Happy Kwanzaa. It’s the “Black Christmas.” Uh…no.

Kwanzaa.  It's the "Black Christmas".  Uh...no.
Kwanzaa. It’s the “Black Christmas”. Uh…no.

*Habari gani?

I said Habari gani?

What the hell am I talking about, you say?

Do you mean to tell me you don’t know what “Habari gani?” means, or that you’re supposed to reply with the Kwanzaa principle of the day?

Could it be that you don’t celebrate Kwanzaa?

Don’t sweat your weave out.  Me, either.

For the record, “Habari gani?” is the greeting of the day during Kwanzaa, which runs December 26 through January 1. It’s Swahili for “what’s the news?”, and is followed by someone else responding with the principal of the day.

Just so ya know, today’s principle is Ujima (oo-GEE-mah), which means collective work and responsibility.

Today, I’m taking it as my responsibility to do the work (as Iyanla Vanzant would say) and tell you that Kwanzaa just doesn’t work for me.

Before you whip off your kinte cloth turban, start swearing in broken Swahili and tossing your kinara at me (if you don’t know what a kinara is, you’re in my tribe), I said for ME.

But I’m not alone by any means.  A funny new Buzzfeed video suggests that most black folks aren’t connected to the holiday.

ca. 2001 --- Family Celebrating Kwanzaa --- Image by © Royalty-Free/Corbis
ca. 2001 — Family Celebrating Kwanzaa — Image by © Royalty-Free/Corbis

But undoubtedly, Kwanzaa works for some. It was created in 1966, in the middle of the civil rights movement, by Dr. Maulana Karenga, a professor and head of the Department of Africana Studies at California State University Long Beach. It was the first specifically African American holiday.  Karenga has claimed that over 20 million people worldwide celebrate Kwanzaa annually.

None of those people hang with me.  A quick survey of my close friends and family didn’t yield a single Kwanzaa card-carrying person.  Hillary Clinton’s the only one I know who’s into it, and she’s not feeling the love from other Kwanzaa observers.

And as much as I want to believe that 20 million figure, I’m left wondering why that many people “worldwide” would celebrate such an unabashedly American holiday.

A call to Dr. Karenga’s office has not been returned.

For the record, Dr. Karenga was born Ronald Everett on a poultry farm in Maryland in 1941. 20 years later, Everett changed his name to Maulana Karenga, which translates to “Master Teacher.” According to Karenga, the name “kwanzaa” derives from the Swahili phrase “matunda ya kwanza,” meaning “first fruits of the harvest.” The holiday is actually based on African agricultural rites and communal activities.

According to the “official Kwanzaa website,” Karenga wanted to “…give Blacks an alternative to the existing holiday and give Blacks an opportunity to celebrate themselves and history, rather than simply imitate the practice of the dominant society.”

A noble enterprise, indeed.  However, I feel the need to say that I’m not “imitating” any society by celebrating Christmas.  I’m an American and a Christian, and I have always loved the Rudolph the Red Nosed Reindeer and Charlie Brown Christmas TV specials, believe that Christ was the great example that I try to live by every day, and STILL look forward to Santa coming to my house every year.

121613-centric-whats-good-black-african-american-santa-claus

I got a new iMac and a Bose sound system from Santa this year…but back to Kwanzaa.

Each day during Kwanzaa, one’s “Habari gani?”greeting is replied to with the principle of the given day. The order of the principles are: Umoja (unity), Kujichagulia (self-determination), Ujima, Ujamaa (cooperative economics), Nia (purpose), Kuumba (creativity) and Imani (faith).

Each principle corresponds with a candle being placed in a kinara (THAT’S what it is) with three red candles (representing struggle), three green candles (representing the future) and one black candle in the center, which represents the people. During Kwanzaa, a unity cup is passed to all who celebrate, with the last sip being saved for the ancestors.

As noble as the effort and intent behind the creation of Kwanzaa was, I have always maintained that there must have been a seriously strong beverage in that first Kwanzaa unity cup in 1966.

I tried to celebrate Kwanzaa at one point. I’ve been to Kwanzaa celebrations, lit candles, sipped from cups and had the principles committed to memory at one point.

