Kwanzaa turns 40, remains misunderstood holiday
December 19, 2006
I celebrate Kwanzaa, a holiday that honors family, community and culture. My family and I have done so for years. But five years after Sept. 11, in this climate of religious and cultural intolerance in America, I can sympathize with Muslims here who feel like outsiders.
Many white Americans are suspicious and fearful of Kwanzaa. Like other holidays that are celebrated predominantly by people of color -- such as Ramadan, Juneteenth, Holi, Hispanic Heritage Month -- Kwanzaa ought to be an opportunity for those who are unfamiliar with it to learn more.
It is a seven-day, Pan-African, secular holiday that has cultural roots. Because of its Swahili name and because it begins the day after Christmas, many folks think Kwanzaa is a religious holiday. Many refer to it as the "black Christmas."
Its origins are from the civil rights movement of the 1960s. But because of founder Ron Karenga's former ties to the United Slaves Organization, a black nationalist group, Kwanzaa is constantly attacked for being separatist and black nationalist.
It is neither.
Over the years, there have been quite a few non-African-Americans present at our gatherings, and the atmosphere has been celebratory. People who are not of African descent are happy to be included because they often have family members or friends who participate.
Kwanzaa's seven principles -- of unity, self-determination, collective work and responsibility, cooperative economics, purpose, creativity and faith -- are ones that many people, irrespective of background, can appreciate.
Millions of people, regardless of race or religion, now celebrate Kwanzaa worldwide. But even as our communities become increasingly multicultural and cross-cultural, acceptance has diminished for those who don't follow mainstream traditions around this time of year.
In the age of terror, we would all benefit to learn more about one another, and to embody Kwanzaa's ideals of happiness, unity and peace.
Akilah Monifa is a freelance writer living in Oakland, Calif. She can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.