Sunday, December 30, 2007

What you need to know about Kwanzaa

Kwanzaa is a week-long festival (December 26th to January 1st) honoring African-American heritage. It features activities such as candle-lighting and pouring of libations in sacrifice to African ancestors, culminating in a feast and gift-giving. It was created by Maulana Ron Everett Karenga in 1966. The name Kwanzaa is an East African term for "first fruits." The candles represent the seven principles, formulated in 1977, of Unity, Self-Determination, Collective Work and Responsibility, Cooperative Economics, Purpose, Creativity, and Faith (that is, faith in the victory of the Black struggle).

Karenga is an unfortunate figure to be associated with any "family" festival. In 1965, he founded a Black Nationalist group called Organization Us, a rival of the Black Panthers.

In 1971 Karenga, Louis Smith, and Luz Maria Tamayo were convicted of felony assault and false imprisonment for assaulting and torturing over a two day period two women from the Us organization, Deborah Jones and Gail Davis. A May 14, 1971 article in the Los Angeles Times described the testimony of one of the women: "Deborah Jones, who once was given the Swahili title of an African queen, said she and Gail Davis were whipped with an electrical cord and beaten with a karate baton after being ordered to remove their clothes. She testified that a hot soldering iron was placed in Ms. Davis's mouth and placed against Ms. Davis's face and that one of her own big toes was tightened in a vise. Karenga also put detergent and running hoses in their mouths, she said."

In 1975, Karenga was released from California State Prison, and re-established the US organization under a new structure and a Marxist-humanist outlook. He was awarded a doctorate and has been a teacher and writer in Black Studies.

Kwanzaa was originally created as an alternative to the Christian Christmas and the Jewish Hanukkah. Karenga wanted no part in honoring the birth of Jesus, so he developed a festival to honor African heritage instead. Of Christianity, Karenga wrote, "The Christian is our worse enemy. Quiet as it's kept, it was a Christian who enslaved us. Quiet as it's kept it's a Christian who burns us. Quiet as it's kept it's a Christian who beats us down on the street; and quiet as it's kept when the thing goes down it'll be a Christian that's shooting us down. You have to face the fact that if the Christian is doing all this there must be something wrong with Christianity." For more [less than] inspiring comments, see The Quotable Karenga.

As Kwanzaa gained more mainstream adherents since the radical 1960s, Karenga altered his position so as not to alienate practicing Christians, stating in the 1997 Kwanzaa: A Celebration of Family, Community, and Culture, "Kwanzaa was not created to give people an alternative to their own religion or religious holiday."

I think it is a good thing for people to celebrate their heritage. I wish there was an alternative to Kwanzaa less tainted in its origin. Perhaps the feast day of an African or an African-American saint will one day fulfill that role. I also have difficulties with the seven principles, as they are so tied to racist nationalism in their interpretation. In any case, celebrations in addition to Christmas are okay. Celebrations that take the place of Christmas are certainly not--at least for believers.

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