Kwanzaa is Not the Black Christmas
Okay, good folks. PSA for the day – please, spread the word. Tell your kids, tell your students, peers, parents — Kwanzaa is NOT the black christmas!
I don’t know how many times growing up, when wintertime would come around, the white children would be wishing each other a merry christmas and then get to me and be like ‘happy kwanzaa!’ and I’m like ‘um’.
Also, the commercials, billboards, and everything else, in their effort to be all-inclusive, multicultural, and politically correct always throw kwanzaa into their conglomeration of otherwise religious holidays. “Happy Chrismakwanzika!”
So this is my brief ‘get it right’ post about Kwanzaa. Not intended to be a comprehensive learning guide nor anything of the sort – just to give my perspective on the holiday, as someone who celebrated it growing up and doesn’t anymore.
First, Kwanzaa is not a religious holiday. It has absolutely nothing to do with yahweh, allah, parsva, oshun, or whomever else from wherever you’re coming from on the belief spectrum. It is not meant to replace, compete with, nor destroy christmas or any other holiday for that matter. Many people who celebrate Kwanzaa also celebrate other religious holidays.
Kwanzaa is more of a cultural, historical and community-building holiday. According to its founder, Ron ‘Maulana’ Karenga, Kwanzaa is intended to “give Blacks an opportunity to celebrate themselves and history rather than simply imitate the practice of the dominant society.” First celebrated in 1966, it is a seven day holiday that begins on December 26 and lasts through the first day of January. For each of the seven days, there is a candle lit and a principle (collectively called nguzo saba) to go with it: 1 – umoja (unity), 2 – kujichagulia (self-determination), 3 -ujima (collective work and responsibility), 4 – ujamaa (cooperative economics, 5 – nia (purpose), 6 – kuumba (creativity), and 7 – imani (faith). It falls near christmas partially because that (i guess?) signifies the end of harvest and the beginning of a new planting season, and also, probably, because that’s already a celebratory holiday season when people have time off from work, are in the mood, etc.
Now, there is a whole vocab to go with the kwanzaa holiday. There is the mkeka (straw placemat), muhindi (corn placed on the mekeka for each child in the family), mazao (meaning crops, symbolized by fruits and vegetables on the mkeka to remember the earth’s abundance). The gifts are called zawadi, the wooden candle holder is a kinara, the karamu is a glorious feast, and so on and so forth (there are a few more). The word kwanzaa, along with these other names, of course, is derived from Swahili, which to many Americans, is the language of Africa.
This brings me to my next point, which is that Kwanzaa is an American holiday. It was invented by a black american man in the state of California. It is, therefore, this individual’s interpretation of African ritual, life, and so on.
Part of the point of Kwanzaa, in my opinion, is to give descendants of Africa (please don’t hit me with the ‘we’re all descendants of africa’ cowdung) and black americans in particular, a sense of connectedness to their history, and also, something to celebrate outside of the mores of the ‘dominant’ society within which they are oppressed and share a history that it hurts to remember. Now whether or not this sense of community and independence within the greater hegemonic culture of america has to come with middle class blacks gathering in public libraries in overpriced dashikis and patchwork kente hammerpants is up for debate. What do we make of it? Maybe it’s a starting place for greater awareness of ancestry, maybe it builds communities, brings families closer… or maybe it’s just black folks imitating their visions of a mythical and monolithic ‘african’ culture, learning token swahili words and walking around in ‘african’ garb in order to claim a history, home, and culture as their own. I mean, does this go back to the neverending issue of ‘home’ for displaced peoples, ‘culture’ for postcolonial societies, the controversial idea that black people in america and black people in africa are somehow the same…? that we are, or, at some point were, them?
I stopped celebrating Kwanzaa around the age of fifteen, when I learned that Karenga not only had beef with the Black Panthers (whom I was basically in love with) but also spent time in prison for torturing two black women with electrical cords, a hot iron, and some others of the master’s tools. This combined with the unsurprising fact that like many organizations at the time (inlcuding the BPP), Karenga’s cultural nationalist US Organization was systematically sexist towards its female members, was pretty much enough for me to be done with Kwanzaa. For me, it represented an individual’s idyllic nostalgia, as well as the collective desire for a sense of belonging among black americans. While I loved coming together with my family and friends to laugh, share and discuss these principles that I did find important, the symbology of ‘africanness’ didn’t serve much purpose for me. it’s not that i didn’t recognize how my folks got to this country, or that i didn’t understand respecting history and ancestors and paying dues and whatnot. but i was american after all. and have been for a very long time.
So I say all this to say – Kwanzaa is an option. Some people choose it, some don’t. But whatever the case, it is not the black subsitute for christmas, and it is not a race-based celebration. So, good-intentioned white moderates — next time you see me anywhere around the cold season, do me a favor and stick to ‘have a good break’ or ‘keep warm out there,’ and I’ll do the same for you.