Why We Celebrate-Or Don't Celebrate Kwanzaa: For Many African-Americans, Post-Christmas Holiday Is Filled with Joy, Confusion and Ambivalence

By Henderson, Shirley | Ebony, December 2007 | Go to article overview

Why We Celebrate-Or Don't Celebrate Kwanzaa: For Many African-Americans, Post-Christmas Holiday Is Filled with Joy, Confusion and Ambivalence


Henderson, Shirley, Ebony


KWANZAA, THE SEVEN-DAY AFROCENTRIC spiritual festival, turns 41 this month. Since its inception by founder Maulana Karenga in 1966, many faithful celebrants have lit the kinara while espousing the Nguzo saba (Seven principles) of Kwanzaa.

On the other side of the kente cloth is a decidedly anti-Kwanzaa group that does not participate in the celebration for reasons that range from unfavorable Karenga sentiment to the festival's growing commercialism.

And there are those who are ambivalent about Kwanzaa and still others who don't understand the holiday.

Like many steadfast Kwanzaa celebrants, Soyini Walton recalls discovering herself culturally in the 1960s while she was in her 20s. "We were inspired to do that by the cry of Stokely Carmichael," recalls Walton, principal of Barbara Sizemore Academy in Chicago and one of the founders of the Institute for Positive Education. Both schools incorporate many of the principles of Kwanzaa into their curriculum. "Carmichael stood up, raised his fist and said, 'Black Power,' and that was kind of a cultural awakening ... People coming out of the Civil Rights Movement were very active, and they were frustrated just simply doing civil rights. They wanted to do something that was reflective of our background ... and our own power."

When Karenga created Kwanzaa, which is ripe with ceremony and culture--lighting candles, singing songs, reaffirming dedication to the seven principles with Swahili names and enjoying the karamu (feast)--many people embraced its doctrine. Initially Kwanzaa celebrations were held in private homes on each day of the festival to correspond with the seven principles: umoja (unity), kujichagulia (self-determination), ujima (collective work and responsibility), ujamaa (cooperative economics), nia (purpose), kuumba (creativity) and imani (faith). Today, in major cities across the country, Kwanzaa celebrations are held at such locations as colleges, convention halls and community centers.

Maitefa Angaza of Brooklyn loves the idea of the spiritual festival. A mother and grandmother, she has been actively celebrating Kwanzaa for three decades, and she decided to write a guide to help others embrace the festival. Kwanzaa: From Holiday to Everyday (Kensington Publishing Corp.) outlines how she and her family prepare for and celebrate the festival, which begins December 26 and ends on January 1.

"One thing that I've found personally gratifying because I've been celebrating Kwanzaa for 30 years," says Angaza, "is that my son, who turns 30, used to enjoy lighting the candles and putting a piece of fruit on the table. Now he's doing the same things with his child."

Despite its ceremonial aspects, Kwanzaa is considered to be a non-religious celebration. Still, there arc some, such as Carlotta Morrow, who believe that celebrating Kwanzaa encroaches upon religion by teaching people to live their lives according to certain doctrine.

Morrow, a San Diego-based writer, says that during the 1970s, her sister became involved with Organization US, started by Karenga. …

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