The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

Glenn Grothman has me pegged. I can’t stand Kwanzaa.

Kwanzaa display (Craig Herndon/The Washington Post)

Glenn Grothman is the kind of Republican bomb-thrower the halls of Congress doesn’t need more of but will get in droves. His past comments have been so incendiary that Alex Isenstadt of Politico Magazine called him “a 59-year-old Tea Party firebrand who attracts headlines the way that character in ‘Charlie Brown’ draws dirt.” But there was one comment attributed to the Wisconsin state senator-turned-incoming House freshman that made me nod in limited agreement.

For some reason, according to a Jan. 3, 2013, post by Adam McCoy, editor of Shorewood Patch, Grothman issued a press release harshly condemning Kwanzaa.

“Why must we still hear about Kwanzaa?” the Republican lawmaker from West Bend asked in a press release. “Why are hard-core left wingers still trying to talk about Kwanzaa — the supposed African-American holiday celebration between Christmas and New Year’s?”….
In his release, Grothman called for the holiday to be “slapped down.”
“Of course, almost no black people today care about Kwanzaa — just white left-wingers who try to shove this down black people’s throats in an effort to divide Americans,” Grothman said.

“Of course, almost no black people today care about Kwanzaa”? That’s not entirely true. While I don’t know anyone who actually celebrates it, I’m sure someone somewhere does. But he’s got me pegged. I can’t stand Kwanzaa.

The seven-day festival with its seven-candle Kwanzaalabra (as I call it) celebrating seven principles rooted in African tradition was invented by Maulana Karenga. The official website says he did this “[t]o reaffirm the communitarian vision and values of African culture and to contribute to its restoration among African peoples in the Diaspora, beginning with Africans in America and expanding to include the world African community.” Karenga created the holiday celebrated between Christmas and New Year’s in the 1960s, but it took off in popularity in the 1990s.

So strident were Kwanzaa’s fans then that it became a marker of authentic blackness. And if I rebel against anything, it’s the notion that there is one real way to be black. What was even more annoying for me was how non-African Americans bought into its legitimacy as an expression of black authenticity.

Kwanzaa-themed holiday cards elicited hard eye rolls from me and a few choice words delivered sotto voce. When a well-meaning white friend sent me a Kwanzaa card a few years back, I was enraged for hours. A Christmas card would have done nicely. My disdain for the holiday runs so deep that when Kwanzaa was the answer in the game Heads Up, my clue was “made up black holiday!” My teammate answered the question without a nanosecond’s hesitation. The ensuing laughter can only be described as uncontrollable.

But don’t confuse my Kwanzaa sneering for 100 percent agreement with Grothman. The conservative Republican sees Kwanzaa as part of a vast left-wing conspiracy to divide the nation, play the race card or whatever else race-fearing right-wingers think.  I see it as another sincere yet misguided effort by African Americans to forge a connection to an ancestral home they know nothing about. Sure, the principles of “unity,” “self-determination” and “collective work and responsibility” are excellent. But did we really need Kwanzaa to imbue us with these values? Do we really need to light a candle each day and recite a word in a language we’ve never spoken or know anything about to reaffirm a sense of community and resilience?

Considering Kwanzaa was made up for my benefit, I have every right to question its relevance and utility. So, while Grothman is entitled to his opinion about the made-up black holiday, he has absolutely no standing to cast judgment on it. As for his thoughts on more relevant matters, I can’t wait to hear the rhetorical bombs he will drop in the 114th Congress.

Follow Jonathan on Twitter: @Capehartj