Unpacking Kwanzaa: A Critical Reflection on a Cultural Holiday

The Amherst College Black Student Union held its annual Kwanzaa celebration last Friday night. The other members of the BSU executive board and I hosted an empowering night of community reflection and togetherness in the Octagon. We began by acknowledging the transformative work of members of our community through an award ceremony followed by a catered dinner. 

Last week’s Kwanzaa celebration on campus should not be conflated or confused with the actual holiday celebration that occurs from Dec. 26th through Jan. 1st. Dr. Maulana Karenga (born Ronald Everett), an African-American professor of Africana Studies, developed the holiday in 1966. Each award of the BSU Kwanzaa event, given to a student or other Amherst community member, reflects a different principle of the seven-day-long Kwanzaa celebration.
Each day represents a different principle, so seven awards are handed out in total. After the BSU leadership gave out the seven awards, all students at the event were invited to stand up and acknowledge individuals in their lives or in the community who have also upheld the principles of Kwanzaa. The seven principles, or Nguzo Saba, are a set of ideals developed by Dr. Karenga:

Day 1: Umoja (unity);
Day 2: Kujichagulia (self-determination)
Day 3: Ujima (collective work and responsibility)
Day 4: Ujamaa (cooperative economics)
Day 5: Nia (purpose)
Day 6: Kuumba (creativity)
Day 7: Imani (faith)

As an African-American of slave descent, I can personally identify with Kwanzaa as a cultural holiday, but this is not necessarily true for many other Afro-descendant people in the United States whose families do not personally identify with this country’s legacy of African slavery. Instead, they hold specific cultural identities from other nations of the African Diaspora beyond the U.S. border.

A good friend of mine told me that, as someone of the Afro-Latino community, she did not know if she could identify with a cultural holiday of African-American origin like Kwanzaa. Indeed, the stories of immigration of many Afro-Latinos to the United States are quite different from the history of enslavement and segregation for many black Americans whose ancestors have been in the United States for several generations. Blackness has been constructed quite differently in Latin American cultures than in the United States. Furthermore, I’ve talked with international students from Africa and black Americans of more immediate African heritage who struggle to comprehend a holiday with a generalized interpretation of the African continent. Unlike many African-Americans celebrating Kwanzaa, they understand their African heritage according to specific ethnicities or nations rather than the entire continent.

In light of these differences, how can an African-American holiday made for Black America in 1966 be constructively re-examined and fashioned to what Black America looks like in 2015? Clearly, Kwanzaa can be both liberating and problematic as a holiday that was founded to connect Black America with its African roots. However, I firmly believe that there are ways that Kwanzaa can be reimagined for those beyond the traditional African-American community for which it was founded.
Of course, African-Americans do not need to apologize for Kwanzaa. We are the core of the holiday’s origin and purpose. Kwanzaa was founded for and by African-Americans but what I want to emphasize in this article is that everyone can engage with the celebration’s seven principles regardless of their identity. My hope is that the incredibly diverse Afro-descendent community at Amherst College and in the U.S. more generally will begin to see Kwanzaa as a holiday that can unify us and illuminate our connections rather than overemphasize our differences. I want the celebration to bring us together rather than cause us to drift apart. Considering the globalizing world we live in and the ethnic diversity of the black American community today, Kwanzaa can be made relevant to all members of the African Diaspora. 

I gave the following speech (with a few grammatical and stylistic revisions) as the BSU Historian last Friday, Dec. 4th, during the Kwanzaa celebration in the Octagon. The speech summarizes how I believe this cultural holiday can be made accessible to those who might feel marginalized, alienated or confused.

The black community has evidently diversified in the past few decades significantly and Amherst College’s campus exemplifies this trend. The many ethnicities and cultural heritages represented by members of BSU, ACSU and La Causa show us the breadth of experiences of students with African ancestry. We are African-American, but we are also Haitian-American, Dominican-American, Puerto Rican, Brazilian-American, Jamaican-American, Nigerian-American, Ethiopian-American the list goes on and on. We are also international students from African countries and other nations of the African Diaspora.

However, historically, Kwanzaa was developed at a time when many African-Americans could not easily trace back their lineage to a particular African or Caribbean culture. In 1966, African-Americans like Dr. Maulana Karenga (formerly Ronald McKinley Everett) sought to unify African-Americans in light of an American government that didn’t live up to the vision sought by the Civil Rights Movement a couple years earlier. The Watts riots in Los Angeles confirmed that even with the political and legal gains of the 1960s, they were still second-class citizens. Marginalized from the possibility of claiming a true American identity, African-Americans sought to make sense of their African heritage on American soil.   

It is important to note that the majority of African-Americans are most likely descendants of slaves coming from Western Africa, rather than Swahili-speaking people. The use of Swahili names for many of Kwanzaa’s artifacts is not meant to overgeneralize African culture or ignore the linguistic and cultural diversity of the continent. Nonetheless, while we should be both conscious and critical of cultural inaccuracies in the creation of Kwanzaa as a community celebration in a constructive way, we should acknowledge the greater message and intentions for cultural unity that Dr. Karenga strived for.
Kwanzaa is empowering because of its capacity to connect black Americans to Africa as well as the larger African Diaspora in the Caribbean and Latin America. Let this be a moment when all people of African ancestry and their allies can come together to acknowledge the many intersections of experience, identity and culture that unify Afro-descendant people across the world.