Contemporary Consumption Rituals: A Research Anthology

By Cele C. Otnes; Tina M. Lowrey | Go to book overview

4
Kwanzaa: The Making of a Black Nationalist
Tradition, 1966–1990
Elizabeth H. Pleck1
University of Illinois, Urbana—Champaign

Kwanzaa, a 7–day festival beginning on December 26, was created in 1966, and is one of the most lasting innovations of U. S. Black nationalism of the 1960s. Although it is becoming more popular in Canada, the Caribbean, and elsewhere, Kwanzaa is still chiefly celebrated in the United States. Designed to resemble the ritual at an African harvest festival, Kwanzaa consists of a number of activities, including feasting, lighting candles, recitations, and the giving of small gifts to children. A marketing survey in 1997 estimated that Kwanzaa is celebrated by one out of seven U. S. Blacks.2 Two successive acts of national imprimatur demonstrate the growing acceptance of Kwanzaa. The postal service offered a Kwanzaa stamp in 1997. The same year, President Clinton became the first U. S. president to issue a proclamation sending good wishes to Americans who celebrate Kwanzaa. Kwanzaa is significant both because of its popularity and because it retells the African American story, with the distant African rural past elevated to the point of origin. It is even more significant as a cultural event where African American racial identity is formed and refashioned in the post-civil rights era.

As a flexible ritual that changed, grew, and flourished over the years, the history of Kwanzaa is replete with ironies. Born in part out of a critique of capitalism

____________________
1
Reprinted by permission of Transaction Publishers. “Kwanzaa: The Making of a Black Nationalist Tradition, 1966–1990, ” Journal of American Ethnic History, By Elizabeth H. Pleck, v. 20, no. 4, Summer, 2001. Copyright 2001 by Transaction Publishers.
2
Maritz Marketing Research polled a nationally representative sample of 907 adults in 1977. Tibbett L. Spear, “Stretching the Holiday season, ” American Demographics, 19 (November, 1997): 42–9. The article did not report whether the interviewers asked about the type of Kwanzaa celebrations the respondents participated in. For a bibliography about Kwanzaa, see Itibari M. Zulu, Kwanzaa 1969–1989: A Selected Bibliography (Los Angeles, 1994).

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