This article was originally published in December, 2003.
It never fails. Every single year for the past six years, at least, I
have witnessed the consistent pattern. On or before Dec. 26, the first
day of Kwanzaa, someone will send me an anti-Kwanzaa editorial
published, you guessed it, just in time for the holiday season! At all
times, the conclusion is the same–there is no real or valid reason to
This year’s offering was written by Debra Dickerson, journalist,
lifetime overachiever and author of “An American Story.” Her article
entitled, “A Case of the Kwanzaa Blues” appeared in The New York Times opinion section Dec. 26. This article is my response.
At the very least, she begins her essay with a more balanced approach than most– admitting that all holidays are made up–before launching into her attack on Kwanzaa, itself. Even though she accepted an invitation to celebrate Kwanzaa at a friend’s home “still,” she states, “it pains me that we need to look outside our American
experience for spiritual and cultural sustenance.” Statements like these make me appreciative of Dickerson’s literary skills but curious
of her grasp of history and an historical present.
Dickerson’s essay is full of both historical and sociological
contradictions. For example, the fact that she is even having a
tree-trimming party is something that is not authentic to America. The celebration of St. Nicholas (the Dutch Sinterklaas) is not quite
American, either. Oh, except for the fact that Santa Claus’ historic
helper, Zwarte Piet (Black Pete) disappears once the tradition makes
its way to North America. All that nasty business of infinite
servitude and inherent racial inferiority kind of gets in the way of
“the American experience,” you know?
Dickerson states that by stressing our African heritage during
Kwanzaa, this “negates the quintessential Americanness of the
slave-descended, it is an affront to the heroism and enunciated goals
of our oppressed ancestors. They demanded to be considered and treated as Americans, not as Africans.” Just who is she trying to fool here? The descendants of slaves demanded treatment as human beings. They called upon a higher law and a sense of moral righteousness of which there was nothing “American” in existence at the time. And this demand would have been (and was) the case in America, Brazil or even South Africa.
Kwanzaa is not about a rejection of our ancestors who were enslaved or who suffered under Jim Crow American apartheid. What it and the embracing of other African traditions does is remind us that we need not be wholly defined by the oppressive circumstances of slavery and our oppression in this country.
I applaud Dickerson’s recounting of history yet remain despairing of
her apparent lack in ability to connect the dots of our traditions.
She states that her problem with Kwanzaa is its “rejectionist nature”
and then goes on to highlight the fact that the early Black Christian
church served as a place of refuge and rebellion for us, highlighting
our singing of old spirituals as being a means of communicating our
escape plans in addition to proclamations of faith. She thinks that
Kwanzaa is a kind of “thumbing black noses at whites” but does she
think the slaves were not doing exactly that? Or were they inviting
their slave masters along for the ride on the Underground Railroad?
Indeed, the singing of these plantation songs was an embrace of the
trickster figure that has solid African roots in the Yoruba
traditional deity of Elegba and Caribbean characters such as Anansi,
which we have held throughout time and are made manifest in our own Uncle Remus tales.
Kwanzaa is no more about “the romance of our lost heritage” than any other holiday that becomes a tradition for any community. As with all cultural expressions, it is the circumstances and values of the
present that either reaffirm, reject or re-imagine the past. The fact
that moire than 40 million people are now celebrating the holiday
tells us that not only should it be meaningful for our lives–it is.
I learned how to celebrate Kwanzaa in college when I was 17 years old. When I returned to my home in Pittsburgh, I got in the “Kwanzaa loop” and realized that so many of my friends and elders had been celebrating Kwanzaa for years and, in some cases, all their lives. Nobody knows how to get down for Kwanzaa like my folks in the `Burgh. The soaring rhythms of the djembes greet you, the succulent aroma emanating from covered dishes starts collecting all seven senses and settles on a marvelously laid out wooden table covered with cloth full of woven kente coupled with Adinkra symbols. Brothers and sisters with jeans and flannel shirts, dashikis and shokoto pants, grand bubas with bright, beautiful colors, laying softly atop black turtlenecks and leggings, adorn every space one’s eye can find. It’s on the Hill at the Redwoods. In Homewood at the Grand Coliseum. In Garfield at the Lowmans. Downtown at the Byham Theater. And even way out in the suburbs at the Lawrences.
It doesn’t matter where we are. At each and every occasion, there are
Christians, Muslims, Jews, and traditionalists. We sing original
Kwanzaa songs (one of which is mine) and pull out principles and
African proverbs out of baskets. We light candles and recite the names in Swahili, yes, but we also talk about how these principles affect us today, and how we might better implement them in our lives here and now–in English. Our celebrations are blessed by priestesses and our food is blessed by priests, all of whom are given the affirming nod of the elder-most persons in the room. We listen, intently, as children share not only their serious thoughts but also their creativity in song, dance, music and poetry. We fellowship. We even have church–the same church that our enslaved ancestors were having on the plantations–except not so much in secret as it was then. And we reaffirm our individual selves, our families, our communities and our nation. We sing the blues. We play jazz. We rap and somebody will inevitably pull out their guitar or their new set of drums. We celebrate our African heritage and we celebrate how far we have come on this land as well.
When I was in college, I would anticipate my December homecomings for Kwanzaa. Now, I’m in the middle of rehearsal for the “durbar” (entrance) of the chiefs that little boys and girls who have crack-addicted parents and come to a neighborhood afterschool center get to engage in for this year’s festival. For once, they get to have dreams, fantasies, goals and a balanced, authoritative power that is not rooted in “Snow White,” an English king or even a generous Dutch man with a full belly and a bag full of presents. And for far more than once, though culminated in this day, they are sure that we are all family.
Dickerson claims she is “a happy Yank and well-adjusted Westerner” who is also “trying hard to show Kwanzaa some love, but it’s a struggle.” If she did more than smack her lips, roll her eyes and sigh as she “respectfully” attended a friends’ Kwanzaa celebration or did more than peruse a mere Web site on the holiday, she might learn a thing or two. Until then, she will not be so much American as she is confused in America. And such a tragic situation for the Negro has always been something mainstream America, and certainly its media, seems all-too-willing to embrace, if not celebrate.
(Dr. Kimberly C. Ellis is a freelance writer in Africana Studies at
the University of Pittsburgh. She now lives on Twitter at @drgoddess)
Article copyright the New Pittsburgh Courier Publishing Company.
Copyright New Pittsburgh Courier Dec 31, 2003