It's become an annual tradition to dismiss, if not outright demean, the winter celebration of Black culture. But let's hold off on the mockery, because we need the holiday now more than ever.
After all the turmoil and trauma Black Americans have experienced this past year, especially in recent months, I simply cannot have anyone mocking Kwanzaa and dismissing it as a fraudulent holiday. We need and deserve a week to observe and nurture our sense of family, community, and personhood. And while Kwanzaa isn’t a miracle cure-all for everything we’ve endured, it is a welcome respite this winter holiday season from so much grieving and tragedy.
For those who maybe don’t know or have forgotten what Kwanzaa is, it is a non-religious, non-commercial holiday created in 1966 by scholar and activist Maulana Karenga, meant as a cultural celebration of African-American tradition. It serves as either an alternative or a complement to Christmas and is designed to foster family and community engagement over the seven-day period between December 26 and January 1. Not all African-Americans choose to celebrate Kwanzaa, but it is there for those who do.
So, what’s the problem?
The issue is that every year, someone is calling the veracity of Kwanzaa into question. Like former White House Press Secretary Tony Snow did when he said, “There is no part of Kwanzaa that is not fraudulent.”
Or the New York Times, back in 2003, when they published an op-ed piece by Black essayist Debra J. Dickerson, called “A Case of the Kwanzaa Blues,” in which she called the holiday a “cop out” and a rejection of Christmas and Christianity, “the primary force for Black American sustenance and resistance.” She wrote, “Insofar as Kwanzaa negates the quintessential Americanness of the slave-descended, it is an affront to the heroism and enunciated goals of our oppressed ancestors.”
Last year, Senator Glenn Grothman (R-Wisconsin) echoed past criticisms of Kwanzaa when he called for the holiday to be “slapped down.” “Why must we still hear about Kwanzaa?” the senator asked. “Why are hard-core left-wingers still trying to talk about Kwanzaa—the supposed African-American holiday celebration between Christmas and New Year’s?”
Grothman also advised against teachers “trying to pass it off as a real holiday” in schools. “With tens of millions of honorable Black Americans in our country’s past, we should not let a violent nut like Karenga speak for them,” he said.
A week before Thanksgiving this year, Washington Post columnist Jonathan Capehart, also a Black writer, said he couldn’t stand Kwanzaa. “I see it as another sincere yet misguided effort by African-Americans to forge a connection to an ancestral home they know nothing about,” he wrote. “Sure, the principles of ‘unity,’ ‘self-determination,’ and ‘collective work and responsibility’ are excellent. But did we really need Kwanzaa to imbue us with these values? Do we really need to light a candle each day and recite a word in a language we’ve never spoken or know anything about to reaffirm a sense of community and resilience?”
Why are there people questioning the validity of Kwanzaa, using it as yet another weapon for attacking anything Black that tries to be positive and uplifting? Meanwhile, our culture continues to peddle the fraudulence of American democracy, equality, and exceptionalism. What is at the heart of this annual anti-Kwanzaa attack is the underlying fear of the browning of America and the empowerment of people of color.
Karenga, a professor of Africana Studies at the University of California Long Beach, created Kwanzaa as a way to bring the Black community together after the Watts riots of 1965. Kwanzaa (Swahili for “First Fruits”) combines symbolic references to West Africa including kente cloth, ears of corn to represent children, and a kinara (similar to a Jewish menorah), with seven candles in red, black, and green—the colors of the African-American struggle for civil rights and justice.
But Karenga is also a controversial figure because he founded the nationalist group Organization Us to rival the Black Panther Party for Self-Defense. And he did a stint in prison in the early 1970s for felonious assault and false imprisonment charges related to the torture of female members of the Organization Us. But I argue—as many other have—that the value of Kwanzaa transcends his politics and proclivities. The holiday doesn’t deify or celebrate Karenga. Its emphasis on positive values is the real takeaway.
Remember that it took a long, rough struggle to establish the Martin Luther King Holiday, and that many states were slow to recognize it as legitimate. What is it about holidays that celebrate something Black that is so problematic?
The single most important aspect of Kwanzaa is Nguzo Saba, Swahili for “The Seven Principles”—one for each day of celebration—which represents values to strengthen and nurture individuals, families, tradition, and community throughout the year. And it is these principles that resonate most deeply with me these days, because they represent core values that can carry on not just through a week of celebration, but the entire year.
They are, in order:
1. Umoja, Unity
To strive for and maintain unity in the family, community, nation and race.
Our nation is splintered from a profound lack of unity at every level, and this lack encompasses everything from the words in the U. S. Constitution to our inability to have honest, productive, solution-oriented discussions about the racism that impacts all of us and is eroding our nation’s internal and external strength and viability. Black people and other groups of color are under siege—we’re battling substandard schools, dwindling job options, rampant poverty, our communities are being destabilized through gentrification, the prison pipeline is a growing threat, and of course, the ever-present danger of police violence. In 2014 alone, over 40 unarmed black people were killed by police, including 14 teens who were killed after the fatal shooting of Ferguson’s Mike Brown.
Just imagine what we could accomplish, what problems we—all Americans—could solve, with a stronger sense of unity, of being in these tough times and working towards solution together. And if the barriers to unity were removed for Black families and communities, everyone would win. So I’m definitely feeling the need for Umoja-Unity, especially this year.
2. Kujichagulia, Self-Determination
To define ourselves, name ourselves, create for ourselves and speak for ourselves.
African-Americans, whose ancestors were brought to this land forcibly and under horrific, inhumane conditions that lasted for centuries, have never had the luxury of self-determination compared to other groups who emigrated here voluntarily. Our names, religious practices, languages, cultures and all aspects of identity were stripped from us.
