Immediately following Christmas this year will mark Kwanzaa’s 38th anniversary. From December 26 through January 1, millions of African Americans, like myself, will start their week-long celebration by greeting families and friends with the Swahili term “Harbari gani!” which means “What’s happening!” Much of what will be happening will be talk about whether the commercialization and takeover by larger retailers of this holiday celebration violates the seven principles (the Nguzo Saba) of Kwanzaa.
Kwanzaa, which means “the first fruits of the harvest,” was founded in 1967 by Dr. Maulana “Ron” Karenga, then chairman of the African American Studies department at California State University at Long Beach. Though often thought to be a black version of Christmas, Kwanzaa is neither a religious holiday nor a substitute for Christmas. It is a spiritual and cultural holiday whose seven principles of
- unity (umoja),
- self-determination (kujichagulia),
- collective work and responsibility (ujima),
- cooperative economics (ujamma),
- purpose (nia),
- creativity (kuumba) and
- faith (imani)
represent and reaffirm traditional African American values that extends to all Americans .
The practice of black economic power and self-reliance has kept the holiday of Kwanzaa financially afloat. Unlike Christmas, which is characterized by rampant commercialism and the accumulation of material objects, Kwanzaa’s emphasis is on human relationships and on the spiritual ties and responsibilities that African Americans first have to one another, and then to the larger society.
However, gifts, called zawadi, do play an important role during Kwanzaa. Gifts exchanged are either handmade or purchased from African American vendors in keeping with the fourth principle of Kwanzaa known as cooperative economics.
As a small but thriving business, Kwanzaa keeps black dollars afloat longer in African American enclaves across the country than any other national holiday. Because its products, like the kinara (the candle holder for seven candles, one black, three red and three green), the Kikombe Cha Umoja (communal unity cup), the Mkeka (place mat), and the bendea (the African American national flag) can only be found in neighborhood Afrocentric curio shops. African American consumers shop there instead of outside their communities. On the whole, these small African and African American-owned businesses profit modestly from Kwanzaa items because they are sold only in abundance during a specific time of the year.
Because African American businesses in this country are plagued with financial instability due to racial and economic disparities, the commercial spread of Kwanzaa in stores like Target and Wal-Mart would keep the Kwanzaa dollars afloat, many argue, but these small African American businesses would not financially profit from this sort of commercial popularity; albeit it would be another acknowledgment of African Americans’ unique contribution to the larger U.S. economy.
With the majority of black dollars already floating out of the community and into store chains like Target and Wal-Mart, we would see the rapid displacement of small African and African American owned businesses. And these store chains vie aggressively for our dollars by tracking our spending habits.
In the September 2005 issue of USA Today, an article on African American spending habits reported that according to Target Market, a company that tracks black consumer spending, African Americans not only spend their dollars outside of their communities as fast as they make them but African Americans also spend a significant amount of their income on depreciable products that come at the expense of a financially solvent future for us individually and collectively as a people.
In watching how the dollar trail leaves small community-owned businesses and pours into huge conglomerate store chains, how do any of the small businesses across the country survive against these corporate Goliaths?
And if Kwanzaa, in particular, goes corporate, can it still maintain its unique character and not lose it’s soul?
Overwhelmingly, most African Americans say “no” because corporate accountability has too often been overridden by profit. And an example of the corporate exploitation of Kwanzaa was exhibited during the dedication ceremonies which unveiled the holiday’s stamp in 1997. As widespread acceptance of the Kwanzaa stamp took hold in the marketplace, so too did the corporate takeover of the holiday with companies buying licensing rights from the United Stated Postal Service to use the stamp. Prepaid phone cards, lapel pins, book markers and greeting cards with the the holiday’s stamp logo on them were all made in China.
This Kwanzaa holiday, I’ll head out to the neighborhood store to purchase my red, black and green candles for the kinara, because I know that the strength of the U.S. economy is found in its multicultural small community-owned businesses that reflect our nation’s diversity. And in so doing, I would also be honoring the fourth principle of this tradition which is cooperative economics.
Rev. Irene Monroe