Today, 47 years after its first observance in California, the weeklong African-American cultural holiday of Kwanzaa remains steeped in misunderstanding and mystery. In some circles, it still struggles to achieve legitimacy.
Some, such as conservative columnist Anne Coulter, deride it as “a lunatic blend of schmaltzy ’60s rhetoric, black racism and Marxism.” Others, such as President Obama, compare its seven core principles to “the very values that make us Americans.”
As the Mahoning Valley joins the rest of the nation in marking the start of Kwanzaa at 5:30 p.m. today at New Bethel Baptist Church on Hillman Street, it is an opportune time to demystify the festival, debunk myths surrounding it and reinforce its legitimacy as an observance all Americans — can embrace.
Coming as it does during the heart of Christianity’s most hallowed season, it is easy for some to perceive Kwanzaa as a religious celebration. Targeted as it is toward black Americans, it is easy for other ethnic groups to simply ignore.
Kwanzaa, however, is neither religious in its foundation nor exclusionary in its message. It is not America’s “black Christmas,” as some have misrepresented it over the years.
Dr. Maulana Karenga, who organized the first Kwanzaa in the United States in 1966, clearly stated in his Kwanzaa message to the nation the purpose of the holiday:
“In its most essential understanding and expression, Kwanzaa is a celebration of family, community and culture with each providing a context and commitment of common ground, cooperative practice and shared good.”
Of course, the cultural message is aimed primarily at blacks. Kwanzaa, which in Swahili means the celebration of first fruits, accentuates values that reinforce African family, community and cultural values.
Kwanzaa is inclusive
But as Karenga points out, people of other cultures can and do celebrate Kwanzaa, just as people of many cultures mark Cinco de Mayo, St. Patrick’s Day, Italian-American heritage festivals and other ethnic-specific observances.
Indeed, some of the seven guiding principles, or “Nguzo Saba,” of Kwanzaa transcend racial and ethnic boundaries. Those values, one of which is celebrated during each day of Kwanzaa, include Umoja (unity), Kujichagulia (self-determination), Ujima (collective work and responsibility), Ujamaa cooperative economics), Nia (purpose), Kuumba (creativity) and Imani (faith).
Despite the universally positive attributes of all of these principles, some continue to assail the holiday with ad hominem attacks against its founder Karenga. Yes, Karenga was found guilty some four decades ago of felony assault against women and yes, in the 1960s he was a major player in a black separatist group in California. Those stains on the man’s past do not however invalidate the value of the holiday or the worthiness of its ideals today.
Indeed Kwanzaa in recent years has gone mainstream. The U.S. Postal Service has issued an illustrated commemorative Forever Stamp for the holiday. American presidents Clinton, Bush and Obama have routinely issued Kwanzaa messages for the nation.
Its increased legitimacy and popularity are easily understood. When we shed Kwanzaa of the misconceptions and fallacies surrounding it and its founder, what remains are the core ideals that offer black Americans and all Americans guidance to lead productive, fulfilling and honorable lives.
As scholar Dorothy Winbush Riley, author of “The Complete Kwanzaa: Celebrating Our Cultural Heritage,” argues, “although we celebrate Kwanzaa the last week of the year, we must live the teachings each moment of every day, physically, morally and spiritually. Every day of the year, we must apply and practice the Nguzo Saba sincerely and faithfully to harvest success.”