Trying to Make Kwanzaa Happen.

The Seven Principles of Kwanzaa

In stumping for the celebration of Kwanzaa, Sister Toldja‘s argument winds up sounding oddly tepid:

There have been many criticisms of Kwanzaa since it’s inception in 1968. There are questions about the founder, Dr. Maulauna Karenga, and allegations against him that include kidnapping and abuse, as well as serving as an informant for the FBI. There is also idea that Kwanzaa presents Africa as a monolith and that it negates the significance of the traditions that have been created by African-Americans by looking back to Africa for our only holiday. And, of course, there is concern that Kwanzaa is intended to be a Black Christmas or Hanukkah knock off and that celebrating the “pagan” holiday is in direct conflict with religious observances.

Despite all this, I am a lifetime Kwanzaa celebrant and I encourage others to at least consider the holiday. Dr. Karenga certainly does have some questionable past activities, but that doesn’t negate the value of the institution he created. Furthermore, his identity is not at the center of Kwanzaa; the seven-day celebration isn’t about him or what he has done. While the Swahili words and West African concepts that Karenga interpolated for the holiday may not be part of the specific cultural past of all African-Americans, there is no harm in embracing the concept of Diaspora and “Africanness”. To be American is to be influenced and engaged in a polyglot culture that borrows from the traditions of many societies and lands without always being fully aware of their origin or connected to them by blood. Kwanzaa should not be one’s only yearly look towards Africa, but there is certainly no damage to be done by participating. And as far as the religious concerns go, the holiday has been obsered by people of varying faiths from day one. The idea that traditional African spirituality is ungodly is one that was created by Europeans to demonize Black people and should not be regarded as fact without taking the time to research our historical relationship with religion.

Her strongest assertion here is actually  pretty mild  (“there is certainly no damage will come from participating”) and even that’s surrounded  by a flotilla of caveats. Those qualifiers nod to some of the hurdles Kwanzaa faces, like the oversaturated holiday marketplace and the need to define it as simultaneously separate from but not hostile to those  religious beliefs and seasonal observances.

But the biggest obstacle is probably the group identity stuff at its core. Toldja ,who says she was raised in a Pan-Africanist household, is starting from the position that black folks should see themselves as part of a larger Diaspora with whom they share “an origin” and are “connected to them by blood.” A lot of people would roll their eyes at this crude construction of racial identity, but even people who do subscribe to that idea might wonder why they should choose for  *this* particular ritualization of pan-Africanism.

Still, I find Kwanzaa’s propagation fascinating: it seems at once omnipresent — peep all the holiday cards and school assemblies, and the dutiful corporate acknowledgments of its existence — and really far away, as relatively few people actually practice it. Friend of The Blog Joshunda Sanders of the Austin American-Statesman wonders who, exactly, the holiday is for. Its pan-Africanist adherents would say its for all black people (but being pan-Africanists, they’d probably say that about most things); maybe it’s destined to never spread much further then the kente-cloth-and-Africa-with-a-k set. This could change in a few generations as it moves further away from its weird origin story and gains the historical legitimacy granted to other holidays. But like other black institutions, it will still have to contend with increasingly fragmented understandings of black identities — second-gen immigrant or LGBT or atheist or vegan or Jewish or whatever — to which those ostensibly common institutions are less central. That’s going to be a tough row for the harvest celebration to hoe.

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Gene "G.D." Demby is the founder and editor of PostBourgie. In his day job, he blogs about race and ethnicity for National Public Radio. He is a native of South Philly and reads and writes and runs and rants. You can follow him on Twitter or subscribe to him on Facebook.

8 comments to Trying to Make Kwanzaa Happen.

  • haiba

    I’ve always found the concept of Kwanzaa difficult to wrap my head around. On one hand, I get the symbolism, but there are a lot of questions as to what the holiday is supposed to mean – and to whom. People used to find it shocking that I didn’t celebrate Kwanzaa, especially because I’m African. I had to explain that Kwanzaa is a celebration pieced together by African Americans, and it isn’t even celebrated on the continent itself.

  • I found myself explaining Kwanzaa to a group of coworkers and interns a few weeks ago, all of whom were white or Latina. I fielded questions about Kwanzaa being the “Black Christmas” and questions about the meaning of the holiday. They thought it was something many if not all Black people celebrated and that it was the right thing to do to include Kwanzaa in your holiday wishes and decor.
    I put a stop to that business with the quickness to keep us from issuing a special Kwanzaa email to our supporters or erecting a Kinara in the office lobby.
    While I’m not all opposed to Kwanzaa, it’s just not something I grew up with. I knew two families in my neighborhood who did anything related to Kwanzaa but they were also the type to hold “manhood ceremonies” for their sons and practice African dance with their daughters (not that there’s anything wrong with that). I could get with the values of Kwanzaa, especially in today’s materialistic and all-about-me society. You know, after OD’ing on xmas gluttony, my family could come back to earth with Kwanzaa. *shrug*
    The biggest turnoff is that the holiday seems to be stuck in the 60s. What’s the significance for today’s young Black man, woman or family?

