I have never celebrated Kwanzaa. Neither my immediate nor extended family has ever celebrated, or barely even acknowledged Kwanzaa. I only know of one personal friend who celebrates Kwanzaa or knows what it is. When I was growing up most people in our family and social circles viewed Kwanzaa with suspicion as some kind of offbeat, anti-religious, maybe even anti-Christian, observance. Apparently my experience is not an outlier.
A 2011 article on The Root.com, “Who Actually Celebrates Kwanzaa?” discussed the results of an unscientific survey of its readers which indicated that only 35% of those surveyed celebrate Kwanzaa. It’s curious why a holiday created by us, for us is still—almost 50 years after its creation—experiencing such lackluster participation. Different explanations have been offered for Kwanzaa’s failure to capture either the imagination, finances, or national interest of the black American community: the after-Christmas timing of observance—December 26-January 1—is not ideal because it taxes people during the busiest holiday time of the year; blacks don’t really understand the purpose of the holiday and haven’t been able to contextualize its celebration to make it meaningful or practical; the scandals that surrounded its creator, Dr. Maulana Karenga, who was convicted in 1971 of felonious assault and false imprisonment following charges that he tortured and beat women members of his activist circle. Whatever the reasons may be, we can’t deny that the stated principles and purposes of Kwanzaa are relevant to the social, political, and economic realities of black people’s lives, especially now as we struggle against renewed assaults on our very value, freedom, and right to exist.
Cultural grounded-ness is at the heart of Kwanzaa as it was created to “serve as a regular communal celebration to reaffirm and reinforce the bonds between us as a people,” and to “be an ingathering to strengthen community and reaffirm common identity, purpose, and direction as a people.” Its origins as a tactical resistance measure against white oppression in the mid-1960s and its presence as part of the Black Freedom movement reveal striking parallels between Kwanzaa and the burgeoning protest movements rising today. #BlackLivesMatter co-founder Alicia Garza describes her effort as a “tactic to (re)build the Black liberation movement.” Activists have already begun to recognize and highlight the common ground between our struggles today and the antecedent conflicts of yesterday. The night the nation was notified that there would be no criminal indictment of former Ferguson police officer Darren Wilson for killing teenager Michael Brown, online images almost immediately surfaced that compared photographs of interactions between protesters and police during the King civil rights period, and those between residents of Ferguson and its police. We know we’re both re-living and creating history.
How do we stand our ground against this re-emerging tide of anti-blackness manifesting itself in unjustified killing, mass incarceration, school-to-prison pipelines, police brutality and racial profiling, cultural misappropriation, rapes and violent assaults, lower wages, job discrimination, predatory lending, re-segregated schools, and all the other mayhem coming against us? What was once the war-torn environment of large urban areas like Chicago, Philadelphia, Oakland, and New York has now migrated across the country and blacks feel like embattled refugees in our own country. Tweets from the black community and allies call for unity, resilience, and focus. Black mothers are reminding families to hold their children close and stand up for their rights to a demilitarized education and to live free from unwarranted surveillance, harassment, and targeting. Leaders of established organizations urge protest leaders to identify shared objectives that can unify our concerns and forge a path ahead for results-driven action. Local communities are holding town hall gatherings to discuss their options for protecting their children and getting their voices heard and heeded by politicians and other neighborhood leadership. Spoken word artists, muralists, poets, writers, bloggers, and actors are expressing their and our fears, hopes, frustrations, and resolves over the conditions we face. Even President Obama has weighed in with his My Brother’s Keeper funding and policy initiative. All are good strategies and all are encompassed within the principles of Kwanzaa.
Modeled after traditional African “first fruits” celebrations, Kwanzaa outlines seven principles of focus and practice to uplift and strengthen black identity and community, one for each day of the weeklong celebration. Umoja (Unity) promotes cohesion in the family, community, and race. Kujichagulia (Self determination) says we can define, name, create for and speak for ourselves. Ujima (Collective work and responsibility) encourages us to “build and maintain our community together and make our brother’s and sister’s problems our problems.” Ujamaa (Cooperative economics) stresses entrepreneurship and supporting each other’s businesses for our mutual benefit. Nia (Purpose) reminds us to work together for restoration of our people to original greatness. Kuumba (Creativity) speaks to our ability to use our talents, gifts, and ideas to beautify and enhance our community. Imani (Faith), encourages us to believe, with all of our hearts, in our people, parents, teachers and leaders. Without faith, nothing is possible.
Grassroots activists are already living these principles everyday through die-ins, shutting down of freeways, silent vigils, and large-scale marches. It’s just a small step to de-centralize our activities and set time aside in our families and churches to honor their origins and reaffirm our identity as black people striving, dying, and resisting together. Sometimes we must revisit previously discarded aspects of our culture and revive what’s good and helpful for our advancement as a people and Kwanzaa might just be the perfect way to regroup after a tumultuous year.