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