My father would wake my sister and I every Christmas morning when we were young. At the crack of dawn, we’d wipe the sleep from our eyes, will our little limbs to climb out of bed, and make our way to the living room to find a plentiful bounty left beneath our neatly decorated plastic tree by Santa Claus. We’d spend a couple hours ripping gift wrap from dozens of presents, playing with the assortment of bells and whistles while my parents snapped an obscene amount of pictures and video footage, my sister and I total hams. My dad would whip up breakfast and we’d eat until the itis set in, dozing through the remainder of the morning before commencing another round of reindeer games.
Santa’s doting generosity was a manifestation of my dad’s love, the parent rousing us before the sun ushered in Christmas day, overcome with our impending joy. Save for church services, this was the extent of our holiday tradition up to the year my sister asked why Santa’s handwriting and my dad’s signature chicken scratch were so similar. “Daddy is Santa’s helper” was an unsatisfactory response.
Until last year, I didn’t know much about Kwanzaa beyond “A Huey Freeman Christmas,” an episode of the popular tv show The Boondocks. The plot masterfully juxtaposed Riley seeking revenge against an unbeknown mall Santa, Jasmine grappling with the fact that Santa isn’t Jesus Christ, and a frustrated Huey embarrassed by his white teacher’s obsession with Kwanzaa. For many Black people, Huey’s teacher adorned in Kente cloth, pumping his fist with wild abandon, leading a classroom of clueless students in the Harambee chant perfectly illustrates the general sentiment surrounding the holiday. Kwanzaa is corny as hell.
Friday marked the final day of this year’s Kwanzaa celebration and my first time commemorating all seven days. A year ago, I sang a set at a pre-Kwanzaa dinner with my former band. Dozens of Black elders from every corner of the city filled a small banquet hall to honor the ancestors, wax KiSwahili, break bread, and buy a tub of whipped shea butter before bidding ase. The ritual, the dress, the familiarity was so far removed from my years spent on letter-writing campaigns bargaining with Santa.
Despite feeling terribly out of place, the dinner piqued my curiosity. I spent the next months reading about founder Maulana Karenga, the architect of US, a Black organization best known for its bad blood with the Black Panther Party, disbanded when Karenga was convicted and imprisoned for torturing two Black women. In 1966, before his descent into infamy, he created Kwanzaa in hopes of establishing the first Pan-African holiday. Observance is between Christmas and New Year’s Day, beginning December 26th and concluding on January 1st. The week-long ritual, loosely based on African first fruit traditions, encourages the practice of seven principles: unity, self-determination, collective work and responsibility, cooperative economics, purpose, creativity, and faith. Proper celebration requires songs, gestures, and spoken offerings in KiSwahili, and a visual spread of symbols representing the principles, the kinara and candles the most recognizable.
Black institutions in cities across the nation host Umoja events on the first day of Kwanzaa, typically free and open to the public, to provide cultural programming in urban cores, broaden appeal among Black people, and often make space for Black Nationalists and conscious heads to gather annually. A week ago, I dedicated a rendition of Cassandra Wilson’s “Sankofa” to the oldest elders at this year’s celebration after the ritual leader honored the ancestors and recently passed Black community leaders.
Gymnasiums, auditoriums, and halls court hundreds of Black people perusing vendor tables bearing bold colored Kente print, handmade jewelry and supersize ankhs, Black literature and historical texts, baked goods, fine art, and self-published pamphlets galore. The ceremonies are unique to each celebration but likely include prayers, introduction to the principles, symbols, and protocol, libations, African folk songs, traditional dances, and performances.
Writers and theorists tend to publish work just before each Kwanzaa panning and praising the holiday. Though no one knows how many celebrants there are, polls and stats estimate between two and five percent of Black people in the U.S. and abroad. According to a few publications, more young, Black people celebrated or participated in Kwanzaa this year than years past. Michael W. Twitty suggests Kwanzaa is particularly poignant amid current Black political unrest. A flare in popularity makes sense considering Kwanzaa was birthed in a similar political climate. Acts of police brutality, from violent sexual assault to extrajudicial murder, are caught on camera and set to a viral video loop on social media and primetime tv cycles. Police departments, prosecutors, and city leaders seldom face political or criminal consequence, leaving families and communities without substantial answers or recompense. Protests and civil disobedience drawing thousands led primarily by young, Black, queer women quell and rise every 28 hours, as yet another name emerges to seek justice for.
Proponents of Kwanzaa contend the principles promote togetherness and healing within the Black community. I’m inclined to agree, but the evidence doesn’t consistently match the claim. Black people outside of conscious communities — close-knit localized groups with deep roots in nation-building ideology and practices — are frequently missing from Umoja festivals. The queer, the young, the academic, the hood, the suburban largely abstain from celebrating or even acknowledging Kwanzaa. Many feel erased, ostracized, unwelcome, uncomfortable, ingenuine, and disconnected from Afrocentricity and those who have celebrated Kwanzaa since its inception.
Even more peculiar, most Africans living in the U.S. and worldwide don’t observe Kwanzaa. Ghanaian Canadian writer Nikki Yeboah asserts, “I am tired of seeing the same old African tropes of kente cloth, “umoja,” drums, dance, etc. standing in for authentic connections with the continent and its people.” She continues, “Our culture is just as dynamic as any other, but whenever it is represented in African-American culture, we are always taken up in the same old static ways.” Kwanzaa is an aggregation of East and West African elements so oversimplified it comes off as deeply inauthentic, antiquated, historically disjointed, and sometimes offensive. Though Kwanzaa’s origins explicitly cater to the Black American experience, the holiday is Pan-African and meant to tie the Diaspora, people of African descent globally. Simply put, Kwanzaa falls short of principled unity with the very people from the continent it espouses.
Even still, I believe Kwanzaa is relevant as ever. As a young, Black woman, I’m not tripping over myself to celebrate a holiday created by a man guilty of abusing women. But I see the value of practicing, challenging, and pushing the Kwanzaa principles beyond original intent or vision. I don’t wear Kente dress or anything resembling an ankh. I don’t own a kinara, light candles, or speak KiSwahili. There’s nothing wrong with Black people who have or make or do any of these things. There’s nothing wrong with honoring our ancestors through song, dance, and drum. There’s nothing wrong with carving out and keeping tradition, something for us by us. But we can and should redefine Afrocentric ideals to center authentic connection to Africa and with people of African descent everywhere. Our Blackness, fully realized internally and collectively, is not grounded in ceremony but global community.