and while I don’t officially celebrate Kwanzaa, I respect it as an entity, and feel the need to defend it from haters like my bestie K. Hence, this post.
A little background: Kwanzaa is a week-long holiday created by Dr. Maulana Karenga, a major figure in the Black Power Movement of the 60s and 70s, to “give Blacks an alternative to the existing holiday and give Blacks an opportunity to celebrate themselves and history, rather than simply imitate the practice of the dominant society.” There are seven principles, each with a day devoted to it and represented by a red, green, or black candle that goes into a specific place in the kinara, a special candleholder. You’re supposed to spend each day reflecting and talking about the principle with your family and friends, and each night feasting and exchanging gifts (which may or may not be supposed to be handmade as a rebellion against American consumer culture.) And that’s a little much even for a self-righteous Black woman like myself, because I have no problems with Santa (who was Black in my house anyway, but that’s another story for another time), and I hit up the after-Christmas sales LIKE A BOSS today, but I like the spirit of the celebration nonetheless. I like that it’s something created by and for our peoples as a way of celebrating whatever it is that connects all of us Diasporic individuals.
Growing up, my family usually lit the candles, and my dad usually mailed me a Kwanzaa card, but I wouldn’t go so far as to say we legitimately celebrated Kwanzaa. As I’ve gotten older and have to start thinking about which traditions from my childhood to keep and which to let go of, I’ve decided that I want to start taking Kwanzaa more seriously. I don’t know if I’ll go so far as to make and exchange gifts for each of the days, but I want to get a kinara, light the candles on each day, and spend some time at the very least seriously reflecting on each of the principles, hopefully engaging in discussion with friends and family about them.
I don’t understand people who criticize it for being “made up;” how is it any more made up than the secular version of Christmas or Easter or any other (even non-religious) holiday? All holidays are social constructions, and I like the principles and values this particular holiday tries to construct us around. Maybe people who dress in “traditional African clothing” or go around speaking languages that originated in Africa or cooking foods from various African countries for this week ONLY every year might be “faking it” or “making it up,” but I think that just by being a socially conscious person of African descent in this world, I am living my culture every single day–on these particular days, I’m just reflecting on specific principles that may add strength and depth to my own understanding of that very culture. And I see no problems with that.
That being said, today’s principle is Umoja, which means “unity” in Swahili. It is a day for reuniting with friends and family, and more broadly, for thinking about ties that bind. I spent this whole semester taking “Diversity in Black America,” and after 12 weeks I say “Black peoples” and “Black cultures” and “Black identities,” yet I don’t believe it’s possible to walk away from this concept of “out of many, one.” Sure we may come from as many different backgrounds as you can possibly imagine and go through quite a range of experiences and have diverse interests and have been raised in cultures that are nothing like one another’s and have different languages, vocabularies, styles, and tastes…but there is something that keeps “the Black head nod” and the either gravitation towards or strict avoidance of the other Black person in the room when you‘re few and far between in some social setting. Maybe that something is nothing more than the legacy of racism in this country, which has molded us all within a racialized understanding of the world, and maybe it’s something more, but whatever it is, it is, and that is fine as long as we can still come together in our difference.
Unity is not casting out members of our communities for being different. It’s accepting those who are Black and Women, who are Black and LGBTQQIA, who are Black and nerdy/awkward, and even who are Black and Republican. It’s recognizing the “Black card” and terms like “oreo” and “sell-out” as ridiculous entities that no one has the authority to project onto anyone else. I think the truest form of solidarity to which we can strive as Black peoples, or even as human beings on this great green earth, is just to accept each other for that which we are without trying to quantify the authenticity or validity of anyone’s sense of self. Recognizing that I am what I am, you are what you are, and we are what we are…that is being united.