A good friend of mine was in northern Illinois on business last week when someone wished her a happy Kwanzaa. The greeter was surely just trying to be inclusive—Elgin, Ill., has an African-American population of about 6.9 percent—so his experience with black people and their holidays was probably limited.
"OMG just got my first 'Happy Kwanzaa' ever from someone who clearly does not celebrate it. Thank you, Elgin, Illinois," my friend, a 30-year-old lawyer with Nigerian-born parents, wrote on her Facebook page. Like most African Americans, she does not celebrate Kwanzaa. She celebrates Christmas, but so do plenty of people who light the Kinara.
Kwanzaa, which runs from December 26 to January 1, was created by activist professor Maulana Karenga in 1966 to celebrate African heritage. Karenga has claimed that 28 million people worldwide celebrate the holiday, but only an estimated half-million to 2 million Americans do, according to Keith Mayes, author of Black Power and the Making of the African-American Holiday Tradition.
"It just no longer shows up in some of the places that it did 30 to 40 years ago," Mayes told the Philadelphia Inquirer. "You still have people who actually celebrate it. You have third generations of Kwanzaa celebrants... but Kwanzaa no longer has its movement which brought it forth, which is the black power movement. That movement has waned."
If Mayes—a University of Minnesota professor in African-American studies who is considered by national outlets to be an expert on the subject—has his numbers right, somewhere between 1 and 5 percent of the 40 million people in the U.S. who identify as African Americans celebrate Kwanzaa. Telling a random black person on the street "Happy birthday month!" is a safer bet than "Happy Kwanzaa!" But this time of year, people, white people especially, tend to toss the greeting at black people they don't even know.
Even Kanye West was reportedly wished a Happy Kwanzaa—by a TMZ paparazzo.
“I don’t celebrate Kwanzaa, I celebrate regular Christmas," he replied, according to Current TV. Never mind that Kwanzaa is a secular holiday not intended to provide an alternative to Christmas.
In 2010 Sandra Lee, the blonde Food Network host of "Semi-Homemade," baked a "Kwanzaa cake" that had critics pointing out the problems with indiscriminate inclusiveness. Blogger Tami Winfrey Harris wrote:
Are you happy Kwanzaa-celebrating black folks? You have been “included” in a holiday baking segment on a popular cooking show. Never mind that Kwanzaa is not traditionally celebrated with loads of baking and that there is no such thing as a Kwanzaa Cake. Never mind that Kwanzaa was specifically designed to celebrate African American culture and that nothing about this cake, save the red, black and green candles, has anything to do with the traditions of the African diaspora.
One way to avoid embarrassment this holiday season: save "Happy Kwanzaa" for people who actually celebrate it, and leave the Kwanzaa baking to them, too.