Preserving Kwanzaa's Meaning: Blacks Find Refuge in Season but Fear Commercial Influx

Article excerpt

Robyn Miller and her husband, Quentin Driskell, concluded several years ago that Christmas - and the commercialism that comes with it - were spiritually and morally bankrupt for them.

The D.C. residents embraced Kwanzaa instead, with its emphasis on family, community and strong moral values, and its ties to African heritage and traditions.

"This is a period of reflection, basically of what you've been through during the past year," said Mr. Driskell, 47, a lawyer who values the time Kwanzaa gives him and his family to pause. "You give thanks to the ancestors for having made it, ask for their help and guidance, and reflect on what needs to be done in the coming year."

But as their family tries to hold on to the simple rituals and symbolism of Kwanzaa, others see the unmistakable creep of commercialism into what began as a way for black families to create handmade gifts and to use their creativity in the celebration.

In recent years, mainstream giants like Hallmark and American Greeting Cards have developed their own lines of Kwanzaa cards. J.C. Penney now carries Kwanzaa kinaras - candleholders - mats and other symbols.

And large grocery stores like Giant and Safeway, card shops and bookstores are now vying for the growing market. They offer a range of Kwanzaa-related items as more people of African descent seek an alternative to the frenetic pace that now epitomizes Christmas.

"I'm surprised at the popularity, but I'm not pleased with that growth," said John El-Badr, a native Washingtonian and director of the Heritage Gallery International art gallery.

"We are supposed to make a gift which is handmade, something of that nature," said Mr. El-Badr, 52, a father of five who's been celebrating Kwanzaa for 24 years. "Usually when I see Safeway and larger stores having kinaras, it means that it will get a little bit too commercial."

Kwanzaa, which means "first fruits" in Swahili, was created in 1966 by Maulana Karenga, head of the black studies department at California State University at Long Beach. It was intended to help black Americans resurrect and celebrate African traditions that have been lost during their long sojourn in this country.

Kwanzaa is observed from Dec. 26 to Jan. 1 and is embraced by an estimated 15 million to 18 million blacks around the world, according to a recent study by the Smithsonian Institution. While it begins the day after Christmas, celebrants say Kwanzaa is neither religious nor anti-Christmas.

Black Elegance magazine reported that some groups last year protested Kwanzaa ads by Kmart, and resisted the involvement of Safeway and Hallmark. But Mr. Karenga took issue with that stance, calling it "incorrect and diversionary." He said the best way to counter Kwanzaa's commercialization is by "African people keeping the spirit of the holiday, which is one of internal focus and cultural grounding."

William D.C. Clark, owner of Afro in Books in Miami, said people shouldn't be surprised that some are capitalizing on Kwanzaa's growing popularity.

"Obviously where there is money to be made, the big boys will find a way to get in and capitalize," he said.

"Several firms that didn't know the meaning of the word Kwanzaa, much less its intent, are involved. J.C. Penney sells mats, cups and kinaras, though in the past, most of that stuff used to be handmade," said Mr. Clark.

But he believes people adhere to Kwanzaa "because they want to get away from the crass commercialization," and he is heartened by that resistance.

"In a way there has been some commercialization, but due to the fact that gift-giving isn't a big part of it [Kwanzaa], I don't see it rivaling Christmas," he said.

At a workshop at the Anacostia Museum this month, educator Marjani Dele and storyteller Bill Grimmette said the potential for Kwanzaa's commercialization is something to be wary of - but not afraid of. …