I eventually tabled my annual celebration for a few reasons. First off, I happen to hold the principles of Kwanzaa close all year and don’t feel the need to light candles and sip from public cups during flu season to show it.  I’d much rather spend my time watching basketball, getting ready for the Rose Bowl, and checking out after-Christmas sales.

I had a very hard time pretending to learn Swahili with some African Americans who didn’t seem to have a firm grasp on English.

If Kwanzaa is supposed to be an alternative to Christmas, some of my former celebrants didn’t get that memo. Many of them spoke before, during, and after lighting Kwanzaa candles about what they’d received for Christmas — and about the Christmas credit card bills they were dreading. Those conversations seemed ironic, especially on the day when we were supposed to be celebrating cooperative economics.

Finally, I found it disheartening to celebrate Kwanzaa and its principles with some black colleagues who’d spent the year’s prior 51 weeks seeming to celebrate “crabs in a barrel” more than Kwanzaa’s Kujichagulia (koo-gee-cha-goo-LEE-yah).

To be fair, I met some genuine friends at Kwanzaa observances, and formed some friendships that continue to this day.  One of them’s a brilliant writer and my “wife-in-my-head.”  Also, I’ll admit to having continued to practice some of the rituals I learned while celebrating Kwanzaa. For example, I found calling out the names of the ancestors to be quite powerful, and I continue to do so periodically throughout the year when I’m faced with a significant challenge.

But overall, I walked away from the Kwanzaa celebrations I attended thinking that we as a bunch of black folks had just come together to “play black”, so I ditched the holiday.

So there you have it. Kwanzaa’s not for me. If it works for you, have at it.  Amina.

(It’s Swahili for “amen.”)

What do YOU think? What’s your history with Kwanzaa celebrations? Do you celebrate or not — and why or why not? Let us know in the comments.

This article was written by freelance writer Michael P Coleman. He holds a Bachelor of Arts with High Honors and Distinction in Communication from the University of Michigan. You can follow Coleman on Twitter at @ColemanMichaelP.

5 thoughts on “Happy Kwanzaa. It’s the “Black Christmas.” Uh…no.”

  1. Kwanzaa is not meant to replace Christmas. It is not a religion nor does it take the place of it. Many Kwanna principles avitally sup port the celevation of Jesus..like Faith, todays’s principle. I celebrate Kwanzaa not with public parties, but with actions I take as a role model to my 10 yr old son during this time oamd throughout the year]. The principles are.something we need in our community to combat behavior that holds us back..like crabs in a barrel. Maulana Karenga is not a person I worship nor do I want.my son to emulate him. I do not speak nor will I learn Swahili. Kwanzaa is our holiday so it is what we make it. The holiday is all about the principles for me. Why do you feel the need to insult and bash it for others trying to better our community. You’ve offered no better suggestions therefore I find this whole article offensive and irrelevant.

  2. Kwanzaa is not meant to replace Christmas. It is not a religion nor does it take the place of it. Many Kwanna principles actually support the celebration of Jesus..like Faith, todays’s principle. I celebrate Kwanzaa not with public parties, but with actions I take as a role model to my 10 yr old son during this time and throughout the year]. Unfortunately, there are very few choices because people like you keep criticizing it. Kwaanza principles are something we need in our community to combat behavior that holds us back..like crabs in a barrel. Maulana Karenga is not a person I worship nor do I want my son to grow up to emulate him. I want my son to learn and live the principles. I do not speak nor will I learn Swahili. Kwanzaa is our holiday so it is what we make it. The holiday is all about the principles for me. Why do you feel the need to insult and bash it for others who are trying to better our community? Youre not doing anything anything positive in this article. You’re trying to embarass those who are trying to maintain a national recognized holiday to uplift African Americans. You’ve offered no better suggestions therefore I find this whole article offensive and irrelevant.

  3. Michelle, thanks for sharing. According to several sources, including the “official” Kwanzaa website and Dr. Karenga’s office, the holiday was created as an alternative to Christmas and other seasonal observances. The question I’d offer you is: why did you feel insulted or bashed? The article does neither.

  4. Great read, can I just say though that traditional African print is spelt and pronounced KENTE, with an ‘e’. Traditional from West Africa, more specifically Ghana.

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