What Kwanzaa Means To Me

, Malcolm A. Kline, Leave a comment

With one parent who is African and the other American, our family is, literally, an African-American one. Our African-American family’s education in Kwanzaa continues to this day.

The Kwanzaa controversy somehow bypassed me, until my African bride forced me to evaluate it. My wife can trace her ancestry directly to Shaka, who reigned over much of sub-Saharan Africa until defeated by the combination of the most powerful European armies and tribal leaders who had grown disenchanted with the Zulu king. One of these defecting tribal leaders was, in turn, one of my wife’s more direct ancestors. Shaka himself was related to many of these tribal leaders.

“As an African-American and Pan-African holiday celebrated by millions throughout the world African community,” the official Kwanzaa web site tells us, “Kwanzaa brings a cultural message which speaks to the best of what it means to be African and human in the fullest sense.”

You see, I took it for granted that it was an African holiday. When we were still engaged, I watched a Kwanzaa TV commercial in the living room of my fiancée’s apartment while my bride-to-be attended to some errand or other elsewhere. As I watched the commercial, I panicked. My mind raced. After all, the official holiday web site gives us advice on gifts, Kwanzaa colors and decorations as well as guidelines on the celebration of the holiday itself.

I wondered whether I needed to buy presents for all my future in-laws, whether we would all exchange gifts, whether I needed to send special Kwanzaa cards to every member of the family I was marrying into, whether we would have a special dinner. Would I have to learn some special Kwanzaa songs?

As I was lost in this reverie, my African-born fiancée came into the room, looked incredulously at the television set and said, “What in the hell is this Kwanzaa?”

Two years later, we were married. Just Gracie and me and baby made three. Actually, the baby was my then-nine-year-old stepson, Darryl. My stepson was in fourth grade. When I came home one night, he excitedly showed me something he had brought home from school.

It was a thin piece of paper rolled into a circle with a circle of paper cut and placed on it like a lid, all of it taped together, with little Dalmation spots dotting it. “What is it?” I asked. Darryl put the paper creation on his head and said, “It’s my Kwanzaa hat.”

“Did you make that?” my wife asked. “No, my teacher made it for me,” Darryl answered. “Why?” I asked. “She made it for me after I told the class about Kwanzaa,” he answered. “But Darryl, we don’t celebrate Kwanzaa. I still don’t know what it is. Why did you talk to the class about Kwanzaa?” my wife asked Darryl. Darryl said, “My teacher asked me to. She said, ‘Since you have come to us from Africa, would you tell the class about the feast of Kwanzaa?’”

“Since we have no idea what it is, what did you say?” my wife asked Darryl. “I said what I heard on the TV commercial,” Darryl answered. “And she made you a Kwanzaa hat,” I said. “Did she like your talk?” I asked. “Oh yeah, she was practically in tears,” Darryl replied. That teacher, like me, is quite Caucasian.

Over the years, my wife’s coworkers have frequently asked her about Kwanzaa, viewing her, because of her African heritage, as an in-house expert on the season. Unlike her son, my wife never attempted to answer their questions.

Maybe our daughter Georgia can help us out. Georgia recently learned a Kwanzaa song for her kindergarten holiday pageant. Entitled “Kwanzaa’s Here,” it is sung to the tune of “Three Blind Mice.” As Georgia sang it for us, it goes like this:

Red, Green, Black

Red, Green, Black

Kwanzaa’s here

Kwanzaa’s here

The decoration’s are quite a sight

We light a candle every night

The celebration is filled with light

Kwanzaa’s here

As part of my personal education, over the past decade, I have asked people from about ten different countries on the African continent about Kwanzaa celebrations in the lands of their birth. Here is how the inquiry went:

1. No, we don’t celebrate Kwanzaa in Kenya. I think that is an Ethiopian holiday.

2. No, we don’t celebrate Kwanzaa in Ethiopia. I think that is a Tanzanian holiday.

3. No, we don’t celebrate Kwanzaa in Tanzania. I think that is in the Gambia.

4. No, we don’t celebrate Kwanzaa in the Gambia. I think that is a holiday in Guinnea Bisseau.

5. No, we don’t celebrate Kwanzaa in Guinnea Bisseau. I think that is a holiday in Kenya.

If there is an African on the planet who celebrates this African holiday, please tell me about it.