Can Kwanzaa be 'cool'? How to make the holiday hip

african kings

At its best, The Boondocks comic strip turned a critical and hilarious eye on African-American culture, tackling taboo subjects from a variety of viewpoints that allowed readers to draw their own conclusions. A recurring theme around this time of year for the comic was a discussion of Kwanzaa, the week-long celebration of African-American culture created in 1966 by professor and activist Dr. Maulana Karenga.

In its 45-year history, Kwanzaa, while definitely celebrated by some, hasn’t gained any notable popularity. There are no reliable numbers on how many people actually celebrate Kwanzaa. It tends to be either vehemently derided or made the butt of jokes by those who do not celebrate it.

The Boondocks has a great repository of scenes that clearly illustrate our ambivalence about the holiday.

For example in one strip, Caesar, the dreadlocked, preteen best friend of main protagonist Huey Freeman, says: “Kwanzaa feels so… made up. Like someone threw it together just to say ‘OK, now we got a Christmas of our own.’ But most people really don’t understand the purpose, you know?” He then goes on to say, “It’s kinda like the BET of holidays.”

Another character, lawyer and devoted NAACP member Tom Dubois, takes issue with Kwanzaa because “the intent is good, but the holiday ignores the variety and diversity of African cultures in favor of something oversimplified… even… generic.” Huey, as the sole celebrant, is left alone to ponder the true meaning of Kwanzaa.

The goal of Kwanzaa is laudable. It’s embrace of the “Seven Principles” — Umoja (Unity), Kujichagulia (Self-Determination), Ujima (Collective Work and Responsibility), Ujamaa (Cooperative Economics), Nia (Purpose), Kuumba (Creativity), and Imani (Faith) — is admirable.

However, the history of its founder and a general aversion to black nationalist politics from a large swath of African-Americans have prevented Kwanzaa from becoming truly ingrained in the culture. (Karenga was sentenced to one to ten years in prison and served four for torturing two women followers who he accused of attempting to assassinate him.)

Aside from these issues, proponents of Kwanzaa haven’t done a very good job of marketing it.

There are no classic Donny Hathaway or Stevie Wonder songs to sing during Kwanzaa. There isn’t a “Fat Albert Kwanzaa Special.” No major stores are promoting half-off Kwanzaa sales.

In part, that’s what makes Kwanzaa Kwanzaa: its resistance to commercialization. Kwanzaa celebrants haven’t allowed capitalism to take hold of the holiday and turn it into a broad money-making scheme that businesses can count on to bolster their profit margins. That — or there isn’t enough interest in Kwanzaa to warrant a big economic push. Either way, it’s failure (or blessing, depending on your perspective) to be co-opted might render Kwanzaa a relic of a bygone era of self-conscious celebrations of blackness that attempt to reconnect us spiritually with a mythical vision of Africa.

An informal poll conducted among readers of The Root shows that support for Kwanzaa is strongest among those born between 1946 and 1964 (the baby boomers/Civil Rights/Black Power generation), while those born before 1945 or after 1982 were least likely to celebrate it. It’s a generational divide that reveals a shift in attitudes.

The hip-hop and millennial generations (those born after 1982) are not as connected to “black pride” and “black is beautiful” movements as those who came up in the civil rights era. They are the benefactors of these political, social, and cultural movements and as such have a different worldview and perception of blackness. By and large, millennials don’t wear blackness on their sleeves in same way as our Black Power mothers and fathers.

It can be argued that millennials embrace a “deeper black,” as Ta-Nehisi Coates described it in his essay about then-presidential candidate Barack Obama in an essay for The Nation in 2008. It’s seen in “the sort of dap — a little English in the wrist and a one-armed hug” (as Coates describes Obama’s handshake), in which blackness just exists without need to call broad attention to itself. That goes directly against everything Kwanzaa is meant to be.

In this cultural climate, is there a way to push for a larger embrace of Kwanzaa among African-Americans? Can it be made “cool”?

It’s not impossible. But it may take some concessions on the part of current celebrants to make the holiday more palatable to a new generation that doesn’t see the world the same way black people did in 1966 when it was created. It would mean rethinking our concepts of Kwanzaa and black American culture, and how to connect them with the African roots that so many are unfamiliar with. It means work.

And a theme song penned by Rick Ross and Trey Songz might not hurt, either.