The African American culture is one of the richest in historical traditions, artistic valor, and communal practice. It takes with it the meaning of family across the African diaspora, transforming those who are called neighbor into brother and sister.
People of African descent are one people with many varied parts, continuing to embark on a journey to find some manner of togetherness that doesn’t separate us by religion, creed, gender, political agenda, or educational achievement.
Dr. Maulanga Karenga established a means for people of African descent to reconnect to their African heritage and cultural traditions. Rooted in the Black nationalist movement of the 1960’s, Kwanzaa became natured by seven principles of African heritage, known as the Nguzo Saba, which according to Karenga, composes a communitarian African philosophy, or the best of African thought and practice.
I currently serve at a “holiday neutral” school where the student majority is of African descent. Although Kwanzaa is not a formalized holiday, with respect to what our school calendar recognizes as such, mention of it was absent. I at first wondered if this was just a local school or organizational issue, until I also realized that parental members of the community did not largely inquire about and therefore accepted its absence. This appears to be a systemic issue.
Kwanzaa was instituted as a means to reaffirm the human agency and cultural dignity of people of African descent. This agency was disrupted during enslavement as persons who owned enslaved Africans, influenced a displacement of practices that were intrinsically African. In its stead, Christianity was often misused to justify the institution of slavery. Therefore, upon the birth and annual observance of Kwanzaa, people of African descent who do not honor the Christmas holiday, which is rooted in the Christian belief system, were able to relocate their own African spirituality and practice.
In 1977, Karenga wrote in his book Kwanzaa: Origin, Concepts, Practice: “Kwanzaa is not an imitation, but an alternative, in fact, an oppositional alternative to the spookism, mysticism and non-earth based practices which plague us as a people and encourage our withdrawal from social life rather than our bold confrontation with it.”
However, as Kwanzaa gained notoriety amongst Christians, who were also of African descent, its stance as an opposition to Christmas, changed.
Being individuals of African descent, with this striving, equated a new means for Black America to adopt a system that did not oppress but instead, gifted communalism in relation to the edifying of Black culture. It returned displaced value in the Black community and before America, performed cultural relevance and the quality of life for people of African descent. Beginning on December 26, in the spirit of feasting and gift giving, Kwanzaa is a tonal extension the holiday season intends to set. But while the daily candle lighting of the kinara occurs, can we, meaning Americans, honestly state that we offer a place on the celebratory stage for Kwanzaa to hold relevance in our Americanized discourse and demonstration of “holiday”?
The American education system, an incubator for much of what America teaches, is in part responsible for the lack of promotion of an honorable celebration rooted in that, in this case, which is directly linked to the student population it serves.
In consideration of this country’s foundational precepts, the assumption could be that America is not largely interested in Kwanzaa, for it is too culturally forward. This is not to state that there should be limitations on the dialogue about Christmas, for the truer and often blurred Christmas message is not about elves, a traveling sleigh, or retail sales. This is to state that we, in America, can begin to be more reflective about whether or not we’ve become so wired by the the celebration of a holiday, that we miss observances, like that of Kwanzaa, which prove a cultural richness and relevance America struggles to promote overall.
The overarching question is when will we, the American family, get pass the preliminaries that acknowledge that we are a culturally manifold country, and reach an adoption of knowledge and action that promotes cultural competence, especially during times like these where thick cultural history, thought, and practice are abundant and easily recognizable? Cultural competence begins with discussing what appears to be invisible and making it seen. Acknowledging and educating about Kwanzaa, on a greater scale, is another beginning we can start from.
Jovan A. Brown is an elementary educator and cultural competence facilitator based in Philadelphia. She is the mother of one and aspires to publish children’s literature that encourages self-acceptance. (www.dear-beautiful.com)