In 1966, the African American Maulana Karenga created the holiday of Kwanzaa to give black people an “opportunity to celebrate themselves and their history” rather than indulge in the customary traditions of a white Christmas. The celebration starts on Boxing Day and runs for seven days, each marking one of the “principles of African heritage”, which include umoja (Swahili for unity), kujichagulia (self-determination) and ujaama (cooperative work and economics).
I have a complicated relationship with the holiday. I have always been suspicious of Karenga, the self-styled “master teacher” who seems more cult leader than black revolutionary, peddling a highly patriarchal message of African spirituality as some kind of salvation. It is undeniable that this festival, which takes its name from the Swahili for “first fruits”, but is set in the dead of winter, draws heavily on Christmas, yet Kwanzaa is extremely popular in black communities. I once recited a poem during a Kwanzaa celebration at Harvard, defending it as more than a “bootleg black Christmas”. And if a questionable origin story was a reason not to celebrate a cultural event, then we would all be at work on 25 December.
In 2009, I went to my first Kwanzaa as an adult and it completely changed how I saw the role of culture and politics.
My dad and I went to our local Kwanzaa in Birmingham a little reluctantly, because we assumed we would not fit in. Strongly influenced by images of the “master teacher” in the US, we expected to see people in traditional African dress, throwing off the shackles of European culture. So we debated for a long time what was appropriate to wear. I decided that jeans and a Malcolm X T-shirt would be a suitably political statement, but my dad was having none of it and insisted we embrace traditional dress. He wore a neatly fitting dashiki top and, for me, picked out what I can only describe as a white gown, which was so long and overflowing that it swallowed me up.
Floating into the community centre, I was ready to be with my people, but I have never felt so out of place. Most of those there were in their everyday, European clothes, while my gown was so ridiculously oversized that everyone must have wondered whether I had turned up a couple of months late for Halloween. We had imagined Kwanzaa as some closed-off event for insiders woke to the knowledge of their true cultural heritage; instead, we found a true cross-section of the community. This was a space defined by blackness – from the people to the stalls, the music, the food and the colours.
The programme opened with about a dozen musicians filling the space with the beat from their djembe drums. It is hard to explain the impact of the drum call – the beat goes through you, pulls you in to what seems like a different place. Once the tone was set, the libation was poured, honouring the ancestors who had gone before. It is easy to dismiss these connections to African cultures as contrived, coming as they do from the descendants of the enslaved. But they are essential, because slavery not only severed our links to Africa, but taught us to hate our “backwards” roots. As Malcolm X explained: “You can’t hate the roots of a tree and not hate the tree … You can’t hate Africa and not hate yourself.” By affirming Africa, Kwanzaa aims to affirm blackness.
The most powerful performance of the night was from a group of primary-school children who sang a Kwanzaa song they had been practising for weeks. They were decked in, and singing about, the red, black and green colours of the Universal Negro Improvement Association, founded by Marcus and Amy Ashwood Garvey in 1914 and still one of the most important black organisations. The children were from a black supplementary school that was founded in 1967 to teach the knowledge that the mainstream schools refused. Given the continued deficits in the curriculum, it is more vital than ever that we have alternative spaces of education.
By the end, my dad and I had forgotten all about our theoretical criticisms and were captivated by the practice of Kwanzaa. Alternative spaces, education and community are vital to the success of black political action. So, during this festive period, Kwanzaa, yenu iwe na heri (may your Kwanzaa be happy).