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Celebrating the Kwanzaa Holiday and Understanding its Impact on Race Relations

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New York Times reporter Sewell Chan grew up celebrating the day.

“As a child growing up in Queens, I remember attending Kwanzaa celebrations at the American Museum of Natural History with relatives and friends who, like me, were Chinese-American,” he said. “The holiday seemed fun and inclusive (and, I admit, a bit exotic), and I eagerly committed to memory the Nguzo Saba, or seven principles…”

Check local newspaper listings, black churches, cultural centers or museums to find out where to celebrate Kwanzaa in your community. If an acquaintance of yours celebrates Kwanzaa, ask for permission to attend a celebration with her. However, it would be offensive to go as a voyeur who doesn’t care about the day itself but is curious to see what it’s about. Go because you agree with the principles of the day and are committed to implementing them in your own life and community. After all, Kwanzaa is a day of tremendous significance for millions of people.

Objections to Kwanzaa

Who opposes Kwanzaa? Certain Christian groups who regard the holiday as pagan, individuals who question its authenticity and those who object to founder Ron Karenga’s personal history. A group called the Brotherhood Organization of a New Destiny (BOND), for one, labeled the holiday as racist and anti-Christian.

In a Front Page magazine article, BOND founder the Rev. Jesse Lee Peterson takes issue with the trend of preachers incorporating Kwanzaa into their messages, calling the move a “a horrible mistake” which distances blacks from Christmas.

“First of all, as we’ve seen, the whole holiday is made up,” Peterson argues. “Christians who celebrate or incorporate Kwanzaa are moving their attention away from Christmas, the birth of our Savior, and the simple message of salvation: love for God through his Son.”

The Kwanzaa Web site explains that Kwanzaa isn’t religious or designed to replace religious holidays. “Africans of all faiths can and do celebrate Kwanzaa, i.e., Muslims, Christians, Jews, Buddhists…,” the site says. “For what Kwanzaa offers is not an alternative to their religion or faith but a common ground of African culture which they all share and cherish.”

Even those who don’t oppose to Kwanzaa on religious grounds take issue with it because Kwanzaa is not an actual holiday in Africa and the customs founder Ron Karenga based the holiday on have roots in Eastern Africa. During the transatlantic slave trade, however, blacks were taken from Western Africa, meaning that Kwanzaa and its Swahili terminology aren’t part of most African Americans’ heritage.

Another reason people choose not to observe Kwanzaa is the background of Ron Karenga. In the 1970s, Karenga was convicted of felony assault and false imprisonment. Two black women from the Organization Us, a black nationalist group with which he’s still affiliated, were reportedly victimized during the attack. Critics question how Karenga can be an advocate for unity within the black community when he himself was allegedly involved in an attack on black women.

Wrapping Up

While Kwanzaa and its founder are sometimes subject to criticism, journalists such as Afi-Odelia E. Scruggs celebrate the holiday because they believe in the principles it espouses. In particular, the values Kwanzaa gives to children and to the black community at large are why Scruggs observes the day. Initially Scruggs thought Kwanzaa was contrived, but seeing its principles at work changed her mind.

In a Washington Post editorial, she wrote, “I’ve seen Kwanzaa’s ethical principles work in many little ways. When I remind the fifth-graders I teach that they aren’t practicing ‘umoja’ when they disturb their friends, they quiet down. …When I see neighbors turning vacant lots into community gardens, I’m watching a practical application of both ‘nia’ and ‘kuumba.’”

In short, while Kwanzaa has inconsistencies and its founder a troubled history, the holiday aims to unify and uplift those who observe it. Like other holidays, Kwanzaa can be used as a positive force in the community. Some believe this outweighs any concerns about authenticity.

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