Kwanzaa anyone? Is it just me, or does it seem Kwanzaa’s popularity has taken a hit? Over the last decade or so the celebration of this distinctively African American holiday seemed to really picked up momentum, thanks largely to our society’s increased emphasis on diversity and cultural sensitivity. But lately there seems to be less buzz about this 44-year-old Afrocentric festival.
What gives? Philadelphia Daily News columnist Jenice Armstrong ponders this question in her excellent essay at Philly.com. Though it’s hard to put an official figure to exactly how many African Americans celebrate Kwanzaa, conservative estimates place it at between 1 and 2 million people. But, on a personal level, how many of us actually know people who seriously observe Kwanzaa? How many of us really take it seriously?
For many black people, Kwanzaa observances, which revolve around the lighting of a candle every day from Dec. 26 to Jan. 1 to salute and meditate on the seven principles of the event, are a nice idea in theory, but coming on the heels of Christmas, seven more days of holiday observance — and not just any holiday, but one that requires focused thought and effort — probably feels like too much work. Some might also wonder if the much-hyped “Obama Effect” has also had an impact on Kwanzaa. With an African American now president of the entire United States, is a holiday designed to encourage black solidarity and progress still as much of a felt need?
Others are less charitable toward the event in general, wondering if it’s just another instance of African Americans trying to claim their own “black” version of something that shouldn’t be about race. After all, isn’t Christmas big enough for all races and cultures to enjoy? Of course, those who do observe Kwanzaa know that this kind of criticism misses the point.
Still, the idea that Kwanzaa is a second-tier holiday, on par with Groundhog Day or Sweetest Day, is a legitimate sentiment among many Americans. In her column, Jenice Armstrong quotes Bertram D. Ashe, a professor of English and American studies at the University of Richmond, regarding Kwanzaa’s underwhelming popularity:
“It seems to me you have to care about blackness above and beyond the everyday to celebrate Kwanzaa, and while there are plenty of conscious black people who do so, of all socioeconomic strata, I don’t see it taking off … because in order to have the black masses participate in large, noisy numbers, Kwanzaa would have to be simplified and made easy and consumer-friendly, and would then presumably lack the educational aspect of the holiday. I don’t see that happening. That’s simply not the way it was designed when Ron Karenga founded the ritual in the mid-1960s, and I don’t see that changing anytime soon, nor should it.”
Armstrong goes on to wonder whether Kwanzaa would’ve become more embraced if it had been scheduled during Black History Month or in the summer, far away from the Christmas season. It’s hard to say whether that would make a great difference. My sense is it wouldn’t.
The truth is, for many people, Kwanzaa comes across as too self-important and racially exclusive. And detached from an explicitly religious foundation such as Christianity, it just doesn’t feel as urgent or essential as Christmas, which despite its crass commericalism is still defined by its recognition of the central event in human history, the arrival of— God with us in flesh.
What do you think? Is Kwanzaa’s popularity fading? Do you recognize it as a genuine holiday? Share your thoughts below.
Edward Gilbreath is editor of UrbanFaith.com and the author of Reconciliation Blues: A Black Evangelical’s Inside View of White Christianity.