Fewer African-Americans Are Observing Kwanzaa–Why?

Jenice Armstrong, Philadelphia Daily News, December 21, 2010

I asked a 17-year-old I know what he thought about Kwanzaa and he said, “That Jewish holiday?”

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Clearly, his high school hasn’t embraced the multicultural thing and isn’t teaching students about the 44-year-old Afrocentric holiday. But I don’t knock his ignorance because the truth is that Kwanzaa has never caught on with the majority of black Americans. At the same time, though, it has grown in mainstream acceptance as evidenced by the Kwanzaa postal stamps and greeting cards.

{snip} Keith Mayes, author of “Black Power and the Making of the African-American Holiday Tradition” (Routledge, 2009) said that conservative estimates are that between 1 million to 2 million African Americans celebrate Kwanzaa. Organizers of The African American Cultural Center in Los Angeles put the figure at 40 million worldwide but that includes similar festivals in Africa and elsewhere.

“I don’t know if the numbers continue to increase every year. I would say that it may have leveled off,” Mayes said. “It just no longer shows up in some of the places that it did 30 to 40 years ago. You still have people who actually celebrate it. You have third generations of Kwanzaa celebrants . . . but Kwanzaa no longer has its movement which brought it forth, which is the black power movement. That movement has waned.”

At the same time, though, many cultural institutions such as the African American Museum in Philadelphia, which is planning a number of celebrations at the Gallery at Market East, have embraced it. For mainstream organizations, Kwanzaa has become a stand-in for African-American traditions and it has become almost obligatory to lump Kwanzaa in with Hanukkah, Christmas, Three Kings’ Day and other December holidays. {snip}

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Most black families don’t hold personal Kwanzaa observances, which typically involve the lighting of a candle every day from Dec. 26 to Jan. 1, representing the seven principles of the festival. On Friday, when I asked folks on Facebook why more African-Americans haven’t embraced the holiday, I got some heated answers. Some respondents said people were ignorant about what it is and how to celebrate it, and others felt that Kwanzaa was just another manufactured holiday.

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“It seems to me you have to care about blackness above and beyond the everyday to celebrate Kwanzaa, and while there are plenty of conscious black people who do so, of all socioeconomic strata, I don’t see it taking off . . . because in order to have the black masses participate in large, noisy numbers, Kwanzaa would have to be simplified and made easy and consumer-friendly, and would then presumably lack the educational aspect of the holiday,” pointed out Bertram D. Ashe, an associate professor of English and American studies at the University of Richmond. “I don’t see that happening. That’s simply not the way it was designed when Ron Karenga founded the ritual in the mid-1960s, and I don’t see that changing anytime soon, nor should it.”

{snip} But as a Facebook friend pointed out, no matter how well-intentioned, an individual can’t declare Kwanzaa a black holiday and expect the masses to adopt it.

“It appealed to a generation of people who are now in their 50s and 60s,” said Charles A. Gallagher, a professor of sociology at La Salle University. “It doesn’t resonate in many ways with a lot of young people today. It’s the same argument that you hear with the NAACP. For me, they are still sacrosanct. But you hear a lot of young people saying the NAACP is irrelevant.

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And then there are those such as John Childress, New Jersey-based father of two teenagers, who has taken his children to a couple of Kwanzaa celebrations but still can’t get past the Kwanzaa founder’s 1971 conviction for torture.

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