Kwanzaa's Lights Go Dim

By Afi-Odelia E. Scruggs
Sunday, December 30, 2007

When I first learned about Kwanzaa in the 1980s, I questioned the need to create an observance for African Americans. It felt too contrived: all those symbols and paraphernalia, all that ritual. Even the Swahili names for the seven days of the holiday rang false: Swahili is an East African language, and the majority of African Americans have origins in West Africa.

Still, the holiday caught on; Kwanzaa cards and wrapping paper lie on the shelves next to supplies for Hanukkah and Christmas. There is a Kwanzaa postage stamp, and each year, President Bush issues a Kwanzaa message. I've grown to appreciate Kwanzaa because I've seen how it unites disparate, even hostile, segments of the African American community.

These days, though, I fear for the future of Kwanzaa. The latest figures, from a 2004 study by the National Retail Foundation, say that just 13 percent of African Americans observe the holiday. When I go to Kwanzaa ceremonies, the audience is mostly folks in their 40s and older. I don't see the younger people, the ones who need to embrace Kwanzaa and keep it vibrant.

When they look at Kwanzaa, do they see a relic from the '60s?

Black Americans were never a monolith, but more and more we seem to be splintering into factions. Kwanzaa has brought us together, providing a common ground. That's why it's so important that public observances of the holiday continue.

Even though Kwanzaa harks back to Africa, it didn't originate there. It's the brainchild of Maulana Ron Karenga, a professor of black studies at California State University, Long Beach, who headed the Organization Us, a black nationalist group based in Los Angeles. According to, Kwanzaa was created in 1966 "to reaffirm and restore our rootedness in African culture." He decided to use Swahili for its rites because he says it is the most widely spoken African language.

But Karenga didn't need to create a holiday to emphasize our ancestral connections. He could have reached into our past and revived an authentic African American celebration.

In the colonial-era celebration Pinkster, New England slaves spent the week following Pentecost Sunday dancing and drumming. In the John Conny festivals our ancestors held during antebellum times, slaves in North Carolina and Virginia dressed in masks -- like their African ancestors -- and paraded from dwelling to dwelling in the "free time" between Christmas and New Year's Day.

Although I didn't champion Kwanzaa when it began, I didn't condemn it, either. As a journalist, I wrote feature articles about the holiday in the late 1980s. But the '90s, with their revival of black nationalism, seem to have been the heyday of Kwanzaa.

Now, it seems to be under attack.

Some conservatives have charged that Kwanzaa is the secular world's anti-Christian attack on Christmas. But Kwanzaa has nothing to do with Christmas or even religion. Kwanzaa is meant to strengthen the "Nguzo Saba," seven principles that stress the individual's responsibility to his or her community, family and culture.

Each day of Kwanzaa is dedicated to one of the principles: Umoja (unity), Kujichagulia (self-determination), Ujima (collective work and responsibility), Ujamaa (cooperative economics), Nia (purpose), Kuumba (creativity) and Imani (faith). The ritual starts with a daily greeting of "habari gani" -- what's new.

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