This is part two in my seven day series on Kwanzaa and why I feel it is antithetical to American values. Read Part 1 here.
Umoja (Unity) – On this first day of Kwanzaa the family gathers together to light the first of seven red, black and green candles in the Kinara. The colors are born out of the colors of African flags but represent the blood of oppressed black men (red), the color of our skin and that of the ancestors (black) and the land that has been stolen and denied our people but that is vital to our ultimate independence (green). Dr. Karenga describes the meaning of Umoja in his most recent annual Kwanzaa newsletter: The principle of Umoja (unity) speaks to our need to develop and sustain a sense of oneness, righteous and rightful togetherness in the small and large circles and significant relations of our lives, from family and friendship to community and the cosmos. It urges us to practice a principled and peace- ful togetherness rooted in mutual respect; justice; care and concern; security of person; and equitably shared goods. And it calls on us to stand in solidarity with the oppressed, suffering and struggling peoples of the world in the cooperative achievement of these goods.
I suppose if you read this without context or understanding of the roots of this modern tradition that description may sound rather harmless, but as a Christian who has just finished celebrating the most joyous of holidays I see it as dark and rather joyless. Read that to your children. Do they get excited to celebrate Umoja based on that? No, I didn’t think so. Even little kids understand joy, where it is and where it isn’t. Dr.Karenga may want us to believe this is a positive occasion, but the undertone of the day one of taking account of pain and past offenses; as opposed to Christmas, which is about forgiveness and freedom from the sting of death.
The lighting ceremony begins with a prayer (to the Cosmos, I guess. God really hasn’t much to do with Kwanzaa) and Harambe – a call for “unity and collective work and struggle of the family” (how uplifting!). Harambe is symbolized by each member of the family raising their hand above their head and making a fist as they pull their hand down (reminiscent of the traditional Black Power fist). It is done in sets of seven. Some families choose to sing the Kwanzaa song at this time. It goes like this:
Kwanzaa is a holiday
Kwanzaa, Kwanzaa, Kwanzaa
Is an African holiday
Seven Black days for the African
The candle is lit and gifts are exchanged, one gift for each day. Gifts are meant to reflect Black heritage and community and the struggle for liberation of the Black people. A discussion about the principle and how it can better self, family and the Black community is meant to ensue. We always hated that part. Sullen teenagers and squirmy 4 year olds rarely have patience for such things when cartoons and 21 Jumpstreet are awaiting us in the next room.
The idea of celebrating one’s culture is not new and certainly valuable but Karenga’s Kwanzaa is more than just a cultural celebration. In fact, I would challenge the idea that it’s a celebration at all. It is a somber reminder, a salt shaker shoved in the wound of transgressions our very recent ancestors worked so hard to overcome. For me, it does not promote healing or self-esteem but anger and division. It keeps our people in the mindset that they are different, not American, but simply a stolen people living in a strange land. But we are not strangers to this country anymore. We are not African-Americans. We are Americans. Many of us don’t even have roots in Africa. Our ancestries go back to the Caribbean or Latin America. It is wrong to continue to promote the idea of our “otherness”. We are not others, we are Americans. Our culture is not in danger of disintegrating. Indeed, American culture has always turned on Black culture – rap music, jazz, poetry, dance, fashion, slang- Black culture continues to inform the American culture at large. It does our community a disservice to promote a perpetual state of anger. I find the principle of Umoja the polar opposite of unity. Fail.