Monday, December 20, 2010

Why I Don't Celebrate Kwanzaa

I'm willing to admit that, in the past, my jocular attitude about Kwanzaa was insensitive. I apologized then and I'm doing it again, publicly. Sorry! I remember learning about it in Sunday School as a child, and wondering why we didn't celebrate it at home. But then, I learned that my family wasn't an anomaly; most African-Americans don't celebrate Kwanzaa, an African-American holiday. Are we shunning a holiday created specifically for us in favor of Western traditions and holidays that were created without our unique cultural needs in mind? I say, no, and before you crucify me, here's why.

What is Kwanzaa?
As most of those who are passively familiar with Kwanzaa know, it is a holiday created by Dr. Karenga to reaffirm African-Americans' rootedness in African culture, to reinforce the bonds between them as a people, and to introduce and reaffirm the value of the Nguzo Saba, the Seven Principles of Kwanzaa. It is recognized between Dec 26 - Jan 1st. So, in all fairness, one could celebrate Hanukkah, Christmas, and Kwanzaa without trampling on each others holiday. How convenient!
(Source: The History of Kwanzaa, Click Here for more info.)

Why I'm Not Down
1. Language Barrier - African-Americans have ancestors in a continent with over 2000 languages. Granted, a good portion of us came from targeted, specific regions, but even those regions represent a cornucopia of divergent and differing cultures.
The only language one can truly consider representative of people that identify as "African-Americans" is English. So to create a holiday using Swahili terms, a language spoken in 10 of Africa's 54 countries, but in fewer than 1% of African-American households, doesn't make sense.

2. Africa's A Country... Right? Remember when the (unproven) rumor leaked that Sarah Palin "didn't know Africa was a continent, not a country"? It's a common yet dangerous myth that Africa is one big country comprised of folks in various shades of dark chocolate, overrun with HIV, drums, lions, and people whose names include clicks. This myth is perpetuated by multiple factors, many we can't control, such as Black Americans' collective yet relatively ambiguous ancestry in a huge land with no specific country to point to. The idea of creating a holiday based in "African tradition" seems to trivialize Africa's diversity. I find it disrespectful, to be honest. It has the potential to make Black Americans feel as if they've grasped an idea of their ancestors, when Kwanzaa doesn't even come close to scratching the surface.

3. Misses The Mark. Dr. Karenga said his goal was to do the following:
a. "give Blacks an alternative to the existing holiday..." What is the existing holiday that we need an alternative to? Christmas, for example is a Christian holiday, not a White one, and is celebrated even amongst the most fervent atheists and agnostics. I need no alternative.
b. "give Blacks an opportunity to celebrate themselves and our history... ." Wait... wait.. this is starting to sound like Black History Month. I think Carter G. Woodson (and later McDonald's) beat him to the punch on the Celebrating Black History Movement. I'm all for celebrating Black History 365 days a year. But do we really need Kwanzaa to do so? And how does learning about principles that represent "the best of African thought" really do that? The principles of Kwanzaa (unity, self-determination, collective work and responsibility, cooperative economics, purpose, creativity, and faith) are all admirable. But a true dedication to African-American history, would teach us, I don't know... history.
c. "...rather than simply imitate the practice of the dominant society." Dominant society. Hmmm. America has made, and continues to make, a lot of heinous mistakes and gaffes in its 234-year long history. It was built by many hands, many of them brown and black. But there's no denying that Black Americans' history is America's history. There's no separating the two. I'm the first to rail against the dominant society and its ills, but I refuse to say that society at large is not ours to celebrate and be a part of. We can't be  accused of "imitating society" if we created it! We earned the right to be a part of the mainstream and its society. I will celebrate Christmas, Easter, Mother's Day, and Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King Day, because they resonate with me. Kwanzaa does not.

As an American with African ancestry, it's my right to be both American and seek to learn more about my African roots. No shade to people who recognize Kwanzaa and its 'creator, Dr. Karenga. I admire all the work Karenga's done. Kwanzaa just isn't giving me what I need.

What about you? Are you part of the 1.4 million to 30 million that celebrate Kwanzaa? (Broad range I know, the numbers vary, depending on who you ask). If you don't, why not? Please share!


