It’s still not quite a household word, but in the last 50 years, Kwanzaa — the African-American holiday observed during the week between Christmas and New Year’s — has undoubtedly become an indelible part of the winter holiday season.
Many institutions, from churches to community groups, have Kwanzaa events; begun in the United States, it is celebrated throughout the Africa diaspora; familiar December images such as candy canes and decked-out trees have expanded to include a kinara, the candelabra that holds seven red, green and black candles lit during the seven days of Kwanzaa.
And as a symbol of black identity and pride, the holiday looms especially large in the Trump era, when it often feels like racial politics and racial animus has regressed to the 1960s, when Kwanzaa was first conceived.
The fact that Kwanzaa remains as relevant as it was decades ago doesn’t surprise its creator, scholar and activist Maulana Karenga. The founder and executive director of the organization Us created Kwanzaa in 1966 as a response to the interrelated civil rights activism and black power movements that encouraged black people to openly embrace and celebrate their African roots.
In 2018, that response continues.
“Kwanzaa was conceived and constructed in the midst of the struggle … to be ourselves and free ourselves,” Karenga explains. “Thus, Kwanzaa stresses the ongoing need to struggle to achieve free space, to live dignity-affirming, freedom-achieved and justice-anchored lives, and come into the fullness of ourselves as persons and a people.”
Based on traditional African harvest festivals that occurred around the winter solstice — matunda ya kwanza means “first fruits of the harvest” in Swahili — Kwanzaa is observed over the seven days between Christmas and New Year’s.
Each day is devoted to reflecting on one of the seven principles, called the Nguzo Saba, that comprise African community-based values: umoja (unity), kujichagalia (self-determination), ujima (collective work and responsibility), ujamaa (cooperative economics) kuumba (creativity), nia (purpose) and imani (faith). The week culminates Jan. 1 in a feast called a karamu, with gift-giving and general celebration.
Despite its staying power, Kwanzaa has always had critics that have called it a made-up holiday that has been difficult for people to adopt. But proponents say it has value well beyond being a black-themed holiday observed in specific rituals once a year.
Vanderbilt University professor Keith Dobson pointed out in 2017 that Karenga himself called the holiday an act of “cultural discovery,” meaning that he wanted to give black Americans greater knowledge of their African heritage and past. It is a past that had long been denigrated and dismissed by the white racist societies in which most black Americans were raised; Kwanzaa is part of the effort to repair that.
“Rooted in the struggles and the gains of the civil rights and black power movements of the 1950s and 1960s, it was a way of defining a unique black American identity,” writes Dobson.
He cites African-American history scholar Keith Mayes, who says Kwanzaa is instrumental in linking the black past to a black present. Mayes notes in his book on Kwanzaa history that “for black power activists, Kwanzaa was just as important as the Civil Rights Act of 1964. Kwanzaa was their answer to what they understood as the ubiquity of white cultural practices that oppressed them as thoroughly as had Jim Crow laws.”
Kwanzaa has always been unique in that it brings together the black community not on the basis of religious faith, but a common cultural heritage. And that heritage is indeed all over the world: a 2008 documentary, “The Black Candle,” filmed Kwanzaa observances in the United States and Europe, showing children in the U.S. and countries such as France reciting the principles of the Nguzo Saba.
Cultural discovery, as Karenga said, is also self-discovery. Speaking in the documentary about the importance of the holiday for African Americans today, the late poet and writer Amiri Baraka explains that “we looked at Kwanzaa as part of the struggle to overturn white definitions for our lives.”
Ajamu Nangwaya, writing in the Pambazuka News in 2015, says that the most compelling thing about Kwanzaa and its foundational principles is the expectation that they direct the lives and activities of black people on a daily basis — in other words, an expectation that African-descended people hold and practice common values. It is an ambitious expectation that is always ripe for examination and re-examination.
“The holiday period of Kwanzaa becomes the moment for stocktaking, (re)assessment, celebration, recalibration, and recommitment to the goals and objectives of Afrikan liberation,” Nangwaya writes.
Who celebrates Kwanzaa? National polls tend to say not very many. A 2012 Public Policy Poll found that 4 percent of Americans celebrate Kwaanza as a primary holiday in December — slightly higher than those who celebrate Hanukkah.
Us has always disputed that percentage, putting it much higher. But the number of those who strictly observe Kwanzaa may not really be the point. For many black folks, Kwanzaa may not be the primary holiday of the season, but that is not to say it isn’t important.
Kwanzaa can share holiday space with Christmas or other religious traditions; much in the same way Malcolm X advocated black nationalism for all blacks because it could be embraced whatever religion they practiced, Kwanzaa has been promoted as a secular — though very spiritual — observance compatible with Christianity and other beliefs.
It promotes faith not in any religion, but in the legitimacy and primacy of black culture and history, as well as faith in black people’s ability to coalesce and overcome a long legacy of oppression by rising up in knowledge, affirmation and a commitment to a collective identity.
That identity has been under attack, literally. Aya Shabu, a coordinator of Kwanzaa observances for a nonprofit in North Carolina, told NBC news last year that the charged racial climate, notably the white nationalist march in Charlottesville, Virginia in August and the fatal shooting of nine black parishioners at Emanuel A.M.E. Church in Charleston, South Carolina in June 2015, are just two glaring examples of modern anti-blackness.
“Those events have made it painfully clear that even post-civil rights [movement] that we are not accepted as equal in this country and that there’s a lot of hatred that still is prevalent and this is a place where they can go and be affirmed,” Shaba said.
Melvin Deal, founder of African Heritage Dancers and Drummers in Washington, D.C., has led Kwanzaa ceremonies for decades; he said last year that he led a dozen more pre-Kwanzaa celebrations than the previous year. The sharp rise in the holiday’s popularity, he told NBC, “is being fueled by the white supremacist presence making itself more visible in the community.
“So you find that more African-American people are finding their way to Kwanzaa as a perspective of bolstering their fortitude against such oppression,” he said.
SekouWrites of Essence magazine described growing up in a family that formally observed Kwanzaa. When he got older, he heard the longstanding critiques — that it was invented, or it was too closely associated with its creator. For SekouWrites, however, nothing trumps the power of Kwanzaa to unify black folk on even the most symbolic level. That power is critical now.
“In today’s climate of burgeoning intolerance and hatred,” he writes, “I think it’s critical for us to support any traditions that resonate with our collective history and have the potential to propel us forward as a people.”
Ta-Nehisi Coates, the celebrated journalist and writer who’s often been described as the heir apparent to James Baldwin, said in 2012 in the Atlantic that while he doesn’t personally celebrate Kwanzaa, he defends its right to exist and to be celebrated by others. To those who complain that Kwanzaa is a made-up holiday, Coates counters that nothing is more American than tweaking a tradition to suit a particular need. White people do it all the time, he says, so “why stand on vintage?”
Actually making Kwanzaa vintage, embedding it even deeper in black tradition, remains for many observers and celebrants a perennial goal. In 2017, The Root.com launched a #MakeKwanzaaGreatAgain campaign. One of the points the news site made is that Kwanzaa is not as embraced by as many black people as it could be simply because it’s not an intricate part of American culture in the way Christmas has always been. But give it time.
After 51 years — barely a blink of an eye compared to how long Christmas has been around — it’s still new, meaning it’s still launching, still connecting with and educating its target audience. Kwanzaa, appropriately enough, still has work to do.
By Erin Aubry Kaplan