One of the first things visitors notice when they walk into Eunita Graham's Prince George's County home is the seven-branched, wooden kinara, or Kwanzaa candleholder--purchased, she says proudly, from Marshall's, the off-price retailer.
On the table beneath the kinara is a straw mat and wooden Kwanzaa goblet, bought, she says, at Target. Adorning the wall above her display is a poster depicting the seven principles of Kwanzaa. Her source for that one: the U.S. Postal Service.
And there's more. Three ears of corn representing her three sons, a book on the history of Kwanzaa, a mask, a fruit bowl and, of course, her seven red, black and green candles--all items that celebrate the African American experience.
"I look forward to this time of year," said Graham, who on this first day of Kwanzaa will celebrate by opening her Accokeek house to family and friends and lighting the first candle. "To be able to honor our heritage and African American heritage is what it's all about."
Or is it? Some observers say Graham's ability to find so many Kwanzaa-related items in stores that are not black-owned and wouldn't otherwise carry black-oriented merchandise is a sign that the holiday has reached the mainstream.
As Kwanzaa observers mark the beginning of what has become one of the most celebrated times in the black community, others question whether the commercialization of Kwanzaa is detracting from its true meaning--that of unifying blacks and instilling in them a sense of pride and culture.
Bernadette Griggs, who as an 18-year-old attended one of the first informational meetings on Kwanzaa in Los Angeles in 1966, thinks not.
"I don't think it's commercial enough," said Griggs, who now lives in Columbia and still celebrates Kwanzaa. "At least if we buy into Kwanzaa, we've recognized it."
Chimbuko Tembo, an assistant to Maulana Karenga, the California State University black studies professor who created Kwanzaa, thinks otherwise.
"We would argue that like with any holiday, there's going to be an attempt to commercialize," said Tembo, who also serves as co-vice chairman of Us, the founding organization of Kwanzaa. "We believe that many in the African American community are resisting it."
Still, many are not, thanks in part to the increased marketing and merchandising of Kwanzaa, particularly in cities where there are large black populations.
In the 33 years since Karenga introduced Kwanzaa, participation in the holiday has grown from several thousand to more than 20 million people worldwide, most of them in the United States, according to Us.
As a result, black bookstores and gift shops, which used to be the only outlets where people could buy hard-to-find Kwanzaa items, now find themselves competing with non-black-owned stores for customers.
Today, it is not unusual to see kinaras displayed beside menorahs in specialty stores. Bookstores, including the large chains, are among the biggest merchandisers of Kwanzaa.
Even non-retailers are joining in. Radio stations have giveaways, and one group is offering, for a fee, a chance to ring in the new year with Karenga.
"It is disconcerting when one looks at the mass marketing of Kwanzaa," said Steven Newsome, director of the Anacostia Museum and Center for African American History and Culture. "You do get to thinking about whether the message is getting lost."
Not if you are Iyanla Vanzant, the motivational and spiritual guru whose Silver Spring organization, Inner Visions, is charging $15 per person to hear Karenga lecture as part of a gala millennium celebration. "Let's face it. We live in a capitalistic society," Vanzant said. "How do you get the word out if you don't market it?"
Hakim Rushdan, co-owner of Caravan Books and Imports, a black-owned store in Oxon Hill, is more pragmatic about the debate.
"It's like anything else," Rushdan said. "If it sells, people will try to sell it." While there is no hard information on how much money is generated each year from the sale of Kwanzaa items, retailers and customers say demand for merchandise is up.
"We are definitely buying more Kwanzaa," said Sala Damali, one of three co-producers of the District-based International Black Buyers and Manufacturers Expo and Conference, which tracks the making and selling of products geared toward blacks. "It's all about supply and demand."
To be sure, the commercialization of Kwanzaa is not what Karenga envisioned when he came up with the idea of celebrating the traditions of ancient African harvests.
Rather, the former black activist wanted to find a way to overcome the despair he felt had gripped the black community following the August 1965 riot in the predominantly black Watts section of Los Angeles and other civil rights uprisings across the country.
After some research on African customs and traditions, Karenga took the Swahili word kwanza, which means first, and added another "a." Then, he declared his creation a nonreligious holiday in which black people would come together to better themselves and their communities.
The holiday is guided by seven principles: umoja (unity), kujichagulia (self-determination), ujima (collective work and responsibility), ujamaa (cooperative economics), nia (purpose), kuumba (creativity) and imani (faith).
Each day for seven days, beginning on Dec. 26, Kwanzaa observers light a candle on the kinara and explore one of the principles. Families and public gatherings often incorporate song, dance and storytelling into their celebrations.
"It's all about the collective spirit and self-determination," said Dali, of the Black Buyers Expo and Conference. "It's about black people prospering economically by doing for themselves and for their communities."
And therein lie the concerns about the increased commercialization of Kwanzaa.
"We're not against anyone making money from Kwanzaa," said Tembo, of Us. "We just say that we prefer that the African American community receive the greatest benefits from the holiday."
That's how Almalsi Wilcots, of Landover, saw it five years ago when she developed her Kwanzaa holiday bingo game.
"My students would ask me about the holiday, and I got this idea to make it a game," said Wilcots, a former teacher who sells her $27.95 game primarily through black-owned shops in the Washington area. "I figured why not? If I didn't do it, somebody else would."
Jewell Love, an owner of a Philadelphia-based communications and public health company called MEE Productions, said cooperative economics is also what led her company to begin selling all-in-one Kwanzaa kits last year. The kits, which sell for $29.95, come complete with a kinara, candles, straw mat and video on how to conduct a Kwanzaa ceremony.
"We figured if anyone was going to supply it, we were," Love said. "We're a black company serving a black market. It was a natural for us."
For Eunita Graham, the debate over Kwanzaa boils down to one thing.
"I like to shop, and if I run into something related to Kwanzaa, I'm going to buy it," she said. "Then, I'm going to take it home and use it to celebrate the holiday the way I like to celebrate."