  1. Ths is a piece of work. its a shame how Africa is so diverse with different countries, languages, and people but its often mistaken for a country (Vanessa). Its hard to celebrate a kwanzaa when there are so many things about Africa. When you think about it. it is kind of disrespectful

  2. @John: Miss you brother! Hope Germany is treating you well. Thanks for your words. No need to drag Vanessa into this.

  3. I agree with alot of what you are saying. But for me and my family, the principles of Kwanzaa are what we celebrate most. Taking time to become your unified. Understanding our purpose. Being supportive of our community. These are the things we focus on. No matter where you are from, or what language you speak you should take the time to focus on such family and community oriented principles. It is just away for us to look beyond the material things that are involved with the season. But to each their own.... You presented a lot of interesting facts. But, for my family and I the focus is not on the language it is based off of, or the many coutries in Africa. It is simply about family. Thanks for letting me know about your blog!

  4. @DeAshia: Thanks so much for sharing! Celebrating the principles makes sense, and I respect that. I hope you stop over here often. :)

  5. @Crystal No problem. Thanks for inviting me!

  6. I agree with you wholeheartedly! I couldn't get into Kwanzaa. I will say that I didn't consider all that you wrote about in this post, which solidifies my belief that Kwanzaa isn't a holiday that I have to practice. I think the holiday was created out of superficial thought. It would have took too much research to encompass all the culture that Africa has to offer. I only have one thing I disagree with. Christmas is a puesdo christian or Pagan holiday. I don't think God is pleased with how most of us celebrate the birth of Jesus Christ. But then again, I don't think God is pleased with a lot of things we do now-a-days. But I digress, because that's for a whole 'nother post.

    Always love how you make me think! Thanks Ms. Grant!

  7. As a first generation Ghanian born in the US, I can honestly tell you that Kwanzaa clearly misses the mark, although it had good intentions.

    1. A great number of African countries have a majority of Christian faith believers and celebrate Christmas. So why would I want to abandon that? I want to celebrate & rejoice in the birth of Jesus! I just think the intention of Kwanzaa was to abandon the consumeristic and pagan tradition that Christmas has become, and I applaud that aspect (if indeed that is true).

    2. Many African countries have several languages have different languages that change from town to town and tribe. Celebrating a holiday that's based from Swahili & calling it "African Heritage" is a huge injustice to the other countries on the continent.

    3. I agree that a lot of Black Americans think of Africa as one big country, running around butt-naked w/ a bone-in-nose mainly because A) that's what we're conditioned to believe; B) they don't have a specific country to relate to; and C) wasn't that the intention 200+ yrs ago when their ancestors were brought over? I don't want to go deeper into this topic (I can go for days on this, especially since we still are affected by the infamous "Willie Lynch Speech").

    Celebrating Kwanzaa to me is like saying I'm going to celebrate a french tradition and call it "European" since its part of Europe and its European heritage. (Wait, I think we do the same thing anyways with Asian cultures & traditions…)

    Food for thought. Love your work Crystal.

  8. Greetings this is a corrected version of my initial response...

    I agree w/DeAshia on y she celebrates Kwanzaa. While Kwanzaa may not have done it for you, it has definitely served it's purpose for my family & I for the past 30 yrs. Keep in mind that whatever kind if Christianity you celebrate, know that all Afrikan ppl r not Christians. I'm happy to hv raised my children in the values & traditions of Kwanzaa bc surely Christmas doesn't & never has done it for me.

    Kwanzaa is a holiday that reflects many of the characteristics of Afrikan ppl. And yes this may also b true for all ppl however all ppl are not continuously challenged about their humanity as Afrikan ppl r & have been. Even in these times of so called civilization Aftikan ppl r lynched, incarcerated & exploited as expendable components of the human family. I remain grateful that someone like Dr Karenga took the time to study, learn & share about the importance of valuing our Afrikan ancestry & using (be it a hybrid) Afrikan language.

    While many of our fellow human groups respect & transmit the culture & traditions of their ancestors, it is unfortunate that some Afrikan ppl continue to downplay & disrespect theirs. Kwanzaa is here to stay no matter how many or how few millions of Afrikan ppl celebrate it. For those of us who want out of European dominated holidays based on history versus ourstory, Kwanzaa remains the answer specifically bc of our mixed disconnection with our Afrikan family groups resulting from the triangular trade.