We weren’t allowed to marry, and could be killed for even attempting to learn to read. Our families were routinely dismantled during slavery and children often sold away from their parents, sometimes while still feeding at their mothers’ breast. We bore the Eurocentric names of our slave masters. That trauma continues today as we demonstrate and protest to remind everyone that #BlackLivesMatter in the face of unrelenting challenges to any healthy sense of self or any notion of being able to determine the dynamics of our survival.
We’re encouraged by the interracial coalitions that are forming to support this new movement and the growing recognition that our self-determination is essential for any kind of equality, justice and real social progress.
3. Ujima, Collective Work and Responsibility
To build and maintain our community together and make our brothers’ and sisters’ problems our problems and to solve them together
Black Americans want what everyone wants: safe, thriving communities in which to live, work, raise our children and enjoy a good quality of life. The challenges of redlining, rampant unemployment, mass school closures, community divestment and gentrification are just some of the barriers that hold us back. And most of us are ready and willing to take responsibility for making that happen. Across the country, at the grassroots level, there are churches and community organizations with young and old activists who are using their voices and social media to fight for the vote, quality schools, transportation, health care, safe playgrounds, access to healthy food, and standing up against gang violence in cities like Chicago and Trenton.
Despite the many economic and political barriers to our doing so, this really is our greatest hope and a goal we hold in our hearts despite all obstacles. Dedicating a day to the notion of collective work and responsibility is a great antidote to the stereotypical parade of images of Black people as hopelessly dysfunctional, damaged, and so far behind that we have no hope of catching up. It provides the possibility of a different, more empowering narrative to bolster us, and give others new ways to see the truth of what we can be and do.
4. Ujamaa, Cooperative Economics
To build and maintain our own stores, shops and other businesses and to profit from them together.
The economic strength that kept Black American communities afloat during Jim Crow segregation was lost with integration. While I’m NOT calling for a return to segregation, nobody would argue that the economic marginalization of the Black community today isn’t hurting everyone, and weakening our nation from within. In the face of epidemic Black poverty, skyrocketing unemployment and housing foreclosures, the idea of Ujamaa makes more sense than ever. Examples of Ujamaa in practice include the social media-fueled Black Friday “Black Outs” to protest the non-indictment of officer Darren Wilson in Ferguson, and a diverse coalition of low-wage workers walking off their jobs to protest to call for economic empowerment and while simultaneously supporting the notion that Black life matters.
5. To make our collective vocation the building and developing of our community in order to restore our people to their traditional greatness.
It’s practically impossible for African-Americans to feel a sense of greatness in today’s world. When was the last time you saw, heard or read a single piece of positive or affirming news about Black people in America?
Day after day, headlines blare the disparities that keep us scrambling: Dire poverty, health problems, educational achievement gaps, last hired/first fired, epidemic rates of incarceration and, of course, the fact that far too many Black children today have no confidence that they’ll live to adulthood. When was the last time any of us were depicted as fully-fleshed humans with a sense of community? Or the ability to determine the direction of our lives?
6. Kuumba, Creativity
To do as much as we can, in the way we can, in order to leave our community more beautiful and beneficial than we inherited it.
Black Americans’ various talents fuel the entertainment and sports industries. Yet we are overwhelmingly stuck in the position of talent rather than producer, even today. And while some White artists appropriate Black culture and creativity for profit and fame, there are, thankfully, many Black artists across all creative genres who use their talent to push the imagination beyond profits to uplift and articulate freedom dreams.
We’re still fighting the television and film industries for basic inclusion and authentic representation. We’re still battling stereotypes on every front. So we don’t really get to enjoy and fully benefit from the fruits of our creativity, not like we deserve to. A day to honor our creativity might just replenish our depleted souls and help others see the value of what we truly contribute.
7. Imani, Faith
To believe with all our heart in our people, our parents, our teachers, our leaders and the righteousness and victory of our struggle.
It’s not easy to believe in yourself or those like you when you are bombarded with images that depict you as powerless, dysfunctional and always, always lagging behind and deficient compared to those in the “mainstream.” It’s especially difficult to believe in your potential and value when they’re questioned, challenged and attacked at every turn. And it’s damn near impossible to have faith in a system that repeatedly assaults the notion of Black humanity and the right to live. So I can think of nothing more necessary and appropriate than a day in which we pause to consider how we find and maintain Imani – faith in ourselves, our communities, and our struggle to be seen.
When people attack Kwanzaa, they’re attacking the idea of something that is created by, and for Black people to affirm and celebrate their Blackness. Which is why I want people to reconsider dissing Kwanzaa this year. Sure, not all Black people are into it. Surveys suggest that about 13 percent of African-Americans celebrate the holiday. But that is a significant number of who come together to bask in and try to live these principles throughout the year.
I’ve never celebrated Kwanzaa, but it’s comforting to know that the option is there, especially this year, when many Black people just aren’t feeling festive in the wake of recent events. Some of us have a hard time getting into the holiday spirit when we think about Eric Garner’s family without a father, and the growing list of parents—from Trayvon Martin’s to Tamir Rice’s, with unarmed Black people being gunned down almost every week by police officers and being told that their murders were their own fault. I like the fact that something exists, something created by a Black person to accentuate the positive aspects of Black life in America. Most importantly, I love the fact we can create something that grows and spreads in the spirit of unity.
You don’t have to understand Kwanzaa, like it, or be able to relate to it. Just know that it is pro-Black—not anti-White, anti-Christian, anti-Jewish, anti-anything. It’s an affirmation, a celebration, and a positive possibility for a people who urgently need a sense of all those things, especially during a time when we need marches and signs and endless declarations to convince ourselves and others that #BlackLivesMatter. Because Black holidays matter, too.
Stacey Patton is this week’s guest columnist for “What’s Going On.”
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