Kwanzaa is Coming….
No disrespect to Kwanzaa or Maulana Karenga or the people who created it and celebrate it, but fuck that noise. I’m tired of getting asked if I celebrate Kwanzaa by white folks who think it’s some type of ancient African tradition that reverberates through the Black cultural memory like Mufasa’s voice. I’m tired of having to fake enthusiasm when professors (and their fake enthusiasm) try to teach it in class, although they don’t understand or give a shit about it. I’m sick of the phrase “Christmahanakwanza” and I wish bad things upon the people who coined it. I hate Black people who walk around in dashikis and kufis and try to impress people with the “African” words they speak (and couldn’t name more than 2 languages or people in the whole continent). I’m tired of that. I’m annoyed with having to learn a bunch of words that all mean unity, ESPECIALLY the one that happens to fall on my birthday (how the fuck do you pronounce Kujichagulia?) I hate sitcoms and shows where the token black families/characters obligatorily celebrate it. And I’m tired of us acting like it’s some sort of ancient bridge towards “African” concepts of our birthplace and heritage.
Let’s get started by answering the obvious. What is Kwanzaa? Well it’s a week-long celebration of universal African-American heritage directly following Christmas (i.e. the 26th) which emphasizes one of seven different principles every day. There’s Umoja (unity), the aforementioned Kujichagulia (self-determination), Ujima (collective work and responsibility), Ujamaa (cooperative economics), Nia (purpose), Kuumba (creativity), and Imani (faith). Aside from spending days back-ordering all of the kente cloth available on Amazon, Kwanzaa is celebrated by feasting, gift giving, the lighting of Menorah-like candles, drinking from a common cup, and singing Kumbayah (I think). All of my research comes from the Proud Family, btw.
Kwanzaa was created in 1966 by Maulana Karenga and an offshoot branch of the Black Nationalist movement called the US Organization. That’s right, Kwanzaa is younger than my parents. The origins of the holiday are about as intriguing as they come. Although most Black folks now who celebrate it do so in addition to celebrating Christmas, it was intended as an alternative to Christmas. Karenga believed Christmas was a holiday meant for only white people (and Christianity a religion only for them) and that Jesus was a madman. Not quite the portrayal they give you about Umoja in elementary school. But as Kwanzaa gained more followers, of course Karenga changed his mind about that and said it wasn’t meant to replace existing celebrations. Karenga himself was at best a bit crazy and at most a bit murderous and torturous himself (although to be fair, so were many other Black Nationalist leaders, some of whom we have praised here before) and was in all versions of history, extremely paranoid and erratic. Guess that’s what happens when you’re a COINTELPRO target. But Kwanzaa seems to have been born more of his reactionary distancing from whites than from a desire to re-embrace African values and actually push the principles in the community.
Now I’m not knocking those who celebrate Kwanzaa. I think the world, and especially the Black community, would be better off if we really did embrace the values promoted by the holiday. I just hate the common assumption that because I’m Black, I celebrate it, know more about it than others, or have some sense of duty to celebrate it. And I think it’s another culprit in the Western/Colonialism-fueled notion that “Africa” is some vague concept of a place where everyone is pretty much the same pastoral dark people. I think a lot of African-American attempts to celebrate our past and culture celebrate this misguided concept of Africa rather than what it actually is. I’ve been to South Africa, Tanzania, Zimbabwe, and Senegal. Even within very small regions, Africa is not a monolith. There are similarities between a lot of people, but there are also differences as deep as you have with neighbors of different races or religions. I think Kwanzaa perpetuates this kind of neo-colonialist version of the “noble savage” theory with its distillation and misinterpretation of certain “African” customs and values. A more nuanced reading of our history and celebration thereof would do a lot more good.
Also, just because I’m Black, I don’t have a compulsion or cultural calling to even regard Kwanzaa at all. Like I said, I’ve met a lot of different people of African descent in this world, and I’m almost certain that Kwanzaa as a whole would seem even more silly to them than it does for me. It has nothing to do with my Blackness or need for expression of it. And I’m sick of having to explain to White folks that I don’t celebrate and that only about 1% of the greater population and 0% of the people I know celebrate it. I get enough gifts on Christmas. If my family tried to dress up in dashikis and sit around drinking from a cup to celebrate our “Africanness” we would probably die laughing (and this is a family where my father is a professor of both African and African-American history and has one of the biggest private collections of Pan-African cultural artifacts). I’m tired of being treated like some expert on it, the same way I’m tired of being an expert on everything else white folks think that Black people like. It really is a burden in a world where I’m just trying to succeed and get this whole “being successful while being a Black man” thing down pat.
All in all, I don’t think that Kwanzaa occupies the same space of necessity that it once did, at least in my experience. When it came about, a lot of Black folks were disenchanted about an ongoing struggle for Civil Rights that accomplished lofty goals but seemed to be utterly unable to address the lingering issues of inequality and everyday injustices. Around ’66, the King-led Civil Rights strain was in the process of being supplanted by more radical strains of Black movements, including Black Nationalism. This largely academic-led movement started as a kind of revival of Garvey and Dubois’s Pan-Africanist ideals. It sought separation and self-sustenance “by any means” rather than accommodation from the majority, a push that was largely understandable given the failures of accommodation at meaningfully changing the lives of young poor Blacks. It relied on creating a sense of pride and separation through creation of a mythos linking us to something not of this country, and a key part of this mythos was the creation of Kwanzaa. Like the rest of the mythos, Kwanzaa was based on a loose reading of history and a reactionary rejection of all things seen as “white.” However, like other parts of the mythos, it was often as bad at fairly portraying the Motherland as whites were. And it really did take an approach that while purporting to reject Western mythos, simply seemed to imitate it. All in all, the mythos was necessary given our need to feel some sense of shared pride.
I just don’t think we need things like Kwanzaa like we used to. Hyper-capitalism and the embrace of Blacks in popular culture has made a separate nationalist approach to Civil Rights unfeasible and unworkable. Our acceptance of MLK and his movement as the savior of the race immediately made his brand of Civil Rights the most viable approach to future solutions. So I think that Kwanzaa is a dinosaur of a remedy that really can’t fix today’s problems. And I think that the rather shallow reading of African history and culture and how it shaped African-American culture contained within it can now be rethought and expanded upon as a holistic and accurate lesson for all. I think it would do a lot better for the Black youth here to actually see what it’s like to be African and to share a common history with real people in the Diaspora than to recite some words they don’t care about in kente cloth. But maybe that’s just me.
But if, you do celebrate it, disregard this post. Or write an angry comment. Or twitpic yourself in a dashiki. Either way.