I don’t celebrate Kwanzaa. Or I haven’t, at least, since the days of green-and-red-draped Black Student Union programs in high school.
I admit that I couldn’t list the names of its seven principles and their accompanying meanings from memory if you held a lit candle to my head. A focus on this celebration—created in 1966 by Maulana Karenga to honor African-American family, community and culture, and now observed Dec. 26 through Jan. 1 by an estimated 2 million people—is not a tradition I was raised with or adopted as an adult. And like a lot of folks, I’m pretty holidayed out after Christmas.
But I’m really sick of hearing people joke about it.
I’m not talking about actual humor that’s pegged to a Kwanzaa theme, or the use of the unfamiliar Swahili names of Kwanzaa’s principles as comedic inspiration. Kwanzaa, like most things in life, is fair game for laughs. What I’m criticizing is the practice of mocking its very existence, when the punch line is that Kwanzaa exists.
A friend’s recent Facebook post captured my sentiment about this brand of humor pretty well:
To the person on this morning’s conference call who signed off with a sarcastic “Happy Kwanzaa”—I hate you.
Or “Chrismahanukwanzaakah,” the faux-funny mashup that grates me the same way. Just Christmas and Hanukkah squeezed together wouldn’t have been so funny, but add Kwanzaa—something wacky and foreign-sounding—to the mix and, whew! Hilarity!
And to be clear, I’m not playing the race card here. I know one black person who thinks the funniest thing to say as an ironic hipster greeting, year-round, is “Happy Kwanzaa.”
Because it feels cheap. And, frankly, sad. Just under the surface of that humor, in my view, are the same basic beliefs about the holiday that Wisconsin Republican state Sen. Glenn Grothman expressed when he declared, “Almost no black people care about Kwanzaa,” and called it a “supposed African-American holiday celebration.”
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.