The Trouble with Kwanzaa

I get the principles. But wearing kente cloth and knowing Swahili words doesn't make me any more authentic.

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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.

Exactly.

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.