The Trouble with Kwanzaa
Kwanzaa has never really broken through on a large scale. I never really understood the holiday and I know I'm not alone. I mean, I get the principles, but wearing kente cloth and knowing Swahili words doesn't make me any more authentic than I already am.
OK, this may not be politically correct to say, but I just don't get what's up with Kwanzaa. Our family celebrated it two or three times in the '90s. We had a kinara, handmade by my Uncle Calvin; the seven candles, three red ones for the struggle, three green ones for hope and a black one for our people. Before bed we'd say a few words, light a candle and quickly blow it out, because mom never liked lighting candles in the house. She'd give us each a book—the standard gift for Kwanzaa celebration.
And the whole thing lasted about five minutes total. My brother and I were generally too tired or too unenthused to light the candle every night, so we'd just torch two the night after we missed one. We never took it seriously. And the words, none of us ever really got the words. Koo-jee-cha-goo-lee-ya. Self-determination. We were determined, all right. Determined not to take any of it too seriously.
The Black Candle , which debuted this fall and is the first feature film on Kwanzaa, highlights the celebration's seven principles: Umoja (unity), Kujichagulia (self-determination), Ujima (collective work and responsibility), Ujamaa (cooperative economics), Nia (purpose), Kuumba (creativity) and Imani (faith) through a series of street interviews and conversations. Interviewees include hip-hop pioneer Chuck D, poet and lecturer Haki Madhubuti, visual artist Synthia Saint James, author Amiri Baraka and the creator of Kwanzaa, Maulana Karenga.
The documentary, narrated by Maya Angelou, was mesmerizing. It delved deep into history to give Kwanzaa's purpose and meaning a backdrop. I felt guilty watching it, knowing that I had been so glib all these years about the pan-African celebration of black family, community and culture. But I'm not going to front. It's still not my thing.
And I know I'm not alone. Ask the five closest black people to you if they celebrate Kwanzaa. Ask them to break down what it all means and how they've incorporated it into their holiday traditions. Turn to someone sitting next to you right now, and ask them to tell you about their Kwanzaa celebrations.
For all the commemorative stamps and Hallmark cards and other official ways of working it into the other big December rituals, Kwanzaa's just never really broken through on a large scale.
When Ron Everett (see Karenga, Maulana) thought up Kwanzaa, it made sense. It was 1966, the black power movement was jumping. It fit right in with black is beautiful mantras, pan-African ideals and black nationalism. Say it loud….! All that swagger begged for a celebration just for us.
But by the '90s, Kwanzaa had fallen prey to commercialism and all the good and bad that comes with it. Multiculturalism in mainstream institutions helped increase the visibility and awareness of Kwanzaa. But then came the Kwanzaa kitsch. McDonald's had a Kwanzaa commercial. Hallmark's Mahogany line had greeting cards. Kmart and Walmart started selling Kwanzaa gifts, cards and wrapping paper. The Kwanzaa stamp came along in 1997. There were Kwanzaa celebration pop-up books. Cartoon shows on Disney and Nickelodeon had their obligatory Kwanzaa episode, where the black character has to explain to the white ones what this seven-day ceremony is all about. All the attention, perhaps, turned a good thing bad. It just got jumbled into all the other holidays that dominate in December. Chrismahanukwanzakah, anyone?
By the time I got to the third grade in 1993, my mom had joined my elementary school's multicultural club. Since we were one of very few black families in our middle-class Dallas neighborhood, when multicultural night came around, guess who showed up on the program. The Evans family presents Kwanzaa.
Via fashion show.
There I was in a bootleg purple-and-gold tie dye smock and some purple culottes, hair in a high ponytail. My mother stood next to me in a burnt orange-and-green-accented top and wrap skirt from Ghana. Grandma came, too. She wore a gold kaftan and headdress imported from Nigeria. We were workin' it.
My 5-year-old brother, set to enter kindergarten the next fall, chickened out at the last minute. He was either too cool, or too smart, to wear his blue-and-black-print dashiki with pants gathered at the ankle, kufi atop his head.
We dressed the part—and we did it well. We even occasionally went to Kwanzaa Fest, an annual expo at the Dallas Exhibit Hall, where hundreds of black entrepreneurs set up shop with their trinkets and baubles. But that was about as good as it got for the Evanses and Kwanzaa.
Looking back on it, wearing kente cloth and knowing words in Swahili didn't make me any more authentically African than I already am. For me, it all amounted to a superficial connection to Africa that, in its thinness, ultimately degraded the depth of black culture and our ancestry.
Don't get me wrong. I'm not slamming the principles of Kwanzaa. They are all worthy of upholding. But they are lessons that should be incorporated fully into our communities and families in a way that makes sense for how we live today. They should certainly be more than a seven-day remembrance of "African traditions" around the holidays.
In some ways, Kwanzaa seems more and more entrenched in Americana each year. Recently, Sandra Lee on the Food Network put her culinary touch on the celebration with her Kwanzaa cake. And U.S. presidents are obliged to acknowledge the celebration. Barack Obama has been invited to celebrate Kwanzaa in Flint, Mich. on Dec. 29.
But all the commercialization and lack of real observance makes me wonder where the celebration will be in a generation or two. At a screening of The Black Candle, M.K. Asante Jr., 26, the film's writer, producer and director, compares the life of Kwanzaa to the story of a blind woman and a dead bird. The story, told by Toni Morrison when she accepted the Nobel Prize in Literature, says "I don't know whether the bird you are holding is dead or alive, but what I do know is that it is in your hands. It is in your hands."
In 2003, NPR's Farai Chideya canvassed Ladera Heights, a largely black area of Los Angeles, to find out if young folks were celebrating Kwanzaa.
"Ain't that a Jewish holiday?" asked Jaleel Miller, one of the young people she interviewed.
I shook my head when I heard it, but I could also relate. The future of Kwanzaa is in shaky hands—mine included.