THE SPIRIT OF AN AFRICAN DIASPORIC FESTIVAL
By Mark Anthony Neal | NewBlackMan
Friday, December 30, 2011.
If you are celebrating Kwanzaa this year, you could purchase one of dozens of books explaining its seven principles, purchase a Kinara and Kwanzaa cards from Macy’s, mail those cards with official Kwanzaa postal stamps (designed by Synthia Saint James) , watch M. K. Asante Jr.’s film The Black Candle, and attend any number of Kwanzaa celebrations in your local neighborhood. Even George W. Bush offered an official Kwanzaa message during his presidency. I note these points to highlight how accessible and mainstream Kwanzaa has become, despite the fact that it was founded more than 40 years ago in the midst of the Black Power Movement.
Kwanza was founded in 1966 by Maulana Karenga (born Ron Everett), who also founded the Black Cultural Nationalist organization United Slaves or US. In the late 1960s, US was one of the many organizations targeted by the FBI counter-intelligence program COINTELPRO. The violent exchanges between US and the Black Panther Party (also targeted by the FBI) in Los Angeles in the late 1960s was instigated by the FBI’s attempts to destabilize both organizations. That Karenga is one of the few figures from that era that has survived relatively intact—he is arguably more influential now as an Afrocentric scholar—has often raised questions about the true nature of his role in the ultimate demise of the Black Panther Party.
Kwanzaa was one of the many ritual celebrations that Karenga founded in an effort to counter the influences of White Supremacy and Christianity on African-Americans. Among those rituals were Kwanzisha, which recognized the founding of US, Kuzaliwa, a celebration of Malcolm X’s birthday and Uhuru Day which marked the beginnings of the Watts riots during the summer of 1965.
As USC Historian Scot Brown writes in his book Fighting for US: Maulana Karenga, the US Organization and Black Cultural Nationalism (2005), Kwanzaa “was part of a matrix of rituals, holidays and social praxis that effectively comprised a nationalist counter-culture capable of attracting a diverse body of Black Americans to the organization.
Though US was never able to sustain its influence and never generated a substantial following beyond its Southern California roots, Kwanzaa is the most lasting testament to the organization—for the very reasons that Brown cites above. Kwanzaa began to get a national foothold when the largest number of young Blacks in history began to attend historically White colleges and universities in the late 1970s and 1980s, many literally looking for cultural armor to survive the challenges of what many institutions euphemistically called diversity or multiculturalism.
Indeed I was a college student when I was first introduced to Kwanzaa twenty-five years ago and can remember being wholly convinced that when I had a family of my own that I would jettison Christmas from my cultural practices and embrace a more Afrocentric holiday. I wasn’t alone. Kwanzaa likely reached its apex in the early 1990s in concert with the popularizing of Afrocentrism—think about the proliferation of kufis and (fake) Kente cloth from that period.
There have disputes about how many people actually practice Kwanzaa—Karenga has claimed that the number is more than 25 million worldwide, while a 2004 marketing survey found that less than 2% of the respondents or roughly 4.5 million Blacks said they celebrated Kwanzaa. Nevertheless, as Ebony Magazinenoted a decade ago, Kwanzaa had become a $700 million business, which explains why everybody from big retailers like Macy’s to the US Postal Service has their hands in the money pot. Hell, even before I could explain the seven principle of Kwanzaa to my then toddler, she was introduced to the celebration by the character “Brain” on the PBS cartoon Arthur.
As an imagined radical twenty-five years ago, I had every expectation that I would never celebrate Christmas again, yet the things that eventually brought me back to Christmas—giving, family, reflection—are the very things that keep me interested in Kwanzaa, despite the fact it no longer represents anything reminiscent of its radical founding. There are so few opportunities for Black Americans to celebrate their heritage and the struggles that continue to frame our futures. Kwanzaa and its seven principles seems a good a chance as any to do so.
Mark Anthony Neal is the author of five books including the forthcoming Looking for Leroy: (Il)Legible Black Masculinities (New York University Press) and Professor of African & African-American Studies at Duke University. He is founder and managing editor of NewBlackMan and host of the weekly webcast Left of Black. Follow him on Twitter @NewBlackMan.