Is Kwanzaa dead?

The holiday may make a comeback.

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Illustration: Dave Urban

Where did Kwanzaa go? Not too long ago, it seemed ubiquitous. In the ’90s, when the economy was booming and we had a young, hip President who liked to play his sax on Arsenio Hall, drug stores obediently lined their greeting-card shelves with the Big Three—Christmas, Hanukkah and Kwanzaa­—together, one big happy family. There were Kwanzaa kids’ books and dolls. Children’s shows made peremptory nods to the holiday, like PBS’s Arthur, which featured a Kwanzaa-celebrating bear in its 2000 Christmas special. Soul singer Teddy Pendergrass recorded a schmaltzy ode to Kwanzaa on his Christmas album in 1998. Lately, though, it seems as if all public acknowledgement of Kwanzaa has disappeared.


Today, Kwanzaa is lucky if it gets a few slots in the greeting-card aisle. Type kinara, the name of the Kwanzaa candleholder, into Google and the search engine suggests Kinara Skin Care. At the University of Chicago and Northwestern University, Kwanzaa celebrations are no longer put on by either school’s black student organizations.


Sure, there was that infamous Kwanzaa cake that Sandra Lee of Food Network’s Semi-Homemade concocted in 2010, but for all the outrage and obligatory questions of appropriation that followed, where were the legion of Kwanzaa celebrants on hand to set Lee straight? Why weren’t they on the morning talk shows teaching Hoda and Kathie Lee how to make traditional Kwanzaa grub? (Which, Sandy, is not cake—more like corn and a fruit basket.)


The question inevitably arises: Do most African-Americans even celebrate Kwanzaa these days? Or is Kwanzaa a chimeric thing, meant only to ease the consciences of companies looking to seem multicultural or to comfort a precious, Afrocentric few? What does it mean when even the First Black Family does not celebrate the blackest holiday of the year?


Kwanzaa, unaffiliated with any religion, was founded in 1966 by Maulana Karenga, né Ronald Everett, now an Africana-studies professor at California State University–Long Beach. “Creating a Christmas alternative was paramount, for some of the most fundamental things that Black people lacked were holidays,” writes Keith Mayes in Kwanzaa: Black Power and the Making of the African-American Black Holiday, considered the seminal text on Kwanzaa.


According to Mayes, a professor of African American studies at the University of Minnesota, Karenga created Kwanzaa with the desire to challenge, albeit obliquely, the economic and cultural import of Christmas, which Karenga considered an integral component of a white, exclusionary American holiday tradition. Kwanzaa falls on the day after Christmas and ends on January 1 for that reason.


There are seven Kwanzaa principles, all Swahili words that represent different virtues: umoja (unity), kujichagulia (self-determination), ujima (collective work and responsibility), ujamaa (cooperative economics), nia (purpose), kuumba (creativity) and imani (faith). A kinara is lit every night leading up to the end of Kwanzaa, with each candle representing a different principle. Gifts are often exchanged.


In the 1980s, Kwanzaa went mainstream. “As a racial cultural holiday associated uniquely with African-Americans, Kwanzaa fit snugly into the new discourse on corporate and institutional multiculturalism,” Mayes writes. This carried on through the ’90s and even into the mid-2000s; Kwanzaa’s popularity, as judged by news articles on the subject, peaked in 2006, says Elizabeth Pleck, a history professor emeritus at the University of Illinois-Champaign who specializes in American social and family history.


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