A Case for Kwanzaa

There's a lot of “Kwanzaa sucks” stuff floating around this time of year. I’ve heard people say it’s stupid, it’s fake, it’s pointless. It’s anti-Christmas and anti-Christian. That it’s just a Black radical kind of thing, not a celebration to be taken seriously by the community-at-large.

But Kwanzaa is not a religious holiday—it is a spiritual one. It’s also not an African-American holiday—it’s a pan-African observance transcending the various nationalities, languages, religions and political orientations of Black people. Kwanzaa, at its core, is a meditation about Black Family.

Every year my family gathers the on the first day of Kwanzaa, December 26. This was a mandate of my paternal grandmother’s. Long before she died, she told my aunts: “I know you want to spend Christmas with your families, your significant others, your children, your friends or what have you. Just set aside the day after Christmas to come and see me.”

My grandmother, born in 1906, Sampson County, North Carolina, didn’t know anything about Kwanzaa, or Swahili or kinaras or mkekas or even the significance of the red, black and green. But she did have the sense that it was important for us to gather as a family. All of us, all the grandchildren, cousins, aunts and uncles every single year. She called it “fellowship.”

So we conduct family fellowship every year on the first day of Kwanzaa, the day of Umoja, which quite fittingly, means unity, and we did so again this Kwanzaa.

Each of my family members stood up and offered a few words. We spoke about what’s happened during the year, what we are thankful for. We gave tribute to our family members that have passed on, and our ancestors: my great-great grandfather and great-great grandmother and others. We spoke about sacrifices made. We recount our history and how thankful we are that we have each other. Though we had no kinara this year, a Black unity candle was lit in our hearts. And every year I learn something new about my family history.

The Nguzo Saba (Seven Principles) are values that few can take legitimate issue with: unity (Umoja), knowledge of self (Kujichagulia), collective work and responsibility (Ujima), cooperative economics (Ujaama), purpose (Nia), creativity (Kuumba), faith (Imani). Regardless of how you feel about kente cloth or dashikis, it would be hard to argue that these principles don't have intrinsic value to our community.

I also learned something new when I saw Roots again this week as it aired by BET. Amazingly, there was a lot of negative chatter of Twitter complaining about it. Some were saying, “It’s the holidays, no one wants to watch a show about slavery.” But those who watched the miniseries know that the slavery portion is only a fraction of the story. Alex Haley's narrative retells other aspects of our history, just as significant, like the Houston Riot of 1917 that involved Black soldiers from World War I—a piece of Black history which, before this holiday season, I knew nothing about.

One of the most significant scenes of the miniseries for me was in the last episode of Haley's second miniseries, Roots: The Next Generations. Set in the 1970s, the episode goes back to when Alex Haley is broke, even though he’s already written The Autobiography of Malcolm X and he badly needs an advance to go to Africa and continue his research for his novel. Haley, played by James Earl Jones, calls his oldest living family member, a cousin of his and he tells her he needs her to pray. She says: “I’m going to start praying as soon as we get off the phone and I’m not going to stop.” The next day Reader’s Digest calls Haley with an assignment to go to Africa.

Twitter user ‏‪@StefCherelle said it best: “Those of u who are wondering why ‪@BET is playing Roots & Queen saying ‘It’s not fitting for the holiday season’ go to Google, type [in] ‘Kwanzaa.’ ”

Indeed. Kwanzaa is about history and family. It’s about remembering who we are, how we got here and where we are going. It is much more ancient than 1966, much, much bigger than it's founder Maulana Karenga. Regardless of your religion, your political affiliation or even what part of the African Diaspora from which you emerged, Kwanzaa is a special celebration that deserves your fair consideration.