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Dec 30 2011

Kwanzaa: The Other “Other” December Holiday of Lights

By at 3:15 pm

kwanzaa illustrationDespite some people’s–whose business it really isn’t, but what can you do?–taking offense at it, my husband and I identify our children as Jewish African-Americans.

The reason for that is because both the Jewish and the African describe the kinds of Americans they are, giving the latter designation top billing.  (I’m a Soviet immigrant and my husband is a former Boy Scout–we’re big on that patriotism thing.)

We go out of our way to make sure that all three kids are cognizant of their dual heritage, though, ironically enough, I’m usually the one pointing out, “You know the architect who laid out Washington DC was an African-American,” while my husband is the one likely to note, “Jews have won more Nobel Prizes than any other group.”

As a family, we celebrate Martin Luther King Day in the Winter, and Juneteenth (the end of slavery in America) in the Summer.  What we do not celebrate is Kwanzaa.

And not merely because, come December 26, we’ve already lit enough candles in our household.  (Last year, my then 3-year-old daughter announced, “Mama, I’ve figured out how to say Hanukkah in Russian.  It’s Kwanzaa!”)

We don’t celebrate Kwanzaa, the best-known African-American holiday, because, to paraphrase Mike Meyers’ Saturday Night Live Coffee Talk creation, “Kwanzaa is neither African nor American.  Discuss.”

Kwanzaa was created in 1966 by Maulana Karenga, who initially intended it to be an alternative to Christmas, as, according to him, Christianity was a white people religion, and Jesus was a rambling psychotic (this coming from a man who suffered schizophrenic episodes while in prison in the early 1970s for the torture of women).  That aspect of it was eventually played down due to the resistance of Black churches and, as the holiday was pushed mainstream, the new meme became that you could (and should) celebrate both Christmas and Kwanzaa.

The name Kwanzaa derives from the Swahili phrase matunda ya kwanza, meaning First Fruits of the Harvest.  Swahili is an East African language, spoken primarily in Kenya, Tanzania, Zanzibar, Uganda, Democratic Republic of Congo, Rwanda, and in very small regions of Malawi, Mozambique, and Zambia.

The majority of 21st Century African-Americans are descendants of slaves who were kidnapped and brought from the West Coast of Africa, primarily Nigeria and Sierra Leone.

To suggest that East and West African culture is identical is the same as suggesting that all European or Asian cultures are the same, and you could swap Japanese for Chinese and/or Spanish for Dutch without it making the slightest bit of difference.  (I.e. They all look the same to me.)

It’s bad enough a critical mass of people already think there actually is a country called Africa.  Such indiscriminate lumping together of a continent that encompasses everything from Botswana to Angola to Ethiopia and Egypt, doesn’t exactly help.

(Yes. Many are shocked to learn that Egypt is, in fact, geographically in Africa. Which is why, whenever talk turns to how it were Africans who built the great pyramids and civilizations of the Nile, I feel compelled to insert, “And we’re still waiting for our reparations from you all!” Some folks laugh at that.  Some… don’t.)

The seven official principles of Kwanzaa comprise Kawaida, another Swahili word that means tradition.

As all seven were made up whole-cloth about forty-five years ago, it’s difficult to think of them as any sort of ancient tradition (and that’s without going back to the notion that there is no such thing as a Pan-African custom.)

The first principle, Umoja (Unity), urges participants to: Strive for and maintain unity in the family, community, nation, and race.

Not a very practical principle for a multiracial, multiethnic family that considers itself American first and foremost.

There is also Ujima (Collective Work and Responsibility): To build and maintain our community together and make our brothers’ and sisters’ problems our problems, and to solve them together.

As someone who has been on the receiving end of way too many people making my business their business, and offering helpful, unsolicited input about how I’m ruining my children, undermining the African-American community and single-handedly destroying Jewish nationhood as a whole, I’ll pass on inviting others to first identify my problems, then helpfully solve them for me.

And Ujamaa (Cooperative Economics): To build and maintain our own stores, shops, and other businesses and to profit from them together.

I believe the Soviet Union tried something like this. It didn’t go well.

Maulana Karenga was an unapologetic and proud Marxist.  As a result, the holiday and the principles that he created ostensibly to “give Blacks an alternative to the existing holiday and give Blacks an opportunity to celebrate themselves and history, rather than simply imitate the practice of the dominant society” were naturally more infused with Marxist dogma and traditions than any genuinely African ones.

And that just doesn’t play at our house. Instead of lighting candles for a history that never existed, we will continue to teach our Jewish African-American children about truly great African-Americans, and truly great Jewish-Americans, and that maybe one day, they too can join that pantheon.

Of great Americans.

Note: The opinions expressed here are the personal views of the author. All comments on Kveller are moderated. Any comment that is offensive or inappropriate will be removed. Privacy Policy

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