Two weeks after imani and the close of the holiday season, I’m left with the following question about my child’s future holidays: to Kwanzaa or not to Kwanzaa? This was never even a consideration before. But now that my daughter is old enough to understand seasonal celebrations, I have much to consider.
Before her, I was never a holiday person. I always felt—and continue to feel—that most holidays were created to get us to shovel unhealthy food down our throats, influence us to buy things we never thought about purchasing, and pressure us into believing we’re horrible people who need to stop being so selfish and spend more time with our families. Despite any holiday’s original intent, in their contemporary iterations many of us experience them as little more than a flood of ads, and as vehicles to serve the interests of corporations.
It’s this last point that made Kwanzaa appealing this past year.
Granted, during Christmastime, everyone claims they know Jesus, as he is the reason for the season. People go to church, are friendlier to each other, and attempt to reflect on the Lord’s life—for a day or two. But a week later, after people have gone into debt trying to outdo each other with gift giving, folks are celebrating the upcoming New Year by engaging in behaviors Jesus wouldn’t approve of. In a day or two, all that church going and studying of Jesus’ life is usually out the window.
But with Kwanzaa, we were able to explore a set of values, engage in rituals, and participate in acts of unapologetic blackness with our family and community. And as a parent, this is the kind of cultural and social space I want my daughter to be raised in. But I have some profound issues with Kwanzaa.
First off, Kwanzaa’s founder, Dr. Maulana “Ron” Karenga, was incarcerated for violence against two women: Deborah Jones and Gail Davis. This little tidbit is conveniently left out of Dr. Karenga’s bio. He’s never directly spoken of the events in question, only stating that he was “a political prisoner.” This alone gives me pause.
Then there’s the whole mythology of a unified African identity. Pan-Africanism is a wonderful and concrete philosophy. The idea that the African diaspora community is connected through history and shared geo-origin is an amazing and worthy idea and goal to aspire to. But many of the folks who espouse this during Kwanzaa have never been to Africa, or any other predominately Black land (i.e., the Caribbean).
I have a difficult time believing that it’s fully possible to have a concrete grasp of the enormity of such a cultural position while sitting comfortably in the United States. Some aspects of the holiday makes me feel that some of us can, and do, exoticize our own culture. But what about Kwanzaa as a tool for resisting White supremacy, and for Black empowerment? What greater gift can a modern Black parent provide to their child than a set of principles that serve to inspire and unify, but not be at the mercy of established social (read: White) norms and institutions?
So many of the Black families I interact with are finding that their old churches and their historic family traditions are sometimes at odds with how they want to raise their children. Many churches have become more about material than spiritual gain—sometimes even equating the two—and the sense of connection that churches used to provide has become subservient to the idea of acquisition.
Our Kwanzaa was celebrated as an antidote, a reaffirmation of our shared heritage and an emphasis on the group—and not what the group can buy. Hell, we even got to expose our daughter to some Kiswahili—slightly addressing some of the linguistic conflicts of addressing loved ones with the oppressor’s tongue. This was all great until my “raised in America” kicked in (despite my Caribbean roots).
My daughter already stands out as a young Black girl in a predominately White school. Did I want her to be the only kid in her immediate social circle to not celebrate Christmas in favor of a relatively new holiday that most people I know celebrate only half-heartedly or think is a complete and total farce? Or did I take the principles of Kwanzaa and infuse them in my everyday parenting? Did those principles have to be situated in a mythic/manufactured African context, or could they be everyday rules for living?
Of course they can, but was I disingenuous and cowardly stripping away their Africanisms, no matter how affected?
What say ya’ll? Sound off. To Kwanzaa or not in 2014? Should we do it for the children?
Shawn Taylor is the author of Big Black Penis: Misadventures in Race and Masculinity, and People’s Instinctive Travels and the Paths of Rhythm. He lives in the San Francisco Bay area with his wife and daughter, and can be found sporadically on Twitter @reallovepunk.