“I’m so excited!” exclaimed one of my dearest friends as she sat down for my Kwanzaa dinner a few years ago. “This is my very first Kwanzaa celebration.”
Then only 5-years-old, my perplexed son J responded, “But Auntie Baby, I thought you were American?!?!”
J was correct. Auntie Baby was American. (Specifically, she was white American.) However, J was incorrect in thinking that every American celebrated Kwanzaa.”
I first started celebrating the holiday as a college student. At Columbia University, Kwanzaa was a chance for black kids to come together before winter break.
Kwanzaa was invented in 1966 by Maulana Karenga. Currently the Chair of the Africana Studies Department at California State University (Long Beach), Karenga created the holiday “to introduce and reinforce seven basic values of African culture which contribute to building and reinforcing family, community and culture among African American people as well as Africans throughout the world African community,” according to The Official Kwanzaa Web Site. The seven core principles of Kwanzaa, which are represented through candles lit during the holiday, are: unity, self-determination, collective work and responsibility, cooperative economics, purpose, creativity and faith.
When I became a mother, I was committed to making Kwanzaa a family tradition. In a world that rarely acknowledges the resilience, grace and ingenuity of African-descendents, for me, Kwanzaa represented an opportunity to hold our strengths up to the light.
J and I faithfully celebrated Kwanzaa from the time he was an infant until he was about 10. Each year, we lit the seven candles, discussed the principles, threw on our Kwanzaa CD and read Kwanzaa children’s books. We hosted special dinners and brunches. Friends came over. Music played, and people danced. Kwanzaa was so big in our house when J was little that he thought it was a national holiday, celebrated by all.
Fast forward to 2010 when we spent December in California. During an early morning walk, I suddenly remembered it was Kwanzaa. On my phone, I quickly Googled the Kwanzaa principle for the day. I shouted across the misty park, “J! Today is Nia! Think about purpose!” He answered simply, “Okay!” And that constituted our entire Kwanzaa celebration for the day.
How did we go from having day-long Kwanzaa brunches to barely even remembering the holiday?
We gradually stopped celebrating because (a) I forgot when it was, (b) we were traveling, and I forgot the candles, or (c) blah blah blah. Basically, I was too busy to celebrate my culture for just one small week. What had things come to?
Feeling like a Bad Black for my non-celebration of Kwanzaa, I recently conducted a super-scientific survey of my friends. (My super scientific-surveys are e-mail or text queries blasted out to a sampling of my friends. Whoever answers, answers, and whoever doesn’t, doesn’t.) I asked “Do you celebrate Kwanzaa? Why or why not? Do you feel guilty when you don’t celebrate?” Based on my survey, I concluded:
1. Most people support the idea of Kwanzaa.
2. Most people simply can’t be bothered to fit another holiday in between Christmas and New Year’s.
3. Nobody except me feels guilty for not celebrating Kwanzaa.
J, now 13, has his own thoughts on Kwanzaa. Noting that most African Americans can’t pinpoint our African origins and that African culture is vastly diverse, he argues that it is inaccurate for African Americans to celebrate our “African” heritage as if it were a monolithic entity.
But J’s argument for not celebrating Kwanzaa is precisely why we need Kwanzaa in some form. African Americans need to learn more about the vast diversity of African culture as well as learning about the richness of our history in America.
Thus, I have now, consciously decided not to celebrate Kwanzaa this year. Not because we don’t have time. And not because I won’t be able to find the principles on my smartphone while we are hiking in the mountains this holiday. I have decided not to celebrate it for the exact same reason I decided to celebrate it when J was a baby.
When J was little, I wanted to teach him about the importance of his culture and significance of our contributions to humanity. For the mother of a 5-year-old, singing songs and lighting candles were a great way to illustrate that. However, now I have a critically-thinking, intellectual teenager who is more interested in facts about African American inventors than nursery songs about creativity. More interested in reason than ritual.
When we actively celebrated Kwanzaa, I often relied on the concepts as set forth in “Africana: The Encyclopedia of the African and African American Experience.” This 2095-page tome addresses many topics pertaining to black life and history. Inspired by the dream of the late African American historian W.E.B. Du Bois and edited by Henry Louis Gates, Jr. and Kwame Anthony Appiah, the Africana is possibly the first scholarly encyclopedia to focus on the history of Africa and the African diaspora.
Thinking of my son and my reason for celebrating Kwanzaa, I realize that if I want to teach him something, I will have to actually, literally teach him. Rather than cracking open the Kwanzaa section of the Africana in order to quickly glimpse that day’s principle, lighting some candles and calling it quits, my son and I will now start reading the Africana together. Through this, we will celebrate our culture and our heritage. No frills. No Kente tablecoth. But the goal is the same, and perhaps even more precisely achieved.
Editor’s Note: This story has been updated to reflect that the person named “Auntie Baby” is a white American.
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