Bringing Kwanzaa to the Masses the African-American Holiday Goes Mainstream with a TV Special, a Postage Stamp and Merchandise - but at What Price?

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Byline: Lisa Friedman Miner Daily Herald Staff Writer

A postage stamp pays tribute. Hallmark has taken notice. And now even the "Rugrats" have jumped on the bandwagon.

Kwanzaa - until recently a barely understood African-American holiday - has gone mainstream.

"You know when the marketers are on to it, it's getting big," says Anthony Daniels-Halisi, executive director of Friends for WVON radio and producer of Chicago's annual pre-Kwanzaa event.

But some say commercialization only cheapens the true meaning of the holiday.

Kwanzaa began 35 years ago in California. What was once the domain of black activists is now celebrated by millions.

Public events draw bigger crowds each year. Museums include Kwanzaa items in their decorations. TV stations broadcast greetings during the seven-day holiday.

Numbers are imprecise and hard to come by, though some estimate that more than 20 million celebrate the holiday. Some African- Americans say all their friends have come to celebrate Kwanzaa. Others claim they know no one who has truly embraced the holiday.

Still, for a variety of reasons, blacks and whites are taking notice.

Maybe it's just another sign of the times - drastically different from the black power/civil rights era that inspired Kwanzaa in the first place.

Maybe it's corporate America's attempt to please African- American consumers. Or maybe churches and community groups are striving to be more inclusive - and more politically correct.

Humble beginnings

Kwanzaa was created in 1966 by Maulana Karenga, professor and chair of the Department of Black Studies at California State University and chairman of the black group Organization Us. The idea behind the holiday was to reaffirm African culture and values among African-Americans.

During the holiday, which runs Dec. 26 to Jan. 1, celebrants light candles and introduce the Nguzo Saba, the seven principles of Kwanzaa: Unity, self-determination, collective work and responsibility, cooperative economics, purpose, creativity and faith.

Daniels-Halisi, who grew up in Karenga's Organization Us movement, has celebrated Kwanzaa since he was an infant. He watched as the holiday was embraced by black nationalists and, more recently, by mainstream America.

Ten years ago, Daniels-Halisi joined with other African- Americans to create a pre-Kwanzaa festival in Chicago. Attendance has grown each year. And this year's event, held last Friday, featured an appearance by Karenga.

Daniels-Halisi says he hopes those attending the pre-Kwanzaa celebration take the holiday home with them.

"It's important to me because it is a time for us to look at our culture," he says.

Downside to growth

Going mainstream may introduce Kwanzaa to a wider audience, but some say it comes at a price: namely, commercialization of the holiday.

Evidence is everywhere.

Nickelodeon just unveiled a "Rugrats" Kwanzaa special. (Tommy, Chuckie and their pals also star in shows for Christmas and "Rugrats" Hanukkah.)

The current Avon catalog pitches a $7.99 Kwanzaa wallhanging and a Kmart ad markets African fashions for the holiday.

In fact, Ebony magazine once identified Kwanzaa as a $700 million business.

"In a word, that ain't what Kwanzaa's about," says Ken Smikle, president of Target Marketing News, a Chicago-based research firm specializing in African-American consumers. "You don't need any money to celebrate Kwanzaa and that's what's perhaps most appealing about it."

Karenga himself has warned of the threat of letting corporate America get Kwanzaa in its grip.

Some black activists worry that Kwanzaa will become just another example of whites claiming and redefining African-American culture, Daniels-Halisi says.

In a letter to Karenga, published four years ago in the Chicago Defender, National Black United Front Leader Conrad W. …