After 40 Years, Kwanzaa Spreads Its Roots

December 26, 2008, 1:56 pm
Kwanzaa stampThis Kwanzaa stamp, first issued in 2004, was re-issued last month with the new 42-cent postage rate. (Photo: United States Postal Service)

Kwanzaa, the annual weeklong harvest-themed celebration of African-American heritage that starts today, was born in the political and social ferment of the mid-1960s and the rise in social consciousness that accompanied the political agitation of that era.

But with Barack Obama set to take the oath of office as the nation’s first black president, and with the economy in a tailspin that has put a damper on all manner of holiday celebrations, is Kwanzaa as relevant and meaningful as it once was?

Bill Perkins, a state senator who represents Central Harlem and parts of the Upper West Side, was among the first to embrace Kwanzaa as an annual tradition. He began observing the holiday as a college student at Brown University, where he graduated in 1972.

“Especially as an activist at that time, in college and afterwards, it was very important to remember those traditions and values that were important to community-building and to identifying ourselves with our culture and our past,” said Mr. Perkins, 59. He added: “It was considered a little radical at the time. Now, it’s not something that necessarily divides us. I don’t think people generally see it as a separatist action.”

Mr. Perkins, a Democrat, is sponsoring a Kwanzaa celebration at 2 p.m. Saturday at the Harlem branch of the New York Public Library, at 9 West 124th Street, between Fifth and Lenox Avenues.

“It’s not unusual for non-African-American people to be there,” he said. “Nobody feels threatened or left out. It’s a family-oriented, spiritually oriented holiday. It’s not a protest. It’s more of an affirmation. I don’t think it’s an act of militancy, as one might have assumed it was.”

Even so, Kwanzaa has often been the subject of debate within the black community.

Five years ago, in an Op-Ed piece in The New York Times titled “A Case of the Kwanzaa Blues,” the author and lawyer Debra J. Dickerson raised a stir by questioning the purpose of Kwanzaa.

“With all due respect to those who celebrate it, Kwanzaa feels like a cop-out,” she wrote. “Just as drugs are for those who can’t handle reality, isn’t Kwanzaa for those who can’t handle knowing that our ancestors fueled themselves with Western ideals, Christianity uppermost among them?”

Citing the Afrocentric intentions of Kwanzaa’s founder, the black-studies professor and political activist Maulana (Ron) Karenga, Ms. Dickerson asserted that “Kwanzaa feels as if it is more about thumbing black noses at white America than at embracing the lost cause of resuming our Africanness.”

Given the enormous diversity of African cultures and traditions, celebrating a monolithic African heritage makes little sense, she wrote, adding that “insofar as Kwanzaa negates the quintessential Americanness of the slave-descended, it is an affront to the heroism and enunciated goals of our oppressed ancestors. They demanded to be considered, and treated, as Americans, not as Africans.”

Ms. Dickerson’s essay prompted a spirited response. In a letter to The Times, Regina Austin retorted that there was “nothing anti-American about Kwanzaa” and added: “African-Americans, whether born here in America, in Africa or elsewhere, have the right to claim Africa as our ancestral home.”

While the debate continues, what is clear is that Kwanzaa has entered the mainstream.

Many African-Americans celebrate both Kwanzaa and Christmas.

The Postal Service introduced its first Kwanzaa stamp in 1997, and issued a new design in 2004. (The stamp was reissued last month with the new 42-cent postal rate.)

By the early 1990s, retailers had begun Kwanzaa-focused marketing efforts, prompting worries that over-commercialization might spoil Kwanzaa.

As a child growing up in Queens, I remember attending Kwanzaa celebrations at the American Museum of Natural History with relatives and friends who, like me, were Chinese-American. The holiday seemed fun and inclusive (and, I admit, a bit exotic), and I eagerly committed to memory the Nguzo Saba, or seven principles, of Kwanzaa: umoja (unity), kujichagulia (self-determination), ujima (collective work and responsibility), ujamaa (cooperative economics), nia (purpose), kuumba (creativity) and imani (faith).

The museum’s Kwanzaa Fest, as the celebration is now called, will be held from noon to 5 p.m. on Sunday on the first floor of the Milstein Hall of Ocean Life (famous for the giant whale). And from 11 a.m. to 12 p.m. and from 2 to 4 p.m. on Saturday, children will be able to make and share Kwanzaa unity cups at the Children’s Museum of Manhattan, 212 West 83rd Street.

Akilah Bolden-Monifa, a television director, said she and her family celebrate Kwanzaa as an African-themed event that can be appreciated by an ethnically diverse community.

“I’ve been to many Kwanzaa celebrations where the majority of people were not of African descent, and that certainly has been a good thing,” said Ms. Bolden-Monifa, 51, who is director of communications at KPIX, a CBS station in San Francisco.

Last year, she recalled, she organized a Kwanzaa celebration. “I did have a couple of white people call me up and ask, ‘Am I welcome to come?’” she remembered. Some had African-American spouses or children, and they were encouraged to attend.

“I’ve been celebrating Kwanzaa for many, many years,” said Ms. Bolden-Monifa, who lives in Oakland, Calif., and has written essays about the holiday. “It’s nice to have that connection. You acknowledge that you are an American of African descent, with some connection to the motherland, even if you don’t know where that is.”

Her wife, Ruthie Bolden-Monifa, 47, is both African-American and Jewish. The couple, along with their daughter, Ashley, 7, and son Benjamin, 5, celebrate Hanukkah, Christmas and Kwanzaa.

“In many ways, we’re more into Hanukkah and Kwanzaa for the cultural richness than Christmas, which, despite its Christian roots, has become about getting presents,” Ms. Bolden-Monifa said.

Mr. Perkins, the state senator, said that if he had any concerns about Kwanzaa, it was that the holiday would be taken over by retailers.

“We always have to watch out for the commercialization of our faith, our holidays, our worship and our reflection,” he said. “There’s no question that in a society like this, a market can be created that diminishes the value of the holiday. Once it becomes acceptable, then it becomes commercial.”

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