MARCANO: The important and complicated history of Kwanzaa

Ray Marcano

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Ray Marcano

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The kinara, or candleholder, on the mantle of Krystal Stark and Kerry Coddett, in New York, Dec. 11, 2020. The seven candles (red, black and green) represent the seven Kwanzaa values. (Timothy Smith/The New York Times)

The kinara, or candleholder, on the mantle of Krystal Stark and Kerry Coddett, in New York, Dec. 11, 2020. The seven candles (red, black and green) represent the seven Kwanzaa values. (Timothy Smith/The New York Times)

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The kinara, or candleholder, on the mantle of Krystal Stark and Kerry Coddett, in New York, Dec. 11, 2020. The seven candles (red, black and green) represent the seven Kwanzaa values. (Timothy Smith/The New York Times)

Kwanzaa starts today, and that short sentence gets met with a collective shrug.

The most recent polling shows only four percent of Americans celebrate Kwanzaa, a day that’s been diminished by a constant barrage of criticisms (some just, some not) from Black and white people. Some think the day encourages segregation because it’s a “Black Christmas.” It’s a made-up holiday by a convicted felon with Black nationalist roots.

The complicated and controversial history of Kwanzaa — which I’ll discuss below — should not obscure that the observance delivers a powerful message everyone can embrace.

Kwanzaa contains seven principals: Unity, self-determination, collective work and responsibility, cooperative economics, purpose, creativity, and faith. The secular celebration was created in 1966 following the Watts race riots as a way to encourage Black people to connect with their cultural roots.

The seven principles came about when Black people were fighting (and are still fighting) for their basic rights and equality. The principles were guides for how to live and become self-sufficient in an era in which most Americans, according to Gallop, thought the country was integrating too quickly and those efforts should be slowed down. In other words, White majorities still wanted to subjugate Black people, despite the passage by Congress of the Civil Rights Acts of 1964.

In that context, you can see how the principals spoke to the state of Black lives during that time period. Cooperative economics, for example, means “to build and maintain our own stores, shops, and other businesses and to profit from them together.” Sounds a lot like the American dream that had long been denied to people of color.

Remember, Black people were still lynched in the 1960s and killed for advocating for civil rights (so were white people). The principles were something that Black people could rally around, the ones available to White America but not them.

Along the way, Black and white people objected to Kwanzaa for various reasons. The “Black Christmas” trope is one of those disparaging dog whistles meant as a scare tactic to fuel the culture wars. Kwanzaa isn’t a replacement for Christmas, but rather a secular celebration.

Then people criticized Kwanzaa because someone made it up. I hate to tell you folks, but historians believe the Roman Emperor Constantine created Christmas in 336 AD. He decreed it would be celebrated on December 25, but not because Jesus was born that day (theologians believe he was born in the spring). A celebration in late December would overlap and later replace other traditional solstice celebrations.

Over time, Christmas has turned into a more secular holiday, with Santa Claus, trees and mistletoe. Heck, it wasn’t until 1870 that the U.S. government recognized Christmas as a federal holiday.

That’s a long way of saying: We make up lots of stuff. Kwanzaa was the brainchild of Dr. Maulana Karenga, a professor and chair of Black Studies at California State University with a controversial past. That past has, unfairly, weighed on Kwanzaa.

Born Ronald McKinley Everett, he and two others were convicted in 1971 on charges of torturing and falsely imprisoning two Black women while he was a member of a Black nationalist group. While he denied the charges, he served four years in prison. His involvement with the Black Power movement led to the myth that Kwanzaa is closely tied to Black nationalism.

Embracing the principles of Kwanza does not embrace the heinous acts of one man, much like taking your kids to see Paddington doesn’t embrace the awful acts of Harvey Weinstein.

So, yes, Kwanzaa’s message of unity and faith resonates just like the togetherness and love shared on Christmas.

The principles, while born in a different time, are applicable today. While we are doing a better job learning to live together, we still have a long way to go. The principals remind everyone — not just Black people — of how we can become the best versions of ourselves while improving our communities.

Kwanzaa lasts until Jan. 1 and we’re still in the Christmas holiday season. Whether you are among the very large majority of Americans who celebrate(d) Christmas or the very small who celebrate Kwanzaa, try to live by the values as best you can, not only this time of the year but all of 2022. We’d all be better off.

Ray Marcano is a long-time journalist whose column appears on these pages each Sunday. He can be reached at raymarcanoddn@gmail.com.

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