The day after Christmas, many African-Americans will spend the ensuing week donning kaftans and kente cloth, gathering around a kinara and communal cup, and lighting red, black, and green candles. This is done in celebration of Kwanzaa, an observance that began in 1966 as a way African-Americans could honor and reflect on their heritage and ancestry. There will be commercials wishing us Happy Kwanzaa, greeting cards in the grocery story, and probably a slightly awkward exchange with someone speaking Swahili to us.
As important as it is for African-Americans to have an appreciation for the continent of our origin, perhaps we have evolved to a point where Kwanzaa isn't as useful as it once was. The focus on East African culture and encouraging a Pan-African view of the world were grounding initiatives in the Civil Rights Era, but are less necessary now in a populace that has made enormous strides over the last few decades.
Kwanzaa is a seven-day event that encourages participants to focus on a different principle each day, all of which are expressed in their Swahili terms and encourage an ethic and ethos that will strengthen the black community. At the time of its founding, the Civil Rights movement was in full swing. The assassinations of Medgar Evers and Malcolm X, the television images of black people being attacked by dogs and police, and Martin Luther King's inspiring oration and example had African-Americans at fever pitch, pining for something - anything - that valued blackness.
By showing us that we descend from a proud and regal culture, it instilled a confidence that years of slavery tried desperately to bury. We gained a deeper appreciation for our melanin, our hair, our ancestry, and all the physical and cultural characteristics that made us unique. Perhaps most importantly, we were able to connect in some manner to a past that subjugation denied.
This connection to a land is an appeal of Kwanzaa that cannot be overstated. Blacks arrived in a country where every person knew from where they came, except us. There were Native Americans, English, Irish, Jews, French, Spanish, Italians, Germans, and so on. And then there was us: black people from African tribes who were incessantly mixed and mingled to a point where the disparate tribes and land we came from were lost in the annals of time. Kwanzaa came along and told us that we were African, and we had a home. When you give people their history, you provide them hope for the future.
Over sixty years later, African-Americans have made incredible progress. We are educated, staunchly in middle class, and in positions of public and corporate leadership. Above all, we are insistently American. The desire to cling to our African otherness because of the heinous treatment we'd experienced here has been replaced by a deep defiant resolve that this country is indeed ours too. With this perspective comes a world-view that is absolutely and inherently American, and not Pan-African. Whether this is a good or bad development is debatable; what is not is that this detracts from the appeal of Kwanzaa today's African-Americans.
Now, we are even protective of the African-American moniker -- an immigrant from Nigeria is not an African-American, but a Nigerian- American. We take pride in our indeterminate origin and wear it as a badge of honor for our unique experiences -- the horrors, the perseverance, and the successes, alike. We have developed our own culture, our own dialects, and our own celebrations. And in those unavoidable moments when we are curious about where we came from, there is DNA testing that can help pinpoint African branches of your family tree. No more blindly reciting East African Swahili for a connection to the past when, perhaps, Twi from Ghana or Wolof from Senegal is more appropriate for your lineage.
Without question, there is still an enduring need for the tenets Kwanzaa celebrates. One need only look at the statistics on the incarceration, drop-out, and murder rates of black men to see we could use more unity, self-determination, collective work and responsibility, cooperative economics, purpose, creativity, and faith -- Kwanzaa's seven principles. These are values that do not expire, and also do not have a race or cultural requirement.
But in a world where a black man is President of the United States, there may be room for Kwanzaa, but is there a need? I'm not so sure any more. The troubled people in the midst of fighting to express their identity benefited from cultural celebrations of their past. And it because of the success of those struggles and the confidence the black pride movement imbued that we have outgrown Kwanzaa. Honoring our past, as Kwanzaa does, will forever be important, but coming into our own was the necessary next step; it's where we are today.
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