December is a time of year that brings great joy and stress and credit card bills. But it is also a the time of year when a certain type of article pops up on blogs and websites, one that always kind of frustrates me because it seems unnecessary – the ambivalent Kwanzaa article, evidenced here, and here. Typically a lapsed Kwanzaan will reflect on not participating anymore, or someone brings up the fact that it’s just not relevant anymore. For a long time I had a similarly sideways attitude towards the holiday, ‘its made up!’ ‘its corny!’ ‘why do I have to do all this learning when I could be opening real presents?’ being the biggest complaints I had. Really though, Kwanzaa isn’t that terrible.
Kwanzaa doesn’t have ancient clout behind it like Christmas or Hanukkah. It’s not wry or funny like Festivus. According to History.com: “Dr. Maulana Karenga, professor and chairman of Black Studies at California State University, Long Beach, created Kwanzaa in 1966. After the Watts riots in Los Angeles, Dr. Karenga searched for ways to bring African-Americans together as a community.” That’s kind of intense. As much as people complain about what we do or don’t do as African Americans, after a period that was no doubt painful for his community, a professor struck out and tried to make a difference. Whether or not Karenga was ethnographically sound or successful has yet to be determined, but at least he tried. Who else do you know that is trying to initiate a cultural movement to solve a community’s ills?
To be fair, I was not a fan of Kwanzaa from ages 12-26. Why? Because my mother insisted we celebrate. I love her dearly, but she’s kind of a hippy. Kwanzaa time brings up memories of ill-fitting dashikis and kente cloth wraps, straw mats, African fashion shows at church, and harvest festivals for me. My mother dragged me and my siblings to all of those events, most likely because she wanted us to grow up with a sense of who we were as African descended people. Granted, her knowledge of what that meant was limited, but living in central Virginia meant that learning more would mean being extremely proactive in seeking out whatever information you could find. So I appreciated her dedication to informing our experiences outside of those that we knew of (working and middle class country black folks).
I don’t think the made-up-ness of the holiday makes people feel any better about it, but a lot of things we do are made up. Traditions and cultures begin when people start them, and there’s nothing wrong with trying to start something positive that uplifts people. The principles Umoja (Unity) Kugijaculia (Self-Determination), Ujima (Collective Work), Ujamaa (Cooperative Economics), Nia (Purpose), Kumbaa (Creativity) and Imani (Faith) are all wonderful tenets to aspire to and live by. Also, they are lots of fun to say – ‘Kugijaculia’ has a way of rolling off the tongue.
I get it. Kwanzaa is a legit history-lesson-wrapped up into a holiday, and let’s keep it real, history lessons and values are not something that are easily digested in a culture that relies on consumer spending to keep the economy afloat. But the fact that Festivus, which was made up by an imaginary character on Seinfeld, can get so much love is funny to me when Kwanzaa was a pioneer of the ‘anti-materialistic’ holiday movement. You learn lessons and connect with your community. You give gifts of books (which clearly I am biased about, lol). You learn Swahili. These things are not awful. They actually make for pretty cool family memories if you’re down for that sort of thing. So why won’t people let Kwanzaa be great?
T. Hall is a intellignorant writer based in northern Virginia. She tries not to take herself too seriously, and blogs about original fiction, books and life at DopeReads.com.