celebrated Kwanzaa for the first time as an undergrad, after I nearly suffocated from the stark Whiteness of the liberal arts college I attended. On campus, Kwanzaa safely shrouded me in Blackness, Black creativity, and the Black community — if only for a week. Since then, the celebration’s seven founding principles have guided much of my life and work as a writer and advocate:
Collective Work and Responsibility
Initially I never questioned if I should celebrate the cultural holiday established by Dr. Maulana Karenga. But two years ago, I learned that Karenga was convicted of assaulting and falsely imprisoning two women in 1971, a handful of years after founding Kwanzaa. The decades-late discovery left me feeling slimed, like a tortured contestant on Nickelodeon’s Double Dare. Immediately I wanted to distance myself from the seven principals, to separate myself from the icky tentacles of its founding father. Immediately too, I began to think more deeply about the intersection of art, its creators, and public responsibility and accountability.
I concluded that acknowledging Karenga’s felonious acts alongside this beautiful cultural holiday can stand as a powerful reminder that we must hold our cultural icons — be they singers, actors, or activists — to a public accounting. We must hold them to standards — and sentences — that will communicate that assault and abuse in their varied forms are never acceptable. Instead of denying their crimes, rationalizing them, or simply overlooking them, we must acknowledge them and demonstrate that there are lifelong consequences, be they penal, personal, or public.
Kwanzaa originated in 1966, as the United States underwent massive political and cultural change through the civil rights movement, the Black Power Movement, and the Vietnam War protests. Kwanzaa sprouted on the heels of Malcolm X’s assassination and the L.A. Watts Riots in 1965, just one year before Aretha Franklin would demand “Respect,” and two years before Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. would be assassinated.
Kwanzaa offered what the United States was never willing to offer Black folks: acceptance and celebration; economic, political, and social equality; and a cultural connection to each other and Africa. Minimally, Kwanzaa was intended to be a week-long celebration where Blackness was lauded en masse. Ideally, it would strengthen the cultural, social, and economic base from which the entire community could flourish year-round. (At this point in history, the Black History Month we celebrate annually was not yet a nationally recognized month-long celebration; That wouldn’t happen until 1976.)
Kwanzaa recognized who we were before Whiteness, who we are, and who we could become if we worked together to harvest all of our creativity and resources for the collective good. Kwanzaa represented our God-given birthright that was stripped away and sold into slavery. The cultural holiday symbolized our collective longing that writer Morgan Jerkins described in her book, This Will Be My Undoing, “The truth is, we are all clamoring for something ancient within our souls that is still virgin from White touch.”
Kwanzaa is our reconnection to Mother Africa, a seven-day reminder that we are Africa’s beautiful children, even if we hail from different countries or tribes. We’re family: brothers, mothers, aunties, and play cousins. Gathering together is not only necessary; it’s healing, especially when gathering to commit to the seven principles.
EEmphasizing Umoja (Unity) reminds us that nothing is impossible to us if we come together with a common purpose. Wasn’t that one of the lessons from the Tower of Babel story in the Bible? Wasn’t that how Rosa Parks helped to desegregate public buses in Montgomery, Alabama? Didn’t Black folks unify and walk miles and ride-share before Uber and Lyft would popularize and commercialize the practice decades later? Today, Umoja still invites us to unify, whether it’s by kneeling alongside Colin Kaepernick, or loudly declaring that Black lives matter. The “Black Lives Matter” movement itself is an example of Kujichagulia (Self-Determination), which is “to define ourselves, name ourselves, create for ourselves, and speak for ourselves.”
Kwanzaa asks us to articulate our why, its connection to the collective, and to live the upcoming year in light of it.
Ujamaa (Cooperative Economics) was based partly on the “buy Black” movement pushed by Marcus Garvey in the 1920s. Ujamaa establishes financial stability and security in the Black community, especially because racism and redlining are real and rampant. Buying Black and Black ownership is the difference between only one generation having financial stability and future generations stewarding wealth for decades and centuries. It’s the difference between Tyler Perry hoping studios would make his first movie and Coming 2 America being filmed at Tyler Perry Studios. Ujamaa is why my talent agent, writing editor, video editor, tax accountant, and (future) attorney are all Black. When we look out for each other by supporting one another — let’s face it: many problems are connected to money — that’s also Ujima (Collective Work and Responsibility) in action.
Nia (Purpose) demands that our why is expansive. Are we here to pursue the American Dream, or is there something more meaningful and more communal we’re called to? Kwanzaa asks us to articulate our why, its connection to the collective, and to live the upcoming year in light of it. The celebration also invites us to “leave our community more beautiful and beneficial than we inherited it” through Kuumba (Creativity). Creativity is a life force that calls things into being. It fosters self-esteem and instills purpose. It is Lena Waithe and Melina Matsoukas creating Queen & Slim and Issa Rae opening a coffee shop for creatives in Inglewood, California.
Imani (Faith) — in the unseen, in God, in ourselves — assures us that our future can be brighter than our past. If cultivated, faith breathes new life into deferred dreams, miraculously reversing their festering.
MMany members of the Black community lost faith in Karenga and Kwanzaa after his conviction, while others minimized his crimes to preserve his work. However, neither abandoning Kwanzaa nor mitigating Karenga’s acts feels appropriate. Minimizing Karenga’s actions shows an unwillingness to hold our leaders accountable, plus a willingness to devalue women. Conversely, cancelling Kwanzaa is like throwing out the proverbial baby with the bath water.
Yes, Karenga assaulted, but Kwanzaa affirms. Yes, Karenga imprisoned, yet Kwanzaa offers freedom when practiced. While Karenga violated the collective by bombastically exalting himself, Kwanzaa still centers the collective. Kwanzaa still uplifts, still unites, still celebrates, still gives us the space to imagine ourselves and our communities anew.
Kwanzaa is bigger than Karenga. It always has been. Kwanzaa is an ideal, a bright shining star.
Just as importantly, Kwanzaa calls Karenga and others to give an account, to repent at the altar and “go and sin no more.” While some community members may choose to forgive, (while others don’t), history books will recount every good and bad deed. An asterisk will appear next to Karenga’s name whenever Kwanzaa is celebrated, just like the asterisk that accompanies Bill Cosby’s name in the National Museum of African American History and Culture.
If we’re wise, we will use Karenga’s past as a teaching moment, to teach our youths what it means to be respectful community members. We will teach them to create for the culture, and to neither participate in nor permit any behavior that could potentially discredit those creations. If they are wise, they will listen and live in ways that reflect the purpose, creativity, and collective work and responsibility our community relies on.
Kwanzaa is bigger than Karenga. It always has been. Kwanzaa is an ideal, a bright shining star. If Karenga taught us anything, it’s not to unify and celebrate — for we already knew to do that. Rather, it’s that we must continuously offer each other our best selves, for the sake of our children, our children’s children, and their children. His actions remind us that we can’t permit one of us to do to any of us what Whiteness did to all of us. We are worthy of more.