What is Kwanzaa?
In a poll of 388 Harvard-Westlake students, 59.5 percent didn’t know.
“I’m not sure if it’s just for people from Africa or African-Americans in general,” Aliyah Daniels ’14, who identifies herself as an African-American, said. “It seems like an alternative to Christmas. I guess it’s time with family and friends and food. It’s just like another holiday really. I don’t know that much about it to be honest.”
“It’s a holiday,” Kayla Darini ’16, who identifies herself as half-white and half-black, said. “Black people celebrate it. That’s all I know.”
“It’s something my white, Christian grandmother tells me I should celebrate,” Anai Finnie ’15, who identifies herself as half-black and half-white, said.
“It’s a holiday that no one participates in,” Montana Reilly ’16, who identifies herself as Caucasian, said. “It’s like Christmas and Hanukkah. It’s a winter holiday where you get presents I think. Christmas is for Christians. Hanukkah is for Jews. Kwanzaa is for ‘Kwanzaans.’”
However, there are no Kwanzaans because unlike Christmas and Hanukkah, there is no religious group associated with Kwanzaa. Rather, Kwanzaa was founded in 1966 by Maulana Karenga, the chair of the African Studies Department at California State University Long Beach and co-founder of the black nationalist group Organization Us, as the first holiday created specifically for African-Americans. Its purpose is “to give blacks an opportunity to celebrate themselves and their history,” Karenga said.
The official website of Kwanzaa emphasizes “the continued rapid growth of Kwanzaa” and “the profound significance Kwanzaa has for African-Americans.”
However, 59.1 percent of 384 students of varying races said they don’t care about Kwanzaa, and 22.7 percent of 387 students said they don’t care about their cultural history.
“I do recognize slavery,” Rebecca Armstrong ’14, who identifies herself as an African-American, said. “[But] I have no connection with my African roots. I have no idea where I’m from. [My African history is] less important [than my African-American history] because I’ve never been connected to it. I experience racism every day, but I have no connection to Zimbabwe or Namibia.”
“There’s no need [to know about my history],” Finnie said. “Knowing about it won’t change anything. It’s not like it’s something that happened to me. I know what happened, but I’m not going to let it dictate anything I do.”
Upper school history department head Katherine Holmes-Chuba disagrees with this view of history. However, she doesn’t oppose it.
“There are some people who just think the past is the past and I’m living now, and I think that’s just personality,” she said.
Some students said they don’t celebrate because they aren’t aware of the proper customs and traditions of the holiday.
“[I don’t celebrate Kwanzaa since] I’m not sure what it’s about,” Darini said. “I’m not sure how to celebrate.”
Of 361 students polled, 64.8 percent first learned about Kwanzaa in school, but the comprehensiveness of these lessons varied greatly. Many students who spent a week learning about Christmas and another week learning about Hanukkah were only given one day of class to learn about Kwanzaa. However, other schools were more in-depth in their lessons. Some schools don’t mention the holiday at all. Armstrong said she first heard about Kwanzaa from children’s books.
Holmes-Chuba suggested that the Black Leadership Awareness and Culture Club could educate the community about Kwanzaa.
“It’d be helpful to have the [BLACC] remind us [about Kwanzaa]” she said. Miles Williams ’14, one of the leaders of BLACC, doesn’t agree.
“We should have more black education,” he said. “I think it’s a shame that all I get to learn about in school about black culture is a few pages in a history textbook.”
Williams, who identifies himself as black, acknowledged a widespread ignorance of Kwanzaa even within BLACC, but Williams believes that this is in part because the purposes of BLACC and Kwanzaa aren’t actually as complementary as they appear.
“BLACC is more about being black, whereas Kwanzaa is more about African values,” Williams said. “They’re not completely interrelated. BLACC is more about being black in America.”
However, Williams, who has been celebrating Kwanzaa since second grade, wishes that more black people would do the same.
