When I was a child, my mother recognized that the public school system was never going to give me an adequate education in the area of black history, so in order to fill in the gaps we frequented the library and she made sure I read more than what I was assigned in class. Knowing of my history and pride in my culture was instilled at a very early age.
But as “black and proud” as we were, one thing my family has never done is celebrate Kwanzaa. As a matter off fact, my immediate and extended family has largely dismissed and derided the “celebration of family, community, and culture” often joking that it is not a “real” holiday and referring to it, mockingly, as “Black Christmas.” For a long time, I encountered this sentiment in nearly every black person I knew.
I didn’t understand why, and that can be attributed to my ignorance regarding what Kwanzaa actually was. I knew it was a holiday, I knew it lasted seven days, I knew it started after Christmas, and I knew it had something to do with black people. Outside of that…nothing.
Created in 1966 by professor and activist Dr. Maulana (Ron) Karenga, Kwanzaa is an outgrowth of the black nationalist politics of the 1960s, where people of African descent living in the United States began to assert their rights to humanity, and further, the right to ownership over their culture and communities.
Black nationalism taught us to reject that which was imposed on us by mainstream (read: white) cultural institutions and build our own institutions that reflected our voices, values, and heritage. Kwanzaa was born of this thinking and is meant to “serve as a regular communal celebration which reaffirmed and reinforced the bonds between us as a people in the U.S., in the Diaspora and on the African continent, in a word, as a world African community.”
The weeklong holiday introduces its participants to the Seven Principles (that are translated from Swahili), which are: Umoja (Unity), Kuji-chagulia (Self-determination), Ujima (Collective Work and Responsibility), Ujamaa (Cooperative Economics), Nia (Purpose), Kuumba (Creativity), and Imani (Faith).
Even as it has gained in popularity, Kwanzaa still isn’t an enormously popular tradition among the constituency for which it was intended. There are no official statistics on how many people celebrate the holiday, thought I’ve seen numbers of ranging from 2 percent of African-Americans to 30 million people worldwide. I personally know more people who celebrate it at this stage of my life, but all of them espouse or possess an intimate knowledge of black nationalist ideas.
E. Franklin Frazier’s “black bourgeiosie”, or the so-called black middle-class, or those possessing a more mainstream, less “radical” political and cultural ideology, have not embraced Kwanzaa. For many, the idea of Kwanzaa is connected to the idea of black people wanting to have something to call their own and haphazardly throwing together something that resembles a mythical, romanticized “Africa” and subsequent identity, but lacks any real purpose, message, or foundation. Whether a case of elitism or assimilation, Kwanzaa garners little respect from the keepers of black middle-class values.
Even among those who may be empathetic and would otherwise embrace the principles and cultural ideas that Kwanzaa holds, there are those who do not acknowledge it due to sketchy past of the holiday’s creator. Karenga was sentenced to one to ten years in prison for torturing two women followers who he accused of attempting to assassinate him. For some, Karenga’s violent and sexist past too much to overlook to embrace is creation.
And yet, there are likely still others, trying to prove their “blackness” and show how “down for the cause” they are who publicly announce their celebration of Kwanzaa, even going so far as to own a few red, black, and green candles, but never actually get around to the actual celebrating.
What would it take to get more black people to celebrate Kwanzaa? Would it require, as the now defunct Boondocks comic strip once suggested, a holiday television special? Maybe a song to serve as an anthem? Or, perhaps, Sandra Lee’s Kwanzaa cake?
These things could work (with the exception of that ill-advised cake), but the issue is that these efforts to commercialize Kwanzaa fly in the face of what Kwanzaa is all about. Kwanzaa isn’t built to be a commercial holiday, subject American capitalism and marketing schemes, but an intimate celebration of family and community. It does not rely on the same loud pronouncements that have become associated with Christmas. Those who celebrate do so in the comfort of their homes, strengthening themselves in their resolve and meditating (and the practicing) the Seven Principles minus the fanfare.
And so long as those who choose to practice it keep the integrity and spirit of the celebration intact, Kwanzaa may never become a mass-marketed holiday, and its rituals may not become staples in black households, but it will continue giving black people a guiding light for identity and cultural connectivity.