Kwanzaa: Should it be remade using symbols from black history?

african kings

A Fox News anchor’s recent controversial declaration that both Jesus and Santa Claus are white men serves as a reminder that even symbols of Christmas can be co-opted to exclude minorities. Kwanzaa was created to address this exclusion and provide a holiday celebration in which black Americans could take pride in their race and African ancestry. Although the numbers are not exact, it is believed that millions celebrate the holiday worldwide.

Over the course of seven days starting on December 26, Kwanzaa uses agricultural harvest symbolism and Swahili words to convey principles that are intended to serve as a connection to Africa. In this way, though it is an African-American celebration, it actually does very little to commemorate the black experience in America. Instead, it ties the pride of our race to a distant continent and not to the immeasurable strength evident in the black American journey from slavery to the presidency. This has led, truth be told, to a sizable segment of the black community largely paying lip service to the holiday.

What if Kwanzaa was re-purposed to be a true celebration of the African-American experience? What if the African words and images were replaced with the symbols, terms, and markers of black America? Would making these changes make it more appreciated and valuable to blacks, as well as the nation in general? The answer is yes.

Illuminating the history of Kwanzaa

Kwanzaa was created by Maulana Karenga, a professor and social activist, in 1966 as an alternative to the traditional holiday celebrations. Perhaps in light of how Christmas was often used to reinforce the institution of slavery during that era, the original intention was for Kwanzaa to replace it and provide a holiday period that centered on black pride and history. Eventually, it became a complementary observance to Christmas, beginning the day after and continuing to New Year’s Day. Its name and the seven principles assigned to each day are Swahili words describing African principles that guide observers’ daily reflections.

Swahili was chosen because it is an indigenous African language widely understood throughout large portions of the continent. Further, Kwanzaa utilizes agricultural symbols because the time of harvest is universally and historically understood to be a time of plenty and thankfulness.

Swahili is of East African origin and the official language in Kenya, Tanzania, and Uganda. Yet, African-Americans are primarily descended from West African tribes that are found in the present-day nations extending from Senegal along the coast down to Angola. Even the part of Africa that Kwanzaa pays tribute to is not the point of origin for the blacks that were captured, shipped across the Atlantic Ocean, and enslaved in America.

As a result, many blacks spend a week reciting words in a language our enslaved ancestors never spoke. Moreover, while the principles of Kwanzaa are excellent, they are not uniquely African. And the harvest symbology has been in use for thousands of years by cultures all over the world.

Remaking Kwanzaa in our image

The week following Christmas should be crafted to truly celebrate the perseverance and contributions that make the black American journey so incredible and worthy of recognition. It is impossible to move about in America today without coming into contact with something that was created, or heavily influenced, by black Americans. We should pause and take note of them during what tends to be a time of slowing down and contemplation for many of us. Whereas African-American History Month recounts the black experience through the exploration of the personal narratives of exceptional black men and women, this revised holiday celebration could focus on the totality of the journey and express that symbolically.

It could begin with an examination of the various West African cultures we actually do descend from, and then a commemoration of the Middle Passage. From there, perhaps a look at the importance of family out of respect for those that were separated during slave auctions and subsequent plantation sales. Next up could be a couple of days dedicated to the enormous trials and small triumphs of our ancestors’ daily survival tactics and fight for freedom.

The week could wrap up with days to reflect on the activism that brought about social change and a rededication for the days ahead to live in a manner that would properly honor the sacrifices made by so many who could never have fathomed the progress to date, but stood strong nonetheless. All these historical milestones could be celebrated in ritual, rather than just being words read on paper.

Practical steps towards a new Kwanzaa 

There are very practical ways this journey could be honored. For example, the digitization of census data and numerous state and local records makes family genealogy more accessible. And while there are certainly large gaps in the record-keeping of slave arrivals, names, and family relationships, there is enough present to get a deeper sense of who we are and how parts of our story unfolded. People could create a holiday tradition of putting up their literal family tree along with their Christmas tree, a three-dimensional image that would be decorated with images and the names of their ancestors, while recounting their stories.

Likewise, instead of using Swahili, each day could be titled with words that more accurately reflect the various dialects resulting from the merging of African and English terms, such as Gullah, or African and French (among other languages), such as Creole. A real attempt could be made to incorporate the words and phrases that mean so much to our people specifically.

Much is already made of the contribution of spirituals and blues to the current music scene, the importance of soul food to the black community, and the immense role of our labor in building the nation’s most iconic monuments. These could easily be incorporated into a week of true black American celebration involving music, movement, food and images of the great things we have contributed.

On the heels of statutory racism and in the midst of the Civil Rights Movement that sought a more inclusive American society, it was perhaps a logical conclusion to look to Africa as evidence that blackness was worth celebrating. But this should not be done at the expense of honoring the very real hardships and the incredibly resilient spirits of blacks in America. Perhaps modifying Kwanzaa to be a true celebration of African-Americans and our unique relationship to this nation would be a step in the right direction towards recognizing that we need not look beyond our shores and our people for points of pride and sustaining principles.

And it might make the holiday more meaningful to even more blacks.

Theodore R. Johnson is a military officer and 2011-2012 White House Fellow. A graduate of Hampton and Harvard Universities, he is an opinion writer on race, politics, and public service. Follow Theodore R. Johnson on Twitter at @T_R_Johnson_III