“I wish that more black people would celebrate it,” he said. “Some people are just ignorant of their African roots. I can’t guarantee that [if everyone celebrated Kwanzaa] it would lower crime rates or anything, but I think it would bring [black people] together.”
Williams realizes that his ideal of universal Kwanzaa celebration is far-fetched. He’s the only person he knows that celebrates Kwanzaa.
“I tell people that I celebrate Kwanzaa,” he said. “And they look at me funny. People are caught a little off-guard by it.” Williams said he receives this reaction even from students in BLACC.
Not all observers are as serious or as dedicated as Williams is.
“It’s not that important to us. We just do it because why not?” Marianne Veronne ’15, who has been celebrating since kindergarten and identifies herself as half-black and half-white, said. “We don’t take it seriously. Kwanzaa literally takes half an hour. Sometimes, we forget to do it, so we’ll have double Kwanzaa one day.”
When describing the traditions and cultural aspects of the holiday, Veronne continually consulted her iPhone for proper names of traditions.
Scrolling her thumb across the screen of her phone, Veronne said, “The mat is called the mkeka. Didn’t know it was called that. I guess the corn represents crops?”
Then, as she explained the ritual of dispersing evil spirits, Veronne said, “It’s kind of just a fun thing to do. It’s not like we truly believe there are evil spirits in our house.”
According to the official website of Kwanzaa, the proper way to celebrate is by placing the
mkeka over a table located in a central part of the house. The kinara (candle holder), mazao (crops) and kikombe cha umoja (Cup of Unity) are placed on the mkeka “to symbolize our rootedness in our tradition,” the website says. Seven candles — three red candles, three green candles and one black candle — are placed in the kinara. The black symbolizes “the people,” the red symbolizes “their struggle” and the green the future and the “hope that comes from their struggle.” Kwanzaa lasts seven days, and, on each day, another candle is lit. Every day represents a value, such as umoja (unity) and kujichagulia (self-determination). The Cup of Unity is used to pour tambiko, a ceremonial tribute of thanks to ancestors. African art and books about “the life and culture of African people” are placed on the table “to symbolize our commitment to heritage and learning.”
Although official kinaras and Cups of Unity can be purchased, Williams’ family makes do with what they already have around their house.
“We just sort of use like a nice wine glass for our unity cup,” Williams said. “[And] we don’t have an official kinara. We just use what we have. We make it work.”
The mazao is supposed to consist mainly of corn and be eaten in a feast on the last day, but in Williams’ house, they eat soul food instead.
“My mom makes fried chicken, collard greens, and black-eyed peas and stuff,” Williams said. “It’s pretty stereotypical, but it’s good so I like it.”
For the tambiko, the Williamses use water.
Williams got all of his information on how to celebrate the holiday from a children’s book his mom bought him in second grade.
Gifts on Kwanzaa, which are optional, are supposed to be a book and a heritage symbol, but Veronne’s grandma Marcheta just gives her and her brother a dollar each day.
“I don’t feel connected to African culture,” she said. “It’s not like we’re celebrating our ‘Africanness.’ When we talk about the principles [of Kwanzaa,] we apply it to our own lives.”
Veronne, who is biracial, added that her white relatives are usually visiting during Kwanzaa.
Veronne, like Williams, hopes more will observe Kwanzaa.
“More black people should celebrate Kwanzaa because it’s fun, but it’s not going to last,” Veronne said.
Of 381 students, 49.1 percent said they can’t tell whether Kwanzaa will last, while 34.6 percent said it will and 16.3 said it won’t.
“When people reference Kwanzaa, it’s not genuine,” Daniels said.
“If we were to celebrate Kwanzaa, it would be to prove that we’re not ignorant to the years of s— that happened,” Finnie said. “It seems unnecessary. I don’t think I need a holiday to sit and think about stuff. There’s not a day that goes by where I don’t think about how my ancestors were taken. I look in the mirror, and I remember, ‘Oh yeah.’”