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The Controversy Surrounding the Festival of Kwanzaa

published December 25, 2006

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What is Kwanzaa?
Kwanzaa is a holiday celebrated in the African-American community. It is a celebration of family, community, and culture, and it is the fastest growing holiday in the United States. It is thought that about 18 million celebrants around the world recognize Kwanzaa each year. Baltimore, Buffalo, Los Angeles, Miami, Newark, New Orleans, New York, and Philadelphia are some of the U.S. cities that hold official Kwanzaa festivities.

Kwanzaa is observed from December 26 to January 1 each year, and it consists of seven days of celebration, during which there is candle lighting and pouring of libations, and culminates in a feast and gift giving. Kwanzaa is said to draw from rich African traditions. Each of the seven days of Kwanzaa is dedicated to one of the following principles:

  • Umoja (Unity): To strive for and maintain unity in the family, community, nation, and race.
  • Kujichagulia (Self-Determination): To define ourselves, name ourselves, create for ourselves, and speak for ourselves.
  • Ujima (Collective Work and Responsibility): To build and maintain our community together and make our brothers' and sisters' problems our problems and to solve them together.
  • Ujamaa (Cooperative Economics): To build and maintain our own stores, shops, and other businesses and to profit from them together.
  • Nia (Purpose): To make our collective vocation the building and developing of our community in order to restore our people to their traditional greatness.
  • Kuumba (Creativity): To do always as much as we can, in the way we can, in order to leave our community more beautiful and beneficial than we inherited it.
  • Imani (Faith): To believe with all our heart in our people, our parents, our teachers, our leaders, and the righteousness and victory of our struggle.

While millions of people recognize Kwanzaa as a legitimate holiday, there is growing concern about the holiday's origins. Maulana Karenga's motivations for establishing Kwanzaa have been questioned, as have the holiday's authenticity and relevance. One of the criticisms of Kwanzaa has been that it is actually not a traditional holiday of African people and that it was just recently "invented."

Critics have also cited Karenga's criminal record, arguing that since he spent time in jail for crimes against other African-Americans, he is incapable of establishing a holiday to celebrate and strengthen the unity of black people. Christian writers have suggested that Kwanzaa was created as an alternative to Christmas in order to further alienate the African-American community from mainstream America. One of the groups that have risen up in protest is the Brotherhood Organization of a New Destiny (BOND), an organization that has opposed the legitimacy of Kwanzaa in the past.

Where Did Kwanzaa Come From?

Kwanzaa was created by Maulana Karenga, also known as Ron Karenga, who was born Ron Everett and is an African-American author and Marxist political activist. Karenga adopted the title "Maulana," which means "master teacher" in Swahili and Arabic. In the early 1960s, Karenga was a doctoral student at UCLA and encountered Malcolm X; he later began to embrace Black Nationalism. After the Watts riots in 1965, Karenga joined the Black Power movement and formed Us, later called the Us Organization. This outspoken Black Nationalist group may have been encouraged by the FBI in its efforts in order to counter the Black Panthers organization.

In 1971, Ron Karenga, Louis Smith, and Luz Maria Tamayo were convicted of felony assault and false imprisonment of two of the organization's female members. Four years later, Karenga was released from the California State Prison system, with newly adopted views on Marxism, and reestablished his nationalist group based on a new structure. It was in 1977 that he set down a set of principles he called Kawaida, a Swahili term for tradition and reason. Kawaida gave birth to Kwanzaa.

Karenga earned two doctorate degrees; the first was awarded to him in 1976 by United States International University, now known as Alliant International University, for a 170-page dissertation entitled "Afro-American Nationalism: Social Strategy and Struggle for Community." And in 1994, he received his second Ph.D. from the University of Southern California. His 803-page dissertation was entitled "Maat, the Moral Ideal in Ancient Egypt: A Study in Classical African Ethics." Karenga also served as Chairman of the Black Studies Department at California State University, Long Beach, a position he held from 1989 to 2002.

published December 25, 2006

( 285 votes, average: 4.2 out of 5)
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