You might not know it, but today is the first day of Kwanzaa! A lot of people tend to dismiss Kwanzaa because it’s a made up holiday, or because it promotes divisiveness by centering the African diaspora, or because the whole thing sounds so silly. But all holidays were newly made up at one point or another and we’re still doing it all the time; we’ve only celebrated Movember since 2004 and International Talk Like a Pirate Day since 1995. Kwanzaa is older than both of those, celebrated since 1966. Celebrating our culture doesn’t divide us any more than Hanukkah, St. Patrick’s Day, Oktoberfest, or Chinese New Year; being united is not the same thing as being completely assimilated into the dominant culture. And yeah, Kwanzaa is silly — but so are holidays in general. None of them would be any fun otherwise.
But what IS Kwanzaa, though? It’s just a holiday that was created in the mid-1960s to celebrate and reflect on African-American culture and values. It’s expanded to include the wider pan-African diaspora in the decades since, but it’s still a relatively obscure holiday. I personally think that’s great; because so many details of the holiday are so nebulous, that means that we can create our own traditions and make the holiday are own. As long as we do something to reflect on those daily values; honor our ancestors and the sacrifices they’ve made; and work to instill and strengthen our bonds in our community, there’s no one way to observe the holiday.
Traditionally, though, Kwanzaa features a few central things: a kinara, or ceremonial candle holder; the Mishumaa Saba, or seven candles that represent the Seven Principles; mazao, or fresh fruits that represent African idealism; muhindi, or corn, representing our future; the Kikumbe cha Umoja, a cup we share in celebrations honoring and thanking our ancestors; and a mkeka, or mat that all of these things rest upon. You could also have a poster of the Nguzo Saba, or Seven Principles; a bendera, or pan-African flag with the colors of black, red and green; a dashiki, or traditional West African garment; gifts, books, art, or music featuring the culture of the Pan-African diaspora.
Kwanzaa is always celebrated over seven days between December 26th and January 1st. The names we give for things come from the Swahili language, which was a major influence in the Pan-African movement of the 60s and 70s. However, since most of us African-Americans have ancestry in West Africa, there are a lot of influences and traditions from that part of the world as well. Each day, we greet each other with the phrase “Habari gani?”, or “What’s the news?” You wish people a Joyous Kwanzaa, though personally I prefer to say “Have a Solid Kwanzaa” because it’s SO much more awesome. Not all black Americans share my aesthetic, though, so among strangers or acquaintances it’s best to use the traditional holiday wishes.
If you look at the roots of Kwanzaa and particularly the man who started it (Maulana Karenga), you’ll find that the original intention of the holiday did indeed foster a separation between African-Americans and the dominant Western culture in the United States — but that language has softened with greater understanding of our place in the lands we inhabit, and a greater desire to connect and communicate with others. Kwanzaa isn’t an isolationist holiday, and it shouldn’t be; the whole point is to rediscover our roots and share the hard-won perspective and wisdom that has grown out of our shared cultural experience. Kwanzaa centers us at the end of our year, reminds us of what we truly value, and reminds us that we are part of a community that needs us. Our hard work and success is that of the community; when we lift up our brothers and sisters, we lift up ourselves.
Which might be why the very first of the Seven Principles of Kwanzaa is Umoja, or unity. Today, we remind ourselves to strive for and maintain the unity of our family, community, nation, and race. Looking back over the past year, where there have been so many forces that seek to fracture us, it’s easy to see why this principle is more important than ever.
Unity is one of those ideals that are frequently misunderstood and misrepresented. I’ve thought a lot about what unity means to me, and personally it’s the simple fact that we’re all in this together and we should treat each other accordingly. The human experience is astonishingly varied and complex, and our individual perspectives lead us to many different conclusions. Some of us prize compassion as a virtue above all; some of us think loyalty is more important; for others, it’s justice. When the importance that we place on these virtues cause conflict about the correct course of action, we very often begin to paint those who disagree with us as the enemy, or as monsters lacking some basic trait of humanity. Often that’s simply not true — some people just don’t care about a virtue as much as we do. It doesn’t mean they don’t care at all. Sometimes, other things are simply more important.
As frustrating as this can be, it’s important to remember that these people are in the same boat as us and we’re often working towards the same ends. We all want a better world for ourselves, our family, our community. We all want fairness and equality for people. We all want to be safe, healthy, and happy.
Obviously, I don’t mean those whose vision of a ‘better world’ means getting rid of the other people in our boat who aren’t like them, or who think that those of us who are different are somehow inferior and not worthy of the same treatment. That ideology — and the people who take action based on it — must be purged completely if we want to have any hope of true unity. We can’t be united if we don’t include everyone in the boat.
A lot of us think that unity means that we must stand together against something, but that’s not true either. We can — and should — stand united FOR a common purpose. We can come together to make our family, community, nation, and race as great as it can possibly be. The difference here is that instead of uniting to fight against some negative influence, we choose to direct our attention to the positive, the uplifting, the healing. We promote the things we value, instead of simply condemning the things we don’t.
I’m not going to lie — this is hard work. It can be difficult, especially in the midst of disagreements, to remember that the person I’m engaging with is a brother or sister and that we’re both in the same boat. It’s all too easy to unite against something and pour my energy into the things I want to eradicate instead of the things I want to nurture and protect. It’s hard to remember that someone believes as they do because of their own direct experience and that is different from mine. I get it wrong again and again and again. I can be divisive in so many ways.
But that’s OK. It’s human nature, and I’m only human. What’s important is to continue striving for unity, not just as a nebulous and vague concept but as a tangible, graspable goal. We can unite. We can work together. In fact, we must.
So how can we work towards being united? How can we bring together our families and communities? It starts with us. We must learn to recognize which differences can be accepted without change and what is truly necessary for us to agree on in order to be united. If someone thinks that hard work is the way out of poverty and not a strong social safety net, for example, ask how they promote that value in impoverished communities instead of pushing back. Our problems are complicated enough that there is no single solution, no magic bullet, that will untangle those knots. We can work with each other according to our individual values to eradicate poverty — that IS a distinctly American value, after all. E Pluribus Unum — Out Of Many, One.
I welcome all of you to think about what unity means for you, and how you can promote it within your family, community, and nation. Really drill down into the specifics; make it real. Then, think about what actions you can take today to bring us together as one people. It’s a small, but very real thing we can do to honor the sacrifices our ancestors made to give us a better life.
I wish all of you a Solid Kwanzaa. See you tomorrow, brothers and sisters.