Kwanzaa: A Modern-Day Made-Up Holiday

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A Brief History 

In 1965, Maulana Karenga (born Ronald Everett), currently Professor of African Studies at the University of California in Long Beach, created a new holiday he named Kwanzaa during which time African Americans could honor their African heritage. 

Digging Deeper

As a university student, Karenga had been active in the radical African-American movement known as Black Power and even created an organization he called “US” meaning black people.  This group became a rival to other Black nationalist groups such as the Black Panthers.

Karenga’s US (sarcastically called United Slaves by the Black Panthers) clashed with the Panthers to the point of gang warfare which culminated in a 1969 shootout.  (The FBI may have aggravated relations between African-American groups by sending forged letters to each as part of its COINTELPRO program.)

No model citizen, Karenga was later convicted in 1971 for the imprisonment and torture of 2 women, for which he served 4 years in prison.  

His invented holiday, Kwanzaa, embodies 7 principles that might, in a communistic sort of philosophy, be interpreted as Black separatism, not unusual for the 1960s.  Celebrated between December 26 and January 1, the week-long holiday was purposely timed to coincide with the Christmas, which does not make sense since Kwanzaa is supposed link to the harvest of fruits and vegetables.  

Another inconsistency is the fact that although African-American slaves were mainly descended from West African peoples, Karenga based his verbiage and symbolism on East African culture and language (Swahili).

As an explanation, Karenga told the Washington Post in 1978 that he basically tried to fool African Americans into thinking Kwanzaa was of African origin because if they knew it was an American invention they might ignore it.

Polls indicate about 4 million people, or a percent and a half of the U.S. population, say they celebrate Kwanzaa, although Karenga claims that 28 million people do.  Other estimates range from as low as 2 million celebrants to as many as 30 million.  Karenga also claims his holiday is celebrated by people of sub-Saharan African ancestry all over the world, but there is little evidence of that.

In Brazil, people of African descent do celebrate Black Awareness Day, but on November 20, and the term “Kwanzaa” has been used in conjunction with some of the activities, although apparently not in the way specified by Karenga.

As a holiday praised and recognized by many, both black and white, Hallmark sells Kwanzaa cards, and the U.S. Postal Service has issued Kwanzaa stamps (first issue 1997).

Question for students (and subscribