Is Kwanzaa still important to African Americans despite the universality of Christmas?

Nii Ntreh Dec 25, 2019 at 08:00am

December 25, 2019 at 08:00 am | Culture

Nii Ntreh

Nii Ntreh | Associate Editor

December 25, 2019 at 08:00 am | Culture

ca. 2001 --- Family Celebrating Kwanzaa --- Image by © Royalty-Free/Corbis

One of the biggest selling points of Christmas is that it has been attractive for hundreds of years even to those who would not identify as Christians.

Perhaps, the triumph of the colonization efforts of Europeans some 600 years ago did not leave us with much choice.

Christianity is universal and pervasive, so much so that in Africa, it is common to see even government documents request people’s “Christian name” instead of “first name”.

The religion has become the foundation of the identity of many Africans and people of African descent. Many cannot see themselves except through the lens of Christian culture.

It is not just Christianity. Globalization, an economic theory that is in cultural essence westernization, sweeps into every space enforcing adaptability and assimilation.

At this point, there is a legitimate conversation that global black people need to have about retaining any degree of Africanness. Such is the dilemma that involves Kwanzaa and Christmas.

Created in 1966 by Africana Studies professor, Dr. Maulana Karenga, Kwanzaa, which is an African-American and Pan-African holiday, is observed annually from December 26 to January 1.

The holiday, which is not just observed within the African-American community but also among a few in the Caribbean, celebrates African heritage and culture in both communities.

Dr. Karenga drew inspiration to create Kwanzaa after reading about popular Zulu harvest festival Umkhosi Wokweshwama, which is celebrated annually around December.

Kwanzaa is etymologically derived from Swahili phrase matunda ya kwanza meaning “harvest of the firstfruits”.

Activities during the week-long festivities include the celebration of the seven principles of Kwanzaa which is also referred to as Nguzo Saba. One principle is allocated to each of the seven days of the festivities.

The principles of Kwanzaa include Umoja (unity), Ujima ( collective work and responsibility), Kujichagulia (self-determination) and Ujamaa (cooperative economics).

The others are Nia (purpose), Kuumba (creativity) and Imani (faith).

These principles are supposed to foster community among African-Americans. They are also philosophical steps for Africans in the diaspora to reconnect with those on the continent.

All of this is in good spirit and intention. But what happens when a generation of African Americans do not feel “African” enough to observe Kwanzaa?

In 2011, The Root, after a small poll, reported that “those born in or before 1945 and in or after 1982 are least likely to celebrate the holiday [of Kwanzaa]”.

They would rather celebrate Christmas and view Kwanzaa as “an accessory holiday”.

But this is most unfortunate. What is apparent is a severance of the ties between these African Americans and Africans.

It also reveals the willingness to surrender one’s uniqueness in identity so as to accept what we feel is overriding and overwhelming. But Dr. Karenga anticipated this phenomenon.

For Kwanzaa’s creator, the celebrations are supposed to “reaffirm the bonds” between Africans and those in the diaspora. For Dr. Karenga, the commonality here is the holocaust of slavery.

The onus lies on African Americans to understand how and why they have come to be part of the United States. Any miseducation on the matter is bound to end in disaster.

The idea here is not that African Americans should shun Christmas or any sense of identity that is not connected to the motherland. It is also not the case that African Americans should opt for the “hotep” way of life.

But what Kwanzaa provides is a necessary reminder of how today was shaped by yesterday. People of African descent can choose to embrace what today offers but it is non-negotiable what the structures upon which today’s society is built are.

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