An Argument for Kwanzaa as an Act of Loving Community Literacy

Written by BlackbirdGo December 26, 2018
The People

In early December, I decided to embark on an experiment. I would plan to learn about and celebrate Kwanzaa this year and bring it up in conversation as frequently as felt reasonable, both in real life and in digital spaces. For a time, I even launched a countdown on Facebook, expressing my excitement for the year-ending holiday with all of the same (perhaps grating) enthusiasm that countless Americans express for Christmas as early as July 5. I wanted to see and hear what non-practitioners thought of Kwanzaa in their own words when faced with it. I wanted to know if people could take the holiday seriously.

To my complete non-surprise, few could.

Some commenters, people I knew to be unrepentantly early Christmas-cheer posters and holiday music listeners, expressed confusion and contempt for my frequent reminders about a holiday they deemed to be irrelevant at best and stupid in its foreignness at worst. Others—including a friend in real life—asked if I was serious “about the Kwanzaa thing” and advised me to stop “for my own good.” Best of all: a Twitter user (apparently unimpressed with my display name at the time, which was “Requisite Kwanzaa Celebrator”) insisted angrily that he had never seen nor known of anyone celebrating Kwanzaa and that people who did—despite not existing as far as he knew—were “fake woke black Californians” trying to make up a holiday.

Well, I’ll give him that. Kwanzaa is made up. Just like every other holiday ever.

That said, as much as I enjoy engaging in long-con social media jokes, polls, and experiments for my personal amusement, my purpose in dangling Kwanzaa before the eyes of my peers wasn’t simply to elicit laughs for myself and annoyance from them. I wanted to see if my suspicions about people’s antipathy toward Kwanzaa was as commonly held as I expected it to be; its out-of-hand dismissal made me think of how readily we discard most manifestations of culture, language, and literacies of being that are not explicitly assimilationist in relation to white (mostly middle-class) Christianity as a cultural marker. Could it be that, beyond the dismissal, there was actually something powerful to Kwanzaa? Something more than the celebration itself? I suspected so.

In rhetoric and composition studies—particularly those which are informed by a sociological inclination—scholars often discuss how community language is articulated through vernacular, through symbolism, through idiomatic expressions, and through the adoption of terminology; it is a primary vehicle through which much of social reality is built and institutions are erected. Some cultural institutions, thanks to historical pertinence, colonialism, or their alignment with an existing empowered sociopolitical class, tend to be seen as more credible by the mainstream than others—in this case, while people readily accept the validity of Christmas as a cultural institution due to its embeddedness in the way that many Americans speak, see, and think about the world, the same cannot be said about Kwanzaa, the cultural relevance of which is associated with a marginalized group.

That doesn’t diminish Kwanzaa’s values for those who celebrate. Though many black Americans have every right to enjoy the festivities of Christmas, I think there is an arguable benefit to re-examining what it was that was so great about Kwanzaa in the first place and why it was created.

Founded in 1966 by Doctor Malauna Kalunga, a scholar of Africana studies at California State University in Long Beach, Kwanzaa was formed in response to the infamous Watts Rebellions (a series of protests sparked by an incident of police brutality that resulted in the injury of a pregnant black woman and which led to the deaths of over 34 individuals after the United States National Guard was deployed to “secure the peace” and quell the “rioting”). Worried over the damage done to his community and longing to unite the people of the African Diaspora over a concept that was not rooted in pain or tragedy, Doctor Kalunga began to research a variety of harvest celebrations observed throughout the continent of Africa. He hoped that channeling these celebrations into a modern holiday in the United States would, in the midst of longstanding civil unrest, help connect black people to a longer, richer cultural memory than the one of struggle and conflict that had for so long defined the relationship between blackness and mainstream institutions in the United States.

In forming Kwanzaa, and in using vernacular phrases from throughout the diaspora to characterize the new cultural institution’s Seven Guiding Principles (Umoja: unity in the family, community, nation and race; Kujichagulia: self-determination and actualization; Ujima: collective work and shared responsibility; Ujamaa: cooperative economics and social safety; Nia: Purpose and principle; Kuumba: creativity; and Imani: faith), Doctor Kalunga sought to create a new community literacy that shifted the stories about the people of the African Diaspora from that of outsiders seeking—often unsuccessfully and in the face of violence—to assimilate to the institutions of “white American life.” Rather, he hoped to connect black people in the United States to a pan-African voice designed to be restorative and unifying in the face of a reality that had seen bloodlines, cultures, and, oftentimes, actual bones fractured by their contact with institutions designed to manipulate or subjugate them.

Whereas the deeper religious meaning of Christmas is connected to the story of Christ’s birth and the notion that, through his sacrifice and brokerage of a new covenant that changed mankind’s relationship with the Christian conception of God, we would be saved, Kwanzaa’s meaning is centered squarely on changing the way members of the African Diaspora see themselves and each other. Kwanzaa encourages a literacy of being that emphasizes togetherness, shared responsibility and the determination to save ourselves—on our own terms, with our own words. While requiring sacrifice in the form of shared economics and responsibility, this awareness is built on the idea that we can heal one another, that we are destined (if we so choose) to change the course of our lives in this world, and that we are who we should place our faith in.