Hundreds of local residents attended Kwanzaa celebrations this week and last week at several venues throughout the city.
Folks danced, laughed, fellowshipped and positively reflected on the tumultuous road African Americans have travelled. Here, in Winston-Salem and cities, towns and hamlets throughout the United States, the Caribbean and beyond, Kwanzaa has been an outlet for positive interaction, cultural inspection and the kind of unity that has all but vanished from many or our communities.
So how could anyone have a problem with something that is so infused with positivity?
Kwanzaa has been controversial ever since the late 1960s, when educator Maulana Karenga started it as a means to tout African American culture and the values – things like faith, unity and self-determination – that sustained black folks during their most turbulent times. Some knocked it as blacks’ attempt to create their own Christmas, although Karenga made it clear from the beginning that Kwanzaa was not a celebration based on faith (like CHRISTmas); others simply lashed out because they could not understand the need for such a celebration.
Last year, Karenga himself defended the celebration after conservatives used it to lambast white liberals. State Sen. Glenn Grothman, a Wisconsin Republican, started the ballyhoo with his claim that most African Americans ignored Kwanzaa, so the celebration had largely become a way for white liberals to separate the nation. Karenga called out Grothman for what he was (and is) – a misinformed opportunist looking for any scraps of red meat to feed to neo-Conservatives.
Recent Kwanzaa critics aren’t all old white men. Last week, Theodore R. Johnson, a former White House Fellow with degrees from Howard and Hampton, published a column on the popular black news site The Grio in which he stated Kwanzaa is not living up to its original intent.
“Over the course of seven days starting on December 26, Kwanzaa uses agricultural harvest symbolism and Swahili words to convey principles that are intended to serve as a connection to Africa. In this way, though it is an African-American celebration, it actually does very little to commemorate the black experience in America. Instead, it ties the pride of our race to a distant continent and not to the immeasurable strength evident in the black American journey from slavery to the presidency. This has led, truth be told, to a sizable segment of the black community largely paying lip service to the holiday.”
Johnson believes that Kwanzaa should be tweaked to utilize symbols that truly represent the rich African American experience and that the celebration should scale back its use of Swahili verbiage
– “Nia,” “Umoja,” “Kuumba,” etc.
Johnson’s points are valid, and implementing them may indeed make the celebration more popular and practical, but it is hard for us to find fault with anything that is positive in our community.
Kwanzaa brings people together; it’s an unabashed celebration of blackness, an occasion to celebrate ourselves and those who look like us. There are countless issues in our community that deserve our condemnation – things that separate us and make us bitter and angry, like violence and poverty.
There is no shortage of issues that we can and should be criticizing the heck out of, so let’s stop criticizing just for the sake of criticizing. Kwanzaa ain’t broke, so let’s not call for fixes that could do more harm than good.