Home for the Holidays
Finding My Way to Kwanzaa
I'm so attracted to this holiday because it seems to be everything that Christmas isn't. I'm tired of malls and sick of holiday-themed McDonald's and Ford commercials. For years, each Christmas I've been telling myself, "To hell with this Christmas crap, I'm celebrating Kwanzaa." But then I find myself all wrapped up in Noel. At the risk of making my poor grandmother roll over in her grave and sounding like a wicked heathen, I'll dare say that Christmas doesn't really mean anything to me anymore. After all, I was taught to believe that we were celebrating the birthday of our Lord and Savior Jesus the Christ. But really, how would Jesus celebrate his own birthday? From what history tells us about the Messiah, it's very unlikely that he would put up a fake fir tree in honor of himself.
Holidays must have meaning. Why else would anybody celebrate them? So it's time for some soul-searching: What does Kwanzaa mean to me?
If Christmas is hedonistic shopping, soulless commercialism, and mindless consumption, then Kwanzaa represents a return to something pure. Back in 1966, California State University black studies Professor Maulana Karenga envisioned "an African-American and Pan-African holiday that celebrates family, community, and culture." Karenga based his proposed seven-day-long holiday, which begins the day after Christmas, on seven core principles, or Nguzo Saba, all of which have Swahili names: Umoja (unity), Kujichagulia (self-determination), Ujima (collective work), Ujamaa (cooperative economics), Nia (purpose), Kuumba (creativity), and Imani (faith).
Not only do these seven principles accurately capture the essence of black people, but I can understand my folks through these values. First, if there's one thing that black people can do, it's to come together to rally around an issue (Ujima and Umoja). Historically, that issue has been white racism. Coupled with unity is Kujichagulia (self-determination). I think black people continue to collectively struggle with becoming fully self-actualized. For me, euphemistic terms like "Jim Crow" don't accurately describe the ways in which black folks were systematically colonized in this country. Slavery and the ensuing racial apartheid in the South were colonial systems that black people, through a collective effort of self-determination, resisted openly to achieve further their own sovereignty.
We still have a long way to go, though, in terms of Ujamaa. And that includes myself, too. Whenever possible, I try to support black businesses and look for ways for black people to help themselves economically. Even when a black business' service is slow or not satisfactory, I've been known to pull a brother or sister aside and say, "Look, here, I'm trying to support a black woman, so let me help you by giving you some constructive feedback." It's disheartening when I see black people engaging in reckless consumerism. And I'm heartbroken that much of hip-hop music--which often served in the past as a subversive militant response to oppression--is now populated by capitalists (often white) who aren't as interested in the collective struggle of black people as they are in pushing diamonds, furs, and cars on kids.
Black people have a strong grasp on Kuumba, on the other hand. We continue to have an enormous influence on popular culture and fashion throughout the world. I am often astonished at how often European-Americans know little about black activists and public officials but can name every African-American entertainer in music and film. And even during oppression, black people don't resort to terrorism or violence. We just get even more creative. All one has to do is listen to the lyrics of Negro spirituals created during the height of slavery, such as "Soon Ah Will Be Done (Wit De Troubles of Dis World)."
What probably amazes me most about black people is our strong sense of Imani, or faith. We're a soulful people. Faith governs our way of living, and collectively we know that there's something more important than we are, a being of immaterial essence. Last year, I watched Faith and Doubt at Ground Zero, a PBS special on the Sept. 11 terrorist attacks that focused on the ways people turned to religion. Except for the clergy, most of the white people in the program felt very estranged from God or any other higher power. But all of the black people interviewed said that the devastating attacks only renewed their faith.
Even the most progressive and liberal whites I know are often shocked to learn that I actively maintain a diverse and active spiritual life by attending church, praying daily, and engaging in Buddhist practice. A white friend of mine bugged out when he asked what love meant to me, and I quoted him a passage from one of my favorite Bible passages, from the Song of Solomon, 8:6. ("Set me as a seal upon thine heart/ As a seal upon thine arm/ For love is strong as death/ Many waters cannot quench love/ Neither can the floods drown it.") It's as if being a "cool" or "hip" person who works at a liberal alternative newsweekly has to understand beer pubs or punk bands but not spirit or soul. It wasn't lost on me when Lauryn Hill, after she won multiple Grammy Awards at the 1999 American Music Awards, proclaimed to hip-hop youth that "you can still be fly and love God."
So in the end, my Nia--that's purpose--for choosing to celebrate Kwanzaa is to celebrate black people and how much I love us. I'm unsure about how I can truly express how much I love my folk--which, by the way, doesn't at all mean not liking or hating white people. When I was young, my parents moved me from an all-black elementary school to a predominantly white school, where I was the only African-American in the class. I cried. Though the white school was more materially privileged and I was told that it would be "better," at my all-black school I felt constantly appreciated, uplifted, and sustained in an environment where blackness was normal and loved.
Most importantly, Kwanzaa, for me, also means coming home--the kind of home I imagine that I have not discovered while shopping furiously for the perfect Christmas gift. I often tell people that I live in black America. I deliberately choose to locate myself there, and make it my responsibility to take care of it. Cultural critic bell hooks calls it "homeplace," a redemptive location of loving blackness, a site of resistance where one can imagine and create radical new possibilities. I imagine a homeplace where all black people of all classes, despite their problems, are loved and appreciated instead of despised or feared.
When I first moved to Washington, D.C., several years ago, a white gay man who lived in the upscale Dupont Circle neighborhood told me to "absolutely stay out" of largely black and poor Anacostia. My initial reaction was to ask why. Why should I be afraid of my own people? This comment infuriated me when I pondered it later on, because he assumed incorrectly that an all-white environment was always "safe." This man didn't know that he assaulted and disparaged my home, the place I can easily return to at the end of the day.
He also clearly didn't understand that black people often fear white people more than terrorists they don't know. We often fear their gaze, what they think of us, and how they react to what we do. When I started growing my hair in dreadlocks, my mother, terrified, asked me, "What will the white people at your job think?," to which I replied: "Honestly, mother, do you think white folks looking in the mirror and getting ready in the morning actually take into consideration what black people think about them?"
But, oh, how redeeming it is to come home and look into the eyes of my beloved and say "baby, we home now." In our homes, we can fearlessly take off, as poet Paul Laurence Dunbar puts it, "the mask that grins and lies."
In my all-white high school, a white boy once told another group of black kids that Kwanzaa was a "fake" holiday, and that no one would celebrate something so "stupid." You know what, though? In a way the kid was right. A recent National Retail Foundation survey found that while 92 percent of consumers plan to celebrate Christmas this year, only 1.6 will celebrate Kwanzaa.
Honestly, that low figure is fine with me. There are some aspects of black life that I want to keep sacred, that I don't want to become faddish or commercialized. I'd like my first Kwanzaa to be sacred, to be shared with blacks and other groups of progressive people committed to the holiday's principles. That's what Kwanzaa means to me.
The 2009 City Paper Holiday Guide
The Gifts That Count (11/18/2009)
The presents that have stayed in our writers' thoughts
The Wish List (11/18/2009)
Gifts we wish we could afford
Civil Divide (6/9/2004)
Are the Civil-Rights Struggle and the Gay-Rights Struggle the Same? Yes, and No
Handing Down the Verdict (5/19/2004)
In His Baltimore Playwriting Debut, 23-Year-Old R. Eric Thomas Sets Out to Explore What Effects Brown v. Board of Education Has Passed Down to his Generation
New Moon Daughter (3/31/2004)
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