A Short History of Kwanzaa

Slate has republished a 2005 essay by Melonyce McAfee in praise of Kwanzaa. Acknowledging that the holiday is "made-up" (without really getting into what this means), McAfee nonetheless concludes that her mother's decision to celebrate it was a positive one … Read More

By / December 30, 2007

Slate has republished a 2005 essay by Melonyce McAfee in praise of Kwanzaa. Acknowledging that the holiday is "made-up" (without really getting into what this means), McAfee nonetheless concludes that her mother's decision to celebrate it was a positive one because "it brought my family together." That's all well and good — but there are certainly ways of bringing the family together that don't involve paeans to Marxism, black nationalism and hating whitey.

McAfee makes only passing mention of the man who founded Kwanzaa, Dr. Maulana Karenga, né Ronald Everett. In her family-focused narrative, the man who created the holiday and his reasons for doing so are of negligible importance. She suspects, however, that readers are at least somewhat familiar with the radical origins of Kwanzaa, but dispatches this criticism with mockery, criticizing those "the naysayers who mock Kwanzaa as a pseudo holiday, created to annoy white people and kept alive to peddle cards and kente cloth." In a serious discussion of Kwanzaa, however, the holiday's founder–and his ideology–deserve a little more than mere passing mention. Karenga came to prominence in the 1960's when he founded the United Slaves Organization (US), a group more radical than the Black Panthers, on the UCLA campus. The outfit was little more than a political cult and Karenga possessed all the traits of a political cult leader: megalomania, paranoia, and an inclination to lash out violently against his opponents, a black nationalist Joseph Smith if you will. All these traits were on display during a May 9, 1970 incident in which Karenga ordered the torture of two women he believed to have been an informant (Karenga himself allegedly beat the woman with an electrical cord). Here is a newspaper account:

According to a Los Angeles Times account of testimony published at the time of the trial, Karenga and the other men forced the women to remove their clothes, and beat them with an electrical cord and a karate baton. The men put a hot soldering iron in one woman's mouth and against her face, and they squeezed one woman's big toe in a vise, the Times reported. Karenga's former wife, Brenda Lorraine Karenga, testified he sat on one woman's stomach while another man forced water into her mouth through a hose, according to the Times.

"Vietnamese torture is nothing compared to what I know," Karenga allegedly told the women, the Times reported Oct. 7, 1970, shortly after Karenga's arrest.

Jones said during the trial that Karenga initiated the attacks because he suspected her and Davis of trying to poison him with "crystals."

But it's not just the violence which renders Kwanzaa a dubious "holiday;" many traditional Judeo-Christian celebrations are rooted in acts of violence, Chanukkah being an example (though that violence was arguably righteous, as opposed to Karenga's attempt to re-enact Hostel). It is Kwanzaa's separatist, Marxist ideology which ought to give African-Americans pause before embracing it. Here are the 7 principles celebrated during Kwanzaa:umoja, or unity; kujichagulia, or self-determination; ujima, or collective work and responsibility; ujamaa, or cooperative economics; kuumba, or creativity; and imani, or faith. "Creativity" and "faith" are wonderful things to celebrate, "cooperative economics" not so much. They haven't worked so well in Africa, to be sure.

Rick Rosendall explains how Kwanzaa opposes the American creed here, working in arguments by one of the greatest, yet under-appreciated, 20th century figures, Bayard Rustin:

Our destinies are inextricably intertwined by our shared history. Whether they like it or not, the heritage of white Americans contains African threads; and whether they like it or not, the heritage of black Americans contains European ones. You do not shed the European portion of your heritage merely because you take an Afrocentric name, nor do you give up your stake in the greater society of which you remain a part. In addition to colonialism (which existed in Africa before the white man came), Western heritage includes free markets and individual liberties, as well as the idea that all men are created equal.

Rejecting that idea four decades ago as a sham, Karenga and other radicals adopted a revolutionary posture and an Afrocentric program. In doing so they repudiated integrationists like civil rights strategist Bayard Rustin, who pointed out that Black Studies "will hardly improve [black students'] intellectual competence or their economic power." In the campaigns by Karenga and his comrades to "Buy Black" and create autonomous communities, the language of liberation was a poor substitute for development capital. As Rustin wrote in his 1970 essay "The Failure of Black Separatism," "The call for community control in fact represents an adjustment to inequality rather than a protest against it."

Karenga is your garden variety racial-nationalist thug, a mix between Louis Farrakhan and Amiri Baraka. But this doesn't matter to McAfee, who simply wants people to understand that Kwanzaa was "a way to bring our ragtag family together and nudge us away from the false idols and commercial trickery of the holiday season." Yes, the principle of "cooperative economics" may disavow the obsession with merchandise that have come to mark the holiday season, but Kwanzaa is not lacking in the "false idols" department, black nationalism and Marxism being two pretty major gods that failed. McAfee should at least have the honesty to reconcile the actual reasons the holiday was created — and, I imagine, the reasons why whatever few actual adherents it has celebrate it today — with whatever beneficent characteristics she imputes to it and lay off implying that its critics are somehow crypto-racists.

Last, and least, is the faux-holiday's obvious ripoff of Chanukah that makes Kwanzaa just plane lame: 7 days instead of 8, but the candelabra is still there.

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