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As we were driving north to Wisconsin for the holidays, we heard a radio story about Kwanzaa. We realized that we knew nearly nothing about it. I use this opportunity to learn more and, perhaps, to inform you of things you did not know.

Unlike its seasonal colleagues, Christmas and Hanukkah, Kwanzaa is purely secular and recently invented. Ron Karenga, a black liberation activist from California, thought up an alternative in 1966 to what he felt were overly white year-end celebrations. He appears to have borrowed the candle-lighting ritual from Hanukkah, adapted to pan-African traditions and emphasizing seven virtues he believed that African Americans should celebrate.

For seven nights from Dec. 26 through New Year’s Day, a red, green or black candle is lit to celebrate the “Seven Guiding Principles” of African heritage and history that he identified:

Neither separatism nor mainstream reform need be exclusive solutions to the continuing dilemma of racism in America. Karenga’s Kwanzaa has influenced millions of people.

  • Unity
  • Self-Determination
  • Collective Work and Responsibility
  • Cooperative Economics
  • Purpose
  • Creativity
  • Faith

Karenga created Kwanzaa in 1966 with the goal of giving “Blacks an alternative to the existing holiday and give Blacks an opportunity to celebrate themselves and their history, rather than simply imitate the practice of the dominant society.”

Karenga was a radical exponent of black nationalism, which generally tried to create black alternatives to white institutions, emphasizing African culture and black economic independence, at a time when anything black was uncommon in white supremacist America.

After the Watts riots in 1965, he created the organization US, which became a rival with the Black Panthers for leadership of the black community. The FBI sought to turn that rivalry into violence in its COINTELPRO program, in order to weaken both groups.

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Over 50 years later, Kwanzaa has taken hold in countries across the world. That is surprising. This ideological invention of a competitor to the most widely celebrated holiday in the world has not replaced Christmas. But many people know about Kwanzaa.

Hallmark issued a greeting card in 1992. The Postal Service issued a Kwanzaa stamp in 1997, and President Bill Clinton made the first presidential declaration recognizing the holiday. It is celebrated on Martha’s Vineyard in Massachusetts

It is difficult to say how many people light the Kwanzaa candles. There was a flurry of mainstream interest in Kwanzaa for a few decades. A black reporter from ABC News wrote in 2004 that few people she knew celebrated Kwanzaa, outside of big events in San Francisco and Denver.

According to the National Retail Federation, in 2012 only 2% of Americans observed Kwanzaa. But if nearly all of those people are black, that number represents about one-fifth of African American families.

Perhaps the avoidance of commercialization has hampered its popularization, but allowed Kwanzaa to maintain some of its original political intent. Black separatism itself has declined as American society has reduced the barriers to black cultural success.

steve-hochstadt

Karenga himself now is chair of the Africana Studies Department at California State University in Long Beach, under the name Maulana Ndabezitha Karenga. As opportunities to celebrate black and African culture have expanded with the creation of African American studies departments in universities and increasing attention to black history in schools, the number who celebrate Kwanzaa probably has declined since the 1970s and 1980s,

Black nationalism or separatism is no longer as popular as it was 50 years ago. The current response to systemic racism, a diagnosis that itself is now much more common, focuses on reforming mainstream society, the police for example, rather than separating from it.

steve hochstadt

Neither separatism nor mainstream reform need be exclusive solutions to the continuing dilemma of racism in America. Karenga’s invention has influenced millions of people, spreading information about African and African American culture well beyond the black community. The seven virtues are potentially relevant to everyone. Whether you light candles or not, Kwanzaa has enriched all of our lives.

Steve Hochstadt