BY JOY ANN REID
28 December 2007
I've gotten into heated debates about Kwanzaa, the holiday created in
Los Angeles in 1966 at the height of the Black Power movement by an
African studies professor and self-described "cultural nationalist"
named Ron Everett, a.k.a. Dr. Maulana ("master teacher" in Swahili) Karenga.
At the time, Karenga's stated purpose was to create "an oppositional
alternative to the spookism, mysticism and non-earth based practices
which plague us as a people…" and "to give a Black alternative to the
existing holiday and give Blacks an opportunity to celebrate
themselves and history rather than simply imitate the practice of the
Karenga created his holiday during a violent era; sixteen months
after the Watts Riots and sixteen months before the assassination of
Dr. King - at a time when the group he also founded, the United
Slaves Organization ("US"), was considered more radical than the
Black Panthers. For its detractors, Kwanzaa represents both racial
separatism and religious rejectionism.
As a child of the 1970s and '80s, whose absent Congolese father
dismissed it (by telephone) as a fake-African affectation; and whose
Caribbean mother adored Muhammad Ali and wore her Angela Davis soul
fro, but found Kwanzaa no fit companion for Jesus and Christmas, I
never felt compelled to celebrate Kwanzaa.And yet, I recognize
Kwanzaa's place in propelling Black America through the crucible of
post Jim Crow America. It was a protest holiday 347 years in the making.
Kwanzaa fit the "take no more stuff" era of the late '60s and '70s -
the Age of Vietnam and the Black Man with a capitol M; of Ali,
Malcolm X (whom Karenga has described as a major influence.) Its
growing popularity tracked the upward curve of Black self-confidence.
It was Aretha Franklin and James Brown over "White Christmas" and
"Jingle Bells." And it had all the attitude of the last generation of
Blacks to see the back of a bus. If Karenga hadn't invented it,
somebody else would have had to.
Forty-one years later, Kwanzaa has gone mainstream, complete with
themed Hallmark cards and the ultimate stamp of institutional
approval: the specialized postage stamp. It's embraced by mall
greeters and elementary schools and written into the politically
correct holiday script (something other holidays, like the Muslim
Eid, have yet to accomplish).
Even Karenga's early message: "think black, talk black, act black,
create black, buy black, vote black, and live black," has softened.
On the official Kwanzaa web-site, www.us-organization.com, the call
is for this year's holiday to "be engaged as an ancient and living
cultural tradition which reflects the best of African thought and
practice in its reaffirmation of the dignity of the human person in
community and culture, the well-being of family and community, the
integrity of the environment and our kinship with it, and the rich
resource and meaning of a people's culture."
To be sure, many who celebrate Kwanzaa remain hardcore, but the
context for Black America has changed as our community has become
more ethnically, geographically, religiously, linguistically and
economically diverse. Still, there are ways that all of us can live
the seven principles of Kwanzaa, for the benefit of all of us,
whether we actually celebrate the holiday or not:
For unity (umoja), we can band together to create safety in numbers
for those brave enough to help law enforcement solve crimes, and we
can demand that police reciprocate by treating us with respect.
For self-determination (kujichagulia), we can stop waiting for
someone else to clean up and build up our neighborhoods, and do it ourselves.
For collective work and responsibility (ujima), we can vote
consistently, and use our votes to hold our leaders accountable (or
to vote them out if they fail us.)
For cooperative economics (ujamaa), we can spend our money wisely,
and only with businesses that give us good service and that sow seeds
back into our communities.
For purpose (nia), we can encourage – or at least stop hating on --
people who look like us who are trying to advance, even if they
didn't get there through us (national politics included)…
For creativity (kuumba), we can create and support media outlets that
accurately depict and proactively inform us, and leave the B movies
and insult music alone.
For faith (imani), we can pray for one another often – or if we're
not religious, we can just do the right thing.
Happy holidays … and happy Kwanzaa … to all.