This year, as I pondered about whether to drag my Kinara out along side my Christmas tree, I began to think if Kwanzaa was past its prime.
I admit I sometimes don’t know what to make of the holiday. I can’t figure out if it is good to have a holiday that celebrates Black culture, another way to “other” a marginalized population. It’s a reminder of a movement that reached its peak years ago, or just a great excuse to watch a Sandra Lee attempt to delve into “Black” culture using acorns and chocolate frosting.
I understand that for many, Kwanzaa’s relevancy today is minimal, but being raised with the holiday, I too recognize the voices of those who believe it’s an essential part of African American culture. Reading the vibrant debate about the holiday online made me think that maybe the root of the issue is less about whether Kwanzaa is a good or bad idea, but about whether we still need a Black power holiday.
Kwanzaa, despite all its current Hallmark glory, was started by a Black Nationalist as an offshoot of the Black Power Movement. Activist Ron (Mualana) Karenga, who believed that culture was a vital part of empowering Black communities, founded it in 1966 as he sought out an alternative to what he saw as the commercialization and Eurocentricity of Christmas. He combined African rituals with the idea of a commemorative African American tradition to create a seven-day holiday that takes places from December 26 to January 1, using candles, libation, song, and dance to celebrate the African American experience.
According to Keith Mayes, a leading expert on Kwanzaa, the holiday proved to be a life changing experience for some people like Elizabeth Campbell, who participated in the first Kwanzaa celebration in California. She said, “At last I had a culture of my own. I felt a connection to my ancestors so strong that everything I had ever experienced in my whole life came back to me and I was changed forever.”
I don’t know many people from my generation who say that Kwanzaa has had that kind of impact on them. But, then again, as members of Generation X and Y, the way we’re experiencing “Black Power” is far different from our parents and grandparents, which I think is where the problem lies.
When the holiday was created, the oppression of Blacks was fairly clear. There were rules and laws and social codes that explicitly excluded Blacks. It also didn’t help that Blacks were barely on television, and certainly not in many political positions of power. And despite the fact that there was dissension on how to reach those goals, the mission in many ways was always unified; the “struggle” was about gaining freedom, power, choice, and influence.
In the millennial world, where African Americans are still suffering greater than their White counterparts, it’s harder to pin down what Black Power means. Perhaps, it is because this idea of “Black Power” is too ambiguous of a term that many can’t relate to it, more less, a holiday celebrating its tradition. Black Power now means so many things to different people: It’s the politician. It’s the minister in the pulpit. The teacher in the classroom. Diddy. The young Black filmmaker. Voting. Oprah. To be able to rap about whatever you want. Wall Street. To learn. To be you. It’s marginalized, it’s mainstreamed. It’s debated and it’s derided.
But do we need a holiday to celebrate it?
There aren’t many concrete numbers on the annual participants of Kwanzaa, but its popularity amongst Blacks seems to be on the decline. Though its founder says that almost thirty million people celebrate the holiday, scholar Mayes puts the number between five hundred thousand and two million people, saying that interest has waned as the Black Power movement faded.
Yet, for its decline in the Black community, there is one area that Kwanzaa seems to be vibrant: in the public sphere, particularly the White institutional sphere. It’s celebrated in schools, by the US Postal Service, presidents make proclamations in its honor, and even Google has animation for the holiday. Kwanzaa is now a part of the mainstream multicultural movement.
Sure, many, especially the academic types may say this is once again “othering” the Black experience. But, I think, Kwanzaa is a way for White (a.k.a.) mainstream society to celebrate Black culture, to celebrate Black power. It’s not a bad thing. I think America needs Kwanzaa – but, now back to the question of whether Black America needs it?
It’s so many different things to so many different Black people I’m not sure there’s a collective answer that is right or wrong. Kwanzaa certainly doesn’t seem to be a negative part of Black culture, so maybe it’s best to just let people do whatever they want with the holiday. I think however, figuring out what and how the Black Power Movement is being carried on today is part of the key to the future of the holiday for Black Americans.
In trying to make sense of this all, I thought about last year when I set up my Kwanzaa table so that the kids of a family friend could see a “real” Kwanzaa. I remember the kids, who were around ten and eight at the time, passing by the table casually glancing at the Kinara and fake vegetables as if it were some artifact in a museum or some remnant of the past. As their mom explained the holiday, they nodded in understanding, but I could tell they just didn’t feel connected to it. It seemed distant. So they made their way to the Christmas tree. When they found their two presents they excitedly cheered and started reading right away. The gifts? Two books on Barack and Michelle Obama.