Kwanzaa isn’t “African-American Christmas” — it’s about a people reclaiming and celebrating their narrative
At a crossroads in an intensely passionate yet increasingly less-satisfying relationship with a partner who seemed only to have love for himself, I shaped the words he would inadvertently use to set me free. “I am losing myself in your story,” I said. “Living your narrative.” And in answer, he said to me, in a tone that seemed quite cold at the time, “Then maybe you need to get your own” ... and the truth rang deep. Get your own. And so I did.
I file divorce papers on a day I am asked to consider Kwanzaa. There is a parallel here that is more than personal. When we arrived in 1619, a cargo of 20 pirated from the shores of southwest Africa, passed from Dutch slaver to two British warships, one aptly named the Treasurer, there was no Christmas as far as the First Twenty were concerned. Stripped from the coastal regions of what is now Angola and Congo, our Jamestown landing was not celebratory.
Two hundred years into enslavement, we mined salt, hewed lumber, tended homes and fields not our own, and, come December, staged elaborate holiday festivities for those who did the owning. We were granted rest at the tail end of Advent, and cobbled the day itself together from grosgrain ribbon and scraps of gingham, fashioning crude dolls as gifts out of corn husks, and wreathing cabin doors in garlands of rag and paper chains. A hundred years after Emancipation, we waded into the marketplace of desegregation and a new Civil Rights America, herded into the frenzy of holiday spending. Flush with funds we’d earned from jobs that paid 40 cents to the dollar of mainstream wage-earners, we continued to piece together what we could.
We approximated the all-American Christmas featured on every magazine, every billboard, every screen. We lugged home Chatty Cathys and toy six-shooters, ran up charge accounts, served eggnog and Christmas punch in cut-glass bowls, set likenesses of Santa out on the lawn, and left warm cookies and milk on the mantel of homes often redlined and over-mortgaged. Chasing tinseled visions of inclusion, the black consumer spent, and continues to spend, comparably more than the general population come Christmastime, while earning less.
Born of the Black Arts and Pan-African movement of the 1960s, Kwanzaa was a means of constructing a counter-narrative — a community’s answer to getting our own. Gifts are often handmade and include books or other items meant to educate and connect with a shared past and empowered future. A sole black candle representing unity is centered in a decorative holder, the Kinara, and flanked by three red candles to the left representing self-determination, cooperative economics, and creativity. Three green candles to the right are calls to collective work and responsibility, purpose, and faith. Kwanzaa’s originator, Dr. Ron Maulana Karenga, himself a problematic figure, phrased the Nguzo Saba, these Seven Principles, in the Swahili — Umoja, Kujichagulia, Ujamaa, Kuumba, Ujima, Nia, and Imani.
Starting the day after Christmas until New Year’s Day, a single candle is lit in honor of each principle, beginning with Umoja on the first day, then moving left to right. Not unlike a Menorah, the Kinara is set in a central location of the home, wherever the family gathers. The table or altar that holds the Kinara is draped in kente or mudcloth and topped by the mkeka, a ceremonial mat on which fresh fruit, gifts to family and the ancestors, at least two ears of corn — muhindi — representing the children of the community and the ceremonial unity cup — the kikombe cha umoja — are laid. The customary greeting over the seven days, Habari gani, “What’s the news?” demands that you respond with the principle of the day.
We feast and fête the last day of Kwanzaa, feeding the body, the soul, and collective consciousness through dance, music, storytelling, art, and poetry. Kwanzaa is karamu — a banquet of life and identity. We celebrate with folk like Brother Keith Brantley, spoken wordsmith and founder of the Poet’s Corner, who opens his doors for all to come and contribute to a table set with roasted greens and red peppers, sweet potato pies, and Chef Keidi’s vegan creations; and Sister China Hudson, founder of Girls Rites of Passage and principal dancer of the African Dance troupe Olabisi, who will stage stirring productions connecting us to the old and clearing the way for the new; and quiet force of nature Marcia Robinson, director of the West Las Vegas Cultural Arts Center, who throws a mean Kwanzaa crafts fair and celebration at the arts center each year. We look to and are reminded to become these folk who spend their days on and off the holiday clock reclaiming and reshaping our landing.
When we light the seven candles, we are pledging allegiance to our own narrative, a cultural be-ing that says simply We are and I am. Harambe.
Books on Kwanzaa
Kwanzaa: A Celebration of Family, Community and Culture, by Maulana Karenga
The Story of Kwanzaa, by Donna L. Washington
Seven Candles for Kwanzaa, by Andrea Davis Pinkney
Kwanzaa Celebration 2017
Dec. 30, 2-4:30 p.m., free,
West Las Vegas Library Theatre,
951 W. Lake Mead Blvd.,