasks one has to do when creating a business is guard their reputation.  I didn’t make the connection at the time, but I recently realized that I already knew that.  For better or worse, guarding my reputation has actually been of paramount importance to my own personal sense of self.  Growing up as a young Black woman in Malvern and later on the south-side Jane strip, I saw so many examples of the way that reputation could make life easier or harder.

However the most significant learning lesson came in 2005: I was in university and was beginning to develop a politicized sense of self that was excited and eager to make a difference in the world.  I was connecting to and being inspired by numerous artists and activists whose knowledge, passion and eloquence both inspired and intimidated me.  One of those individuals (who shall remain nameless), I foolishly put on a pedestal.  He was one of the first people I met who used their art as a political tool.   He was connected to everything that was progressive and revolutionary in the city and introduced me to numerous spaces.  He also believed in me and told me he thought I could do great things…I was floored.  Little, old, me?  Not recognizing my own value, I foolishly allowed him to define it for me.  However truth always reveals itself over time…I started to see the distinction between leadership and ego, confidence and arrogance.  I saw how his words on the stage did not match his actions in life. I saw his lack of respect for many of the young people he purported to support and I began to recognize his deep-seated aggression toward women.  I made the decision to distance myself from him.  He made the decision to ruin my reputation.

One day, he held court in front of a number of people who were artists and activists in Toronto and proceeded to tell a story he had concocted of my supposed sexual exploits with a number of men in the community.  The individual, did not describe these imagined sexual exploits as a site of empowerment or informed assertion of my sexuality. No.  He called me a groupie.  He called me a ho.  He belittled my work as opportunism.  He expressed his disgust for me.  And not one of the over 30 people who were present in this moment spoke up in my defence.  No one challenged his words.  No one contested the inherent infringement he was making on my right to tell my own story.  Not the self-identified feminists in the group.  Not the so-called homegirls who told me about it later.  No one.

Whew! Even thinking back on it now, it gets me heated.  This was an attack on my reputation.  And of course he targeted my sexuality and vilified it as a space without integrity, depth or beauty because that is the strategy patriarchy has informed the world to take when attacking women. June Jordan illustrates this so beautifully in her piece “Poem About My Rights.”  It remains one of my favourite poems.  Here is an excerpt:

I have been the meaning of rape  
I have been the problem everyone seeks to  
eliminate by forced  
penetration with or without the evidence of slime and/  
but let this be unmistakable this poem  
is not consent I do not consent  
to my mother to my father to the teachers to  
the F.B.I. to South Africa to Bedford-Stuy  
to Park Avenue to American Airlines to the hardon  
idlers on the corners to the sneaky creeps in  
cars  
I am not wrong: Wrong is not my name
My name is my own my own my own

I have the right to define myself.  For myself.

I do not consent to the forced imposition of his/your/their external perception.

The legitimate rage I felt at that time has mostly dissipated, but the more important legacy of this experience was what happened subconsciously: I became obsessed with protecting and strengthening my reputation.  From that point on, I began working at making sure that if anyone in this city tried to fabricate stories around my character again, there would be ample evidence to challenge their tales.

The desire to protect my reputation was/is largely subconscious. However, I am beginning to recognize that it informs (in part) the mass emails I send out, the facebook statuses I put up, the reason for this blog, the reason for Twitter – these are all platforms I can ‘control’ to tell my story so that someone else cannot tell it for me.  It is problematic to allow external perception to hold so much weight…but when the right to be self-determined has been taken from you, it becomes a space of crucial importance.  Self-determination is partly personal: at the start of my journey as an artist and activist in this city – before I had done anything and was just on the verge of emerging with so much excitement, hope and idealism – someone purposely tried to define who I was to everyone else and received no contestation on the tale he chose to spin.  Self-determination is also partly historical and communal: this experience is a microcosmic example of what oppressed people consistently experience when they are robbed of the right to name themselves and tell their own stories: until the lion learns to speak, the tale of the hunt will always glorify the hunter.

All of this to say…that this explains why this is one of my favourite scenes from the greatest television show of all time: The Wire.  It is one of the few moments where I felt connected to the character of Marlo Stanfield (played by Jamie Hector).  It may be odd to connect this ruthless character to a principle of Kwanzaa but Marlo is all about self-determination. “My name is my name!” He states.  He affirms that subconscious desire/need/urgency to not only name oneself but also to protect that name.  He embodies the rage that is felt when that right of self-definition is taken away without consent.  I get it.

I have the right to define myself.  For myself.

I do not consent to the forced imposition of his/your/their external perception.

So I continue…like Marlo and like June Jordan…to guard my reputation.

 
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6 Comments

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6 responses to “Kujichagulia: Affirmations from The Wire’s Marlo Stanfield and African American Poet June Jordan

  1. paulina

    Amanda I loved this. I wish I was as critically analytical as quickly as u are. Reputation is one thing I have struggled with for a long time. Ur post gives me hope that I can one day be ok with my own defined self.

    • I have this feeling that you are already on your way and that the self you are developing and defining is super beautiful 🙂
      Thanks for taking the time to share your response. It means a lot ❤

  2. I always wondered why your status updates and mass emails are so out there but it inspired me to be more sincere and blunt with the world. I never thought about ‘reputation’ for more than 2 seconds before moving to ottawa. The new community/industry I belong to emphasizes the importance of protecting your professional reputation characterizing it as something “very hard to gain and incredibly easy to lose’. but it’s also been used as a way to silence criticism/creativity guised under the warning ‘be very careful….’ now i feel stifled and not sure what i should(n’t) say and it leaves me yearning for the days when I didn’t give 2 sh*%s. maybe i should take up writing more to help me work through this stuff.

    • Hmmm…that is challenging and you are entering a very “professional” environment. I think finding creative outlets to help sift through the thoughts of others that sometimes cloud or interrupt our own positions on these things is important. It could be that you do have to re-negotiate your original stance in some ways because it’s really not a joke being a Black woman in the professional world, BUT I do hope you retain some of that original “I don’t give 2 sh*%s” attitude 🙂

  3. gryph

    predatory behaviour is some of the most complex, deceptive – and human -behaviour that there is. the ‘strong’ try to prey on the ‘weak’. this sometimes means that the those who nuture and protect do so to have more opportunity to take advantage of others. we end up with situations like the one you experienced – are turning into a positive.

    it would seem marlo’s protection of his name, his fear of rejection by his supposed betters and his particular determination of self was also what made him return to a life that most would try to escape. despite a capacity for self-sufficiency, he ended up trapped by an identity which was inordinately affected by his (violent) playing to others’ gazes. that was part of the tragedy – and sociopathy – of his character.

    and, as absurd as this may seem, given how clearly vindictive this man’s actions were, there might be some value in understanding exactly why his (social) violence affected you the way that it did. Or are there people out there who would be relatively unaffected by that turn of events.

    i’m thinking that organising your efforts around his violence is allowing others – particularly destructive others – to influence your determination. that part of the reason why social predators/wolves in sheep’s clothing do such things in the first lplace.

    • Hmmm…thank you for your thoughts. I agree that Marlo’s self determination is predicated on particularly problematic values and perspectives that lead to an undoubtedly destructive and unhealthy lifestyle for sure. However I think the point of his rage is something that transcends this. You’re right. Different people in different places in life may not react the same as Marlo or as me when experiencing these moments where their reputations are under threat and I think it is important to interrogate why it is important. I don’t believe that I am organizing my efforts around the violence I experienced BUT i do acknowledge the role it’s legacy plays in determining the strategies I create and things that I prioritize. Thank you again for taking the time to share your thoughts 🙂

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