Rational Inquiry -Volume 7 Number 2
A Skeptical Look at Kwanzaa
By John Chalmers
I found Karen Graves’s article "Celebrating God Versus Celebrating Good: Or, Why I Put Kwanzaa Stamps on My Christmas Cards" in the Winter 2002 issue of Rational Inquiry moving, but also provocative and unsettling. While I do not doubt the sincerity of Kwanzaa’s celebrants, I think that skeptics should take a hard look at this festival and other aspects of the Afro-Centric movement. Kwanzaa is less a celebration of human unity in diversity than a political statement about the alienation of African-Americans from American culture. One doesn’t have to search very far before finding that it is largely based on pseudohistory, pseudoanthropology and racial separatism.
The alleged African roots of Kwanzaa are actually quite shallow. That there is any kind of Pan-African culture is questioned by nearly all scholars other than Cheikh Anta Diop and his followers in Senegal and the US. The majority of Africanists reject the idea because of the immense diversity of African cultures and languages (over 1000) as well as the varied external influences and differing histories of the multitude of African tribes and peoples.
The inventor of Kwanzaa, Maulana Ron Karenga, claims that Kwanzaa is based on a Zulu harvest festival and that the December date was not chosen to compete with Christmas and Hanukkah, but because in Ancient Egypt, a year’s end festival was held at this time. In Egypt, however, the New Year began in September as it still does in Ethiopia whose Coptic Christians still use the old Egyptian calendar. In any case, neither Zulu nor Egyptian culture has very much relevance to West Africa where the ancestors of nearly all but the most recent African-Americans lived.
Ancient Egypt has become a powerful symbol to Karenga and other Afro-Centrists, who claim that it was a Black African civilization, presumably because it was literate and is widely admired by Europeans. Karenga also has disseminated Ivan Van Sertima’s preposterous claims that the Olmec, Aztec, Andean and other New World cultures are derived from West Africa, Egypt and Nubia. These connections with "Kemetism" are symptomatic of the historical weakness of Kwanzaa’s foundations.
The name Kwanzaa is derived from a Swahili phrase and this language is an integral part of the Kwanzaa mystique. Ironically, however, Swahili is an East African contact language that developed out of the mercantile and slave trade between speakers of Bantu languages and the Arabs in the Middle Ages. Choices that are more appropriate would have been Wolof, a West African language widely spoken in the antebellum South, or Yoruba, which survived in Latin America and the Caribbean as a religious language.
Still, it might be assumed that Swahili was chosen because it is widely spoken in modern Africa and has a considerable literature, but I suspect it was chosen for political reasons since the ideals of Kwanzaa (Imani?) are as reflective of the now abandoned Maoist/Marxist philosophy of the Tanzanian government as of East African folkways. The most egregious example is "Ujamaa" or "Cooperative Economics," which was the program of forced collectivization of rural Tanzanian agriculturists. It failed there, as in Eastern Europe and the Soviet Union, and now has been largely abandoned. It is very questionable to what extent African-Americans would prosper if they pursued a policy of economic disengagement from the American economy; the history of such movements in Europe and the US is not encouraging, though I imagine the venerable Berkeley Co-op is still in business.
It is also difficult to construe "Umoja" as anything but a call for a new form of racial and cultural apartheid. Since when are African-Americans a nation? This is an echo of the old radical call for a "Republic of New Africa" on the territory of the Confederacy. Do we really want to further divide the US along racial and cultural lines and exacerbate the existing tensions and inequalities?
It is encouraging to learn that Karenga now speaks of human universality and community, but I remain skeptical that this is the meaning of Umoja as conceived by him and most his followers. As evidence, I refer to the demand that Kwanzaa not be mixed or diluted with symbols or practices from other cultures. Recently, a blue-robed male African figure was introduced as "Father Kwanzaa" who, like Santa Claus or Father Christmas, gives gifts to children. Karenga immediately demanded that he be removed and that Kwanzaa thus be kept free of "European" influence. This is cultural universality and community?
Frankly, one of the benefits of Western society is the opportunity to be syncretic, to borrow and appreciate the best (or worst) from other cultures and periods. It is, of course, really none of my business if people of any ethnic background want to celebrate Kwanzaa or any other holiday, though I fear that some of the celebrations of my Celtic ancestors would evoke disapproval, if not active persecution, these days. I do think, however, that celebrants should be aware of the connotations, implications and associations of those that they celebrate.
John Chalmers is a founding member of SDARI and was a SDARI judge at the GSDSEF Fair. This is his first contribution to Rational Inquiry