On the Path to Healing, Honoring the Ties that Bind

This year, I will celebrate Kwanzaa for the first time since I was a teen. This decision falls during one of the most tumultuous years in my life, and in world history, and feels like a natural next step in my healing journey. After ending a toxic 8-year relationship, reconciling my childhood and relationship with my parents was a huge part of understanding why I stayed in it for so long. 

When I was a teen, my family began celebrating Kwanzaa at my fathers insistence. After retiring from the Navy, he delved into studying Black history and African spirituality and began acquiring friends that were more attuned to Black culture. Soon he began growing locs, burning incense, staining the bathtub with black soap, smelling of shea butter and sporting dashikis. None of the changes were subtle. 

I grew up in predominantly white towns in New England, where I was rarely exposed to Black culture. When he was stationed in Maine, it was an anomaly to see other Black children – let alone another Black family. There were no Black radio stations, and I was sheltered from much of popular culture anyway due to my parents restrictive religious beliefs. 

We were members of The Church of Christ, and spent most of our free time there. My mother was deeply entrenched in the Christian faith that sustained her during my father’s long deployments and viewed anything outside of Christianity as inherently evil. His decision to leave the Church created a rift in their marriage that was reinforced by his eventual desire to immerse himself in Black culture. 

My mother reluctantly celebrated Kwanzaa, failing to recognize it as an important way to connect with family, community and culture. Years after their split, she had a visceral reaction to my enrollment in an African dance class, saying it sounded like something my father would do. I learned to keep the peace, by suppressing the parts of me that reminded my mother of him. 

Like my father, I gravitated toward Black culture and African spirituality and it has taken nearly two decades to reclaim who I am. I had to decide whether to adopt the values I learned in the Church as a child, or explore my own spiritual path. Once I did, it became clear how often religion was weaponized during my childhood to control my thoughts and behavior – making it easier to fall into controlling relationships. Soon, it became easier to find my voice and refuse to accept abusive behavior.   

Reclaiming Kwanzaa comes at the culmination of a year spent in therapy, in effort to prioritize my mental health and avoid repeating toxic patterns. Though my father spends much of his time abroad and estranged from our family, embracing the principles of Kwanzaa will be a powerful way to make peace with our imperfect past and honor his contribution to my life. This year, on the first day of Kwanzaa, I will light my red candle for Umoja (unity) in celebration of our family bond and how far I have come.

By Shanon Lee

We invite you to join our virtual emotional emancipation circle on CHNConnect to connect, learn, heal, and grow together as people of Black African ancestry.

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