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!