When Dr. Maulana Karenga created Kwanzaa in 1966, he aimed to knit together black communities tattered by racial injustice and isolated from their African heritage. Karenga turned to West Africa and the language of Swahili to coin the term for a holiday celebration that means “first fruits of the harvest.” Kwanzaa unfolds over the seven day period from December 26 to January 1 and breathes through seven principles: unity, self-determination, collective work and responsibility, cooperative economics, purpose, creativity and faith. Though planted in Black Nationalist soil, Kwanzaa eventually flowered in black bourgeois America and has been globally recognized. A new documentary film, “Black Candle,” made by M.K. Asante and narrated by Maya Angelou, traces Kwanzaa’s origins in the black power movement to its flourishing as a holiday embraced by 40 million people worldwide.
n the United States, Kwanzaa has boiled or simmered as the nation’s racial temperature has changed. In its first couple of decades, Kwanzaa called attention to African roots and American fruits as its celebrations seamlessly united Kente clothe and homegrown cultural consciousness. Kwanzaa has prospered, it seems, when blacks have endured tough times. White supremacy in the ’60s, racial backlash in the ’70s, and anti-multiculturalism in the ’80s all lent energy to the premise of pan-Africanism: that blacks the world over should unite in common opposition to oppression. But when black folk make progress and enjoy spurts of success, reclaiming African roots is often seen as romantic and a relic of past struggle.
In accounting for Kwanzaa’s shifting fortunes, we must note the tension between a pan-Africanist and a Diasporic black identity: while the former voices common African values and a black homecoming, the latter speaks of lack, exile and migration – in short, a loss of home and what it means to black identity and the rituals that sustain it. Kwanzaa, as with all similar celebrations, is tied to the fate of the people it represents. Rituals rise and fall according to social needs and political desires. Given the Diasporic dimensions of black identity in America – where folk who’ve migrated from Africa, the Caribbean, the United Kingdom, South America and the like meet native-born blacks – the erosion of the ties that bind is predictable, even as the celebrations that hold black identity together change and reflect the broadening of what it means to be black.
The political climate affects black rituals too. A lot has been made of the number of posts that black life confronts: post-soul, post-black, post-racial, and post-civil rights. In this era of black posts, pillars fall, whether civil rights leaders whose approach is viewed as passé, or as rituals of black cohesion are viewed by many blacks as quaint and largely irrelevant. A lot of that talk picked up pace with the election of Barack Obama as president, a monumental event that eclipsed black fears in some quarters (racism could no longer keep black folk from the big prizes of American life), exacerbated them in others (because of his success the bulk of blacks who continue to struggle might be forgotten). What’s a people – and how is “people” exactly defined in such conditions – to do?
In times like these, when the politics of race have shifted, celebrations like Kwanzaa take a hit in mainstream black life, or at least the black life that’s on display in the mainstream. But they often rev up in smaller, more intimate spaces, and in quarters not often observed by mainstream eyes where the holiday has always thrived. Ironically enough, Kwanzaa gets canonized in mainstream black circles – for instance, it arrives on postage stamps that commemorate its existence, a thin slice of memory licked by black tongues that otherwise may not taste its fruits in ceremonial practices. And it is observed on college campuses where students of all races are welcomed to celebrate black life and identity in a hospitable environment whose emphasis is often less on politics than potluck dinners.
But the holiday’s most faithful practitioners proclaim its original intent: bridging black folk across the chasms of land, language, water and religion as they forge solidarity in resisting obstacles and embracing opportunities to their common destiny. As the devotees of Kwanzaa understand, those aspirations have never been of much interest to the mainstream during any period of the nation’s history. And the increased fortunes of black folk cause many of them to focus their energy and attention elsewhere. But for its true believers, Kwanzaa is as relevant and necessary now as it’s ever been.
Michael Eric Dyson, named by Ebony as one of the hundred most influential black Americans, is the author of sixteen books, including “Holler if You Hear Me,” “Is Bill Cosby Right?” and “I May Not Get There With You: The True Martin Luther King Jr.” He is currently University Professor of Sociology at Georgetown University. He lives in Washington, D.C.