Is Kwanzaa dead?

The holiday may make a comeback.

But today, some students even mix up the origins of the secular holiday. “I’m not Muslim,” replies 33-year-old David Sumrell, when I ask him whether he celebrates Kwanzaa. We’re standing outside Malcolm X College, the Near West Side school that puts on the largest Kwanzaa celebration in the city. According to Malcolm X publicist Shelia Pegues-Porter, an estimated 400 to 500 people attend each day of the weeklong bash (one day for each of Kwanzaa’s principles), which features live music, African dancing and a crafts market.


Sumrell, who is from North Lawndale, continues: “I respect it, the different principles like umoja…” He falters, struggling to come up with the other six principles.


Twenty-six-year-old Kaleah Merriweather, a youth worker in Hyde Park, grew up celebrating Kwanzaa as a child living in California. “I went to a really diverse elementary school and they loved informing us about these things, so we all celebrated Kwanzaa, Hanukkah,” she says.


Merriweather exchanged gifts with her brother, and her mother taught her the principles, but by the time she went to Howard University for grad school in 2005, where one assumes the Kwanzaa diehards would be myriad, the holiday was a nonevent. “There was a Kwanzaa celebration, [but] I don’t remember it being a big deal,” Merriweather says. “I don’t have a great attachment to [the holiday],” she concedes. “But when I have kids I will teach them about it and read them the story.” Kwanzaa is primarily a black-consciousness thing, she adds.


Merriweather’s assertion that she’ll introduce Kwanzaa to her kids one day falls in line with the results of a recent National Retail Federation survey that found the age range of the average Kwanzaa celebrant is 26–34 years old, right in the child-rearing sweet spot.


But according to that same survey, just 2.3 percent of Americans said they will celebrate Kwanzaa in 2012, even though 13 percent of the U.S. population is African-American. In comparison, about five percent of Americans celebrate Hanukkah, while just two percent of the population identifies as Jewish. The number of Kwanzaa celebrants “is not very well-measured, and the people who promote the holiday have much higher numbers than the marketing surveys,” Pleck warns. But considering the NRF numbers, she adds, “most Jews celebrate Hanukkah or at least want to celebrate Hanukkah. Most African-Americans do not celebrate Kwanzaa and do not think they have to.”


Why? In my unscientific polling of black Chicagoans, responses ranged from unaware to indifferent to apologetic. “Maybe if I had children. If you don’t have kids, it slips your mind,” says Markeyta Boone, a Chatham resident who works in education.


Jazzy Johnson, a senior at Northwestern University, writes via Facebook: “I think [Kwanzaa] is really awesome and I love talking to people about their experiences, but it just hasn’t been something I’ve taken on in my life. I think that’s similar for many people. Kwanzaa is not a normalized social tradition, even for those who identify as black. I think we don’t practice and don’t engage with it because it’s something we would have to seek to learn about instead of [a holiday] like Christmas which is in our faces all the time.”


But that doesn’t mean Kwanzaa is en route to extinction. Scot Brown, a history professor at UCLA who specializes in social and political movements, believes the holiday has a future. “All holidays change over time,” he says. “If you ask somebody about celebrating Christmas, that has gone through a tremendous amount of change over time. I don’t think that Kwanzaa’s best years are behind it. Don’t throw out that dashiki just yet.”


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