Stop Making Jokes About Kwanzaa—Seriously

The holiday that so many like to laugh at is about the same things we take seriously all year.

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Yes, the holiday’s popularity seems to have “plateaued” in the late 1980s and early ’90s. And of course, not all the criticisms of it are thoughtless or arrogant or grounded in a disdain for the unfamiliar. Imani Perry, a Princeton University professor of African-American studies, took to Facebook this week to say she understands that people have serious—if, perhaps, unfairly applied—gripes with the holiday.

There have been questions about Karenga’s past (“Although I do wonder what they do with Christmas given the whole slavery, colonialism, patriarchy, inquisition, etc., thing,” Perry says). There are qualms about the way Kwanzaa has been commercialized and Hallmark-ified. And there’s disapproval of its embrace of an East African language from a camp that thinks West African would be a better choice (“I guess the West should just give up this whole appreciation-of-Greece thing, too,” she muses). 

But Perry says she ultimately admires the values of Kwanzaa and people who take the time to participate in a ritual that invites a community to share those values across religious and class differences, calling it “a wonderful reminder to love and live with purpose, creativity, faith, collaboration and a strong sense of self into the coming year.”

And after all, aren’t those the same sentiments many of us harness with unbridled enthusiasm outside of the holiday season? Isn’t Kujichagulia—“To define ourselves, name ourselves, create for ourselves, and speak for ourselves”—just a word in another language for the quality that infused Beyoncé’s most recent album with its life-affirming powers for so many black women? Wasn’t it what delivered the cathartic effect of 12 Years a Slave?

Isn’t Imani—“believing with all our hearts in the righteous victory of our struggle”—what compels us to publicly take on every injustice, from Trayvon Martin’s death to the New York City Police Department’s stop-and-frisk policy? Isn’t it what gets us to rally around a little girl who gets kicked out of school because of a racist policy that disallows her hair?

No one’s scoffing when these things are happening in June, September or November. So why would efforts to formalize and celebrate the values that fuel them be dismissed with humor the week after Christmas? As Melonyce McAfee put it, the holiday may be “made” up, but it still has worth.

Even in the midst of winter and at the end of a year that “pretty much sucked for black people,” when many times we’ve had to laugh to keep from crying, there are much funnier things out there than Kwanzaa. I’m sure of it.

The Root’s staff writer, Jenée Desmond-Harris, covers the intersection of race with news, politics and culture. She wants to talk about the complicated ways in which ethnicity, color and identity arise in your personal life—and provide perspective on the ethics and etiquette surrounding race in a changing America. Follow her on Twitter.

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