  • R.A.B.

    I mean, isn’t the biggest practical obstacle for Kwanzaa the apparently random need to celebrate in, of all possible months, December? It’s not apart from Christmas or Hanukkah, or in contention with Christmas or Hanukkah, but it’s a rootless, week-long holiday that’s scheduled alongside the height of these other holiday seasons. I’ve never understood that.

  • Oh wow. There’s so much here to digest and so much misunderstanding about Kwanzaa. You’ve all inspired me to do a post about it, so stay tuned.

    I’m disappointed in the manner in which Kwanzaa has been constructed here, especially since ALL holidays are made up. From what I’m reading here, none of you seem to have ever been a part of what I’ll choose to call “a real Kwanzaa Celebration” and I’m sad about that, yet I can’t deny what the mainstream has always done to co-op ANYTHING we do.

    If it weren’t for my Open Letter to Chris Rock that I need to attend to, I may put all my thoughts here but I can’t.

    Thanks for posting this and sharing your thoughts. I’m sad that Kinara was put out of the work environment at your place, Kia, but I understand, too.

    By the way, Kwanzaa is celebrated by over 40 million people, so “a few” is a bit much to say, postbourgie.

    I’ll holla.

    • I’m disappointed in the manner in which Kwanzaa has been constructed here, especially since ALL holidays are made up. From what I’m reading here, none of you seem to have ever been a part of what I’ll choose to call “a real Kwanzaa Celebration” and I’m sad about that, yet I can’t deny what the mainstream has always done to co-op ANYTHING we do.

      I dunno what, exactly, you’re responding to; I didn’t suggest anywhere that other holidays weren’t made up. Care to explain?

      Also, the “real Kwanzaa Celebration” bit seems a little presumptuous. It’s completely possible to have had that experience and remain unconvinced about Kwanzaa’s merits, or to simply not be feeling it.

      By the way, Kwanzaa is celebrated by over 40 million people, so “a few” is a bit much to say, postbourgie.

      I meant domestically. the estimates I’ve seen have all put the number of observers in the two-four million range — that’s between 1 in 8 and one in 1 in 16 black Americans. So you know, relatively few.

    • haiba

      I’m curious to know what is considered a ‘real Kwanzaa celebration.’ Some of the Kwanzaa festivities I’ve attended have felt really vague and essentialist at the same time, borrowing piecemeal bits from different cultural traditions. I understand that the celebration is supposed to be syncretic in nature, but I’ve often found it difficult to find connections between some of the practices. I might also have added sensitivity to the reconstruction of certain Swahili words, particularly because I speak Swahili myself.

      I’m looking forward to reading your post on it, and learning more.

  • suitlandman

    hmmm…I guess on one hand I would say that its a little unfair to ask Kwanzaa to envelop the spectrum of diversity among black people. Hanukkah doesnt do that for Jewish people, nor is it supposed to. Seems to me that the nature of all such holidays is to offer a simple articulation of some tradition or core identity, making it possible for people who are actually very different to come together in fellowship. But I do agree that our unwillingness to treat Kwanzaa this way does say something about how contentious are the politics of black identity. My own issue with Kwanzaa and the whole idea behind it is that I’ve always felt it was a fundamentally black middle class tradition imposed by guilt trip on other segments of the black community who are not predisposed to find meaning in practices so “far removed” everyday life

  • I’ve thought about this a lot over the past few days. I think suitlandman really hits my feelings on the subject here: “My own issue with Kwanzaa and the whole idea behind it is that I’ve always felt it was a fundamentally black middle class tradition imposed by guilt trip on other segments of the black community who are not predisposed to find meaning in practices so “far removed” everyday life.” I totally agree. I only learned of the holiday through school (college) and when you’re black at a predominantly white school, you embrace opportunities for fellowship with your community. You’re looking for something shared. As I learned more of its creator and my awareness of black nationalism and its ‘challenged’ relationship with black women, I backed away. This was a personal choice.

    I called my sister in the midwest to ask her if she celebrated Kwanzaa. She said no. Her feeling (and consequently mine) is that while it’s a nice sentiment, it hasn’t connected/grown/rooted itself in working class black communities, like hers. Which highlights my other problem with Kwanzaa, it presumes a monolithic narrative of Black American life and identity that we’ve not consented to. Traditions are something a community embraces as its part of a shared and accepted narrative. Our narrative as Americans is what I’m most interested in crafting and building traditions from there. I’d rather not do appropriate East African traditions willy-nilly and declare them my own. But that may be just me. I’ve got more to say, I’ll stop here.

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