Kwanzaa Lights Up as African-American Holiday
Started in 1966, it is catching on as a cultural festival that celebrates family and community.
NEW YORK — To Isis Jannievre, celebrating Kwanzaa is an issue of identity.
"It's a renewal of my faith and who I am as an African-American," says Ms. Jannievre, a Harlem schoolteacher. She is marking the seven-day, African-inspired holiday by giving a book, a diary, and other educational gifts to three foster children she recently adopted.
Kwanzaa, which began last Friday and is enjoying its widest observance ever this year in the United States, fuses a variety of traditional African practices in a bid to instill celebrants with pride in their heritage and link them with Africans worldwide.
Several million people celebrate Kwanzaa in the US. It is most widely marked in New York and California, according to Jose Ferrer, organizer of Kwanzaa Fest, an annual celebration here.
"It is definitely growing in popularity," says Manning Marable, director of Columbia University's Institute for Research in African-American Studies.
Some African-Americans say they are unenthusiastic about Kwanzaa, saying it impinges on Christmas.
Unlike Christmas, however, Kwanzaa is a cultural, not religious, holiday. "We want to reaffirm our rootedness in African culture," says its founder, Maulana Karenga, who is chairman of the Department of Black Studies at California State University at Long Beach. "With the holocaust of enslavement we were lifted out of our history and made a footnote in someone else's history. The struggle was to return to our history in the cultural sense."
The word Kwanzaa means "first" in Swahili, a reference to the harvest festivals among Zulus, Ashantis, and other tribes.
Spurred by riots and devastation
Rioting in 1965 in Watts, an impoverished black neighborhood of Los Angeles, prompted Karenga to create Kwanzaa.
He was deeply affected by the devastation. He looked to African cultures for practices and concepts that would empower African-Americans and unite them.
Karenga came up with a family-oriented holiday of joy and reflection. It tapped into the interest of many African-Americans in exploring their African identities.
But what started out as a festival spread by Karenga's lectures and word of mouth is now a part of mainstream American culture. Many shops sell Kwanzaa cards, and the holiday even has its own postal stamp.
The turning point came in 1981, when a group of enthusiasts led by Mr. Ferrer decided to broaden Kwanzaa's appeal through advertisements and a media campaign.
Ferrer, who had lost his younger brother to substance abuse, heard Karenga lecture in 1970 and decided to deploy the Nguzo Sabaa, a set of seven principles aimed at strengthening community, family, and self. He used them in a drug-and-alcohol treatment program he ran in upper Manhattan. When Ferrer subsequently led the effort to popularize Kwanzaa, using his post as senior vice president of the New York Urban Coalition, Karenga held aloof, apparently wary of Ferrer's intentions. But eventually he endorsed it.
"We undertook what was essentially a detoxification effort," Ferrer says. "The idea was to remove misconceptions that Kwanzaa conflicts with Christmas and to make clear it is not political or religious."
Like the seven-day Jewish Hanukkah and Christmas, which appear to have influenced Kwanzaa, it is a festival of light.
Candles are lit each night to represent a principle, until the last night, when all seven candles are lit. A bowl of fruit and vegetables, representing the harvest, is placed near the candle holder. Then comes the favorite part for children - the giving of zawadi, or gifts, which may range from handmade clothing to books.
Stories are recounted about African-American heroes who embody the principle being marked that day, in a practice whose roots are traced to the African griot, a tribal storyteller.
Today, for example, the sixth day of Kwanzaa, celebrants may speak about James Van DerZee to illustrate kuumba, or creativity. Mr. Van DerZee was a self-taught photographer whose pictures of African-Americans spanned most of this century. His work conveys that Harlem was a neighborhood full of hardworking people who cared for their families.
In black bookstores across the US, Kwanzaa's approach prompted a rush for books, compact discs, and candles. "Everyone that comes in is buying something for Kwanzaa," says Lois Kinley, co-owner of Zawadi gift shop in Brooklyn. "It's not that Kwanzaa became more commercialized," she says. "It became more recognized."
Large corporations have gotten in on the act. General Motors, Kraft Food, and the Key Food Corp. helped sponsor Kwanzaa Fest this year, which drew 250 black businesses and more than 20,000 visitors.
But while most African-Americans have heard of Kwanzaa, many still do not understand what it entails. "The kids have heard of it but it's not ingrained," says Jannievre, the teacher. "Their families are aware of it, but are not practicing it."
Not all African-Americans are enthusiastic about Kwanzaa's growth, including some devout Christians who are wary of the festival's proximity to Christmas.
"I don't celebrate Kwanzaa," says Sandra Cockfield, a nurse. "I grew up in a Christian home and I celebrate the birth of Jesus."
In Harlem, advertising agent Carol Watson says her family celebrates both holidays, an increasingly common practice. "Every year, on the Saturday after Christmas, I have a Kwanzaa party and invite people who have never been," she says.
Falling short on promises
Despite Kwanzaa's popularity, George Subira, an author who considers himself a disciple of Karenga, argues that it has fallen short on a basic tenet. The holiday is reinforcing a pattern by which black earnings are spent in the white-dominated economy rather than being recycled through black businesses.
"Instead of celebrating what we have produced, we celebrate by spending money with people who don't look like us," Mr. Subira said in an interview in the New York Daily News Kwanzaa advertising supplement.
"Cooperative economics is a cute phrase we have been paying lip service to for 30 years," he continued. "However, we are no closer to achieving it than we were 30 years ago."
Karenga, however, is clearly pleased with the holiday's achievement of strengthening the African identity of American blacks. "People celebrate it because it speaks our African cultural truth to the world and because it brings forth the best in being African," he says.
"I would want it to spread, first among students and intellectuals ... whether we are in the United States, the Caribbean, or Ghana, we are all one people."
How Kwanzaa Got its Start
Kwanzaa was created in 1966 by Maulana Karenga, now chairman of the Black Studies Department at California State University, Long Beach. The week-long celebration fuses African harvest festivals with seven principles aimed at strengthening community, family, and self. Known in Swahili as the Nguzo Sabaa, they are:
umoja, or unity; kujichagulia, or self-determination; ujima, or collective work and responsibility; ujamaa, cooperative economics; nia, or purpose; kuumba, creativity; and imani, faith.