    My thoughts r that we continue existing as a ppl full of hope for acceptance w/ppl who show their hatred & intolerance of our existence on a daily basis. Instead of recognizing this truth some of us opt 2 beg 2 hold hands w/ ppl who point guns at us & shoot, incarcerate us for generations & tie lynch knots around our necks & force us to think & function in ways that r beneficial 2 their existence over our own. Truly the fact of the matter is that all of the questioning, resistance & confusion about Kwanzaa is fear based. We may as well love our Afrikan selves, & the culture & traditions of our ancestors esp since this is exactly what our fellow human groups do, unapologetically & uncompromisingly.

    Iya Adjua, PhD

  9. Hello Doc!

    Thanks for your comments. I just want to make it clear that this post wasn't a call for all to stop celebrating Kwanzaa. It simply is a post explaining why Kwanzaa doesn't resonate for me. (Title: Why *I* Don't Celebrate Kwanzaa)

    However, I am grateful for what Kwanzaa has done for you and your family for the past 30 years. I would never want to negate the value it has in you and many others' lives.

    As far as Christianity, until a few years ago when I read Paving Our Country Marks, I didn't even realize that monotheism, much less Christianity had reached Africa, prior to contemporary missionaries. Shows you my ignorance huh?

    However, it is experiences like great books, conversations with historians, documentaries, and personal research that have taught me about my ancestors', not Kwanzaa. Through my elementary introduction to Kwanzaa, I learned a few Swahili terms, some great principles, that I strive to practice year round.

    While it hurts to learn about the discrimination folks like Jackie Robinson and others faced while attempting to integrate, assimilate, etc, I am eternally grateful for their efforts. My generation, future generations, and others benefit from their sacrifice. By recognizing Christmas, Mother's Day, Easter, and the like, I'm not paying homage to a "European ideal", I'm acknowledging the birth of my Savior, my mother's phenomenal influence on my life, and the resurrection of my Savior respectively.

    To acknowledge the principles celebrated during Kwanzaa, I think it takes a year round commitment. I can absolutely use those African principles in my life, sans red candles. If you choose to do so, I applaud you and respect your wishes. I simply ask that my "holiday preferences" be mine, without the assumption being that I'm selling out or buying into a culture that hates me.

  10. The more I read over your article, the more I am confused. I am not clear on what exactly you want from Kwanzaa. Kwanzaa was not created as a cure all for the ignorant; it was created to INTRODUCE people who don't know a lot about Africa, its traditions, and one of the languages spoken there. It is simply a beginner's course, so to speak. So when you say Kwanzaa makes Africa's greatness trivial, that is false. Kwanzaa HIGHLIGHTS one particular region. I don't see how a holiday could truly capture ALL of Africa's contributions. That statement is not fair, at all. When you celebrate Kwanzaa, you are learning principles and ideas given to you, in hopes they you opt to DISCOVER more on your own.

    Kwanzaa is not a holiday in the traditional, Western sense. It asks that you follow a rubric(the seven principles, making gifts as opposed to buying, making an effort to support black businesses while doing so) also to expand your knowledge and use cognitive thinking skills(thinking how you practiced the principle throughout the year), which is something our children really need today. Typically holidays are used as an opportunity to give gifts or a day off from work or school. With Kwanzaa, the goal is to build with your family by TALKING or making gifts or decorating the house, to build with your community by supporting their financial endeavors, and LEARN a new language that your ancestors spoke. The focus on children With Kwanzaa is beyond admirable. Children are encouraged to create (My siblings and I were responsible for coloring and decorating the house with the 7 principles) and pushed to think(My siblings and myself had to think of ways to explain our application of the principles) To me, that is something to celebrate!

    While you have the option to NOT celebrate it, comparing Kwanzaa to Festivus is just not cool. The ignorance of the statement alone can make people defensive and hesitant of commenting on your blog. How do you expect people to respect your choice to celebrate your American holidays when you degrade Kwanzaa by devaluing its worth and equating it to nonsense? NON SEQUITUR.

    Kwanzaa forces you to learn history on your own. Everything that you want to learn about Africa (or anything, for that manner)should not be placed into your hand; YOU have to seek it. Kwanzaa is a tool, and the ridiculous expectations you have placed on it to provide historical facts for you is well....ridiculous.

    Finally, I don't see why or how you squeezed Sarah Palin in. Doesn't she get enough press?(rolls eyes)

    I appreciate you for sharing your ideas and hopefully you are a tad bit more open to different ideas, beyond traditional ones.
    Peace and all dat :)

  11. @Nigerianlamb: We've had this discussion offline, but I'll bring it here.

    I wasn't the person who originally equated Kwanzaa with Festivus, a friend did. I didn't even know what Festivus was until he made the comment. Secondly, nowhere in this blog post did I call Kwanzaa, Festivus. I've already apologized for the insensitivity of this Twitter comment, and you seem to want another.

    The expectations I have for Kwanzaa are not ones that I created, they are the ones Karenga outlined. He fails to meet the specific guidelines that he set forth. I've already exhausted this topic with the original post, so I won't revisit here.

    Your trivialization of other holidays with the statement: "Typically holidays are used as an opportunity to give gifts or a day off from work or school" is disrespectful to what holidays mean to me and many others. In the comment above, I explained why I celebrate specific holidays and NONE of those things were mentioned. You may celebrate Christmas to get gifts or to get a day off, but I do not. While I certainly appreciate both of those aspects, that doesn't fuel my "reason for the season." Most of the holidays I hold dear to my heart are religious ones, or out of respect to specific individuals in my life.

    As you noted, Sarah Palin gets enough press, which is why I used her as an example here; most people are familiar with the popular gaffe she made. I doubt my less than positive reference to her will translate to anything good for her. She certainly wasn't a centerpiece of this article or any other article I've written. Furthermore, an obscure reference would do nothing for the reader that doesn't understand it.

    What region is is that Kwanzaa highlights? Swahili isn't spoken in any one specific region. The principles highlighted by Kwanzaa come from a collection of the "greatest of Africa's principles" (his words, not mine.) That's an entire continent, not a specific region.

    I'm sorry that my post has baffled or confused you. It simply was meant to provide a different perspective; one that I don't consider traditional. The "traditional" anti Kwanzaa point of view is "we don't like Kwanzaa because we're not really African, we wanna do American stuff." That is NOT my perspective, and my absolutely clear, logical and researched points, that somehow confused you, are not traditional either.
    As I have said... I believe FOUR times now, I don't negate the value it has had for families across the world. I am grateful for that. I would never want to take that away from you or anyone else. The holidays I celebrate and acknowledge have provided me with a richness as well and I am grateful for that as well. You and many of your Twitter colleagues are the only ones that have taken a condescending opinion towards the holidays I celebrate and my reasoning. Not once I did I do that about your choice of holidays and your reasoning for celebrating it.

    Kwanzaa, like people, has flaws. And that's to be expected. Its' flaws however, are the reasons why I decline; and I don't recall anyone or anything becoming better by ignoring their flaws.

    Thanks @NigerianLamb for sharing your point of view, and for sharing this article with others.

  12. I am not shunning anyone who would like to celebrate Kwanzaa, Christmas, High Holy Days, Ramadan, St.Patrick's Day, Mother's Day etc. In the words of Kevin Hart, "Do you boo-boo. Do you." However, please do not take offense when people point out the obvious. Kwanzaa focuses on celebrating "African Heritage". That's good. If you know which African Heritage you are celebrating...

    Growing up in a household with an Egyptian-born, Arabic-speaking stepfather,I learned that Americans (I speak on Americans because that's what I am) view Africa as one giant vast piece of land with dark people running. We are taught that every darker-skinned individual we a descendant from African people. Technically,if you want to go by scientific theory, EVERYONE descended from the land of Africa. It's the Motherland for everyone. Judging by the differences in skin color and hair texture around the world, why is it hard to believe that Africa is STILL a place of diversity? Black Americans always want to shout that "We are NOT a monolithic people" then the minute the conversation rolls around to Kwanzaa...Voila! All of a sudden, every person of Black descent is one of the same.

    If Kwanzaa is celebrating African-American heritage, why was Swahili chosen as the language for using the principles? It has been well documented and proven that the majority of African-Americans are descendants of those STOLEN from WESTERN AFRICA. Why did Dr. Karenga choose this eastern African language? This like using Portuguese to teach Greek people their heritage and culture...Oh no worries! It's on the same continent - their cultures must be the same!

    Per the OfficialKwanzaa website, "Kwanzaa was created to introduce and reinforce seven basic values of African culture which contribute to building and reinforcing family, community and culture among African American people as well as Africans throughout the world African community. These values are called the Nguzo Saba which in Swahili means the Seven Principles." Again, I would like to discuss growing up in a household with an Egyptian father, Dated a Ghanian for two years, and working for a Moroccan for a year...These are ALL cultures in Africa. They ARE NOT THE SAME. The languages are not the same. They do not eat the same food cooked in the same way, have different struggles, and looked different.Therefore, the Kwanzaa principles is not representing the " seven basic values of African culture." Ironically, the seven basic principles DO represent the basic values for MANKIND.

    I like that it is trying to represent Mankind, but it's not representing African culture collectively! Sorry.

    @NigerianLamb I think it's great that you are celebrating an Eastern Language, even though your name is connected with Western Africa. That's awesome!

  13. Allycia, #1 LOL! I just don't see why it is necessary to decide on celebrating one African language. If Karenga decided on more than one African language, people may comment that he was doing too much. There is always a Catch-22 when something new is introduced. It is awesome that you have so many different cultures within you, but many Africans born in America do not have the same privilege of tracing their history. Everyone is aware that African traditions are not monolithic. And why does it matter that Karenga chose one language? He chose a language that is spoken NOT ONLY in the Eastern part of Africa, but also Central Africa, and offered at tons of universities ALL OVER THE WORLD, which will expand Swahili usage. He laid a foundation for those who CHOOSE to celebrate Kwanzaa to discover more about Africa. Many critics of Kwanzaa are looking at it as a cure all, IT IS NOT. PURELY A START. The goal of Kwanzaa is to not only teach but also to empower Africans(whether they were born there or not) to learn more about Africa. As I mentioned before, there is no way that a holiday can teach all that is Africa. He opened us up to Africa, so we could take time to learn more, ON OUR OWN. #2 Allycia, my family is from the West part of Africa and I know Yoruba and Ibo,two Western African dialects (though not fluent). Why should that fact stop me from learning a different language? I want to learn as many African languages as possible, but again, that is just ME. Why shouldn't I celebrate Eastern Africa and Central Africa? because I am Nigerian? again, LOL!

    I wasn't looking for another apology when I mentioned the Festivus comment. It empowered me to share more with you. It is the reason why I was prompted to read your work.

    As far goes the region that Kwanzaa highlights, as we all know he aims to introduce us to African tradition, specifically Swahili, which is not just spoken in East Africa or Central Africa. To further clear up my statement, when I said region, I was speaking of the language Karenga chose, which is primarily spoken in Central and East Africa. Kwanzaa itself is not region-specific.

    Also, I do not feel I trivialized other holidays or those who use the holidays as a true means to celebrate. The way that you,Crystal, celebrate the holidays is not typical. In my experiences, I have seen the commercialization and lack of focus on the actual reason for celebration. The focal point seems to be lost, especially with children. If you ask the children what they are celebrating, most times they don't know. But again, this is how I see things. These are my experiences with my students and my cousins.

    I do NOT have a condescending attitude towards holidays. I just don't celebrate many of them because I know the history behind them. I am a Classics degree holder from HOWARD UNIVERSITY *winks at Crystal* AND I teach Classical Latin for the public school system. I learned about Saturnalia(Roman holiday that Xmas derives from) and Lupercalia(Roman Holiday that Valentine's day derives from). I know that if you knew what you were celebrating, you may not choose to celebrate Christmas. (MAY, for the record I didn't say WOULD NOT, I said MAY NOT.) I don't have enough room to explain what Christmas or most holidays are really about...

    I hope I have cleared up my position and again, Crystal, THANK YOU for opening up this discussion. PEACE!


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