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The Value Of Kwanzaa


Kwanzaa is being celebrated in more places than ever, and some of those places may surprise you. Commentator Keith Mayes explains.

Mr. KEITH MAYES: Today is the first day of Kwanzaa. But what does that even mean anymore?

On the surface, it means exactly what it did when Kwanzaa was born in 1966. The seven-day celebration still celebrates the same seven principles: Umoja, which means unity; Kujichagulia, or self-determination; Ujima, which stands for collective work and responsibility; Ujamaa, or cooperative economics; Nia, purpose; Kuumba, creativity; and Imani, faith. But its cultural emphasis is different.

In the '60s, as civil rights organizations and policymakers focused on changing Jim Crow laws, black power activists were searching for new ways of celebrating and observing black pride and culture. For many African-Americans, the concept of Kwanzaa was black America's answer to what it understood as the ubiquity of white cultural practices that had oppressed blacks as thoroughly as Jim Crow laws.

Today, Kwanzaa is celebrated in places like Minocqua, Wisconsin, a small town near the Canadian border with a white population of 97 percent. You can find Kwanzaa images on postal stamps and debit cards.

Kwanzaa found life in a nascent black power movement centered profoundly on concepts of power, liberation, and revolution. Now, cultural institutions like museums, churches, schools, as well as the media and government, advance Kwanzaa in the name of diversity, recognition, inclusion, and goodwill. But now, 44 years later, Kwanzaa has found a new home all around the country.

Once a purely black concept, its new home is a multicultural America determined to celebrate diverse histories, experiences and cultures. Part of Kwanzaa's embrace by multicultural America is self-serving. Whereas black power uses Kwanzaa to connect black Americans with the continent of Africa, multicultural America uses Kwanzaa to sell products and consumer goods. Whereas black power expected Kwanzaa to liberate African-Americans, multicultural America has tried to use Kwanzaa as evidence of racial diversity and black inclusion.

We should applaud Kwanzaa's growth in American society, but we should also remain aware of a cautionary tale so often associated with holidays. Too much variation and too many usages will cause Kwanzaa to lose its original purpose. Just ask its neighbor, Christmas.

HANSEN: University of Minnesota professor Keith Mayes is the author of "Kwanzaa: Black Power and the Making of the African-American Holiday Tradition." Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.