We are reminded in December by television commercials and billboards that this time of year, people not only celebrate Christmas and Hanukkah but also the African feast of Kwanzaa. But how African, or for that matter, how African-American is Kwanzaa?
Schools, such as American University, are making an effort to remember Kwanzaa. Meanwhile, Carrie Crespo, a freshman journalism major from the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill attempted to learn about Kwanzaa from a Nigerian classmate.
“The people in Africa laugh at Kwanzaa,” Tega Jessa told Crespo. When I polled one of Jessa’s countrymen who works in my building, his response was not one of derision but of bewilderment. “What is Kwanzaa?,” he asked me.
When I first wrote a feature on the internet on my experiences with Kwanzaa, I got a flood of responses. These comments came to me directly from my own web site and indirectly through a posting on freerepublic.com that drew 51 responses.
“I just spent the last 7 years working in a ghetto in So. Cal and can tell you (based on my experience) that the only education or experience children receive in regard to this ‘holiday’ is through the education system,” school teacher Sue Spinks wrote. “I quit teaching about Kwanzaa my second year, because my students didn’t have a clue as to what I was talking about.”
It turned out that my own African in-laws were not the only nationals on the continent who had not heard of Kwanzaa. Recently, three African government agency web sites featured the piece that I wrote for USA Today on my family’s Kwanzaa experience.
“My best friend is from Ghana, and I asked her if any black Africans celebrate Kwanzaa,” a visitor to freerepublic.com wrote. “The answer is always no.”
From across the globe, English professor Dale Griffith wrote to me from Micronesia to relate an experience he had while teaching at the University of Nevada at Las Vegas (UNLV).
Griffith teaches at the College of Micronesia.
“One of my fellow teachers was an African from Kenya,” Griffith remembered. “She had been asked by her son’s teacher (white) to come to his class and give a small talk on Christmas traditions in her African nation.”
“She went and spoke about Christmas preparation and going to midnight Mass to the sound of drums since her parish did not have bells (she is an Anglican). After she had finished, the teacher asked her to please speak about the African feast of Kwanzaa.”
“She responded, ‘We are not Muslim.’”
In the late 1960s, in Los Angeles, Dr. Maulena Karenga laid out Kwanzaa’s core principles: unity, self-determination, collective work and responsibility, cooperative economics, purpose, creativity and faith. “The core principles of Kwanzaa,” Karenga said, “which I developed and proposed during the Black Cultural Revolution of the sixties [are] a necessary minimum set of principles by which Black people must live in order to begin to rescue and reconstruct our history and our lives.”
Final question: After 38 years of Kwanzaa celebrations, how embedded is the feast in people’s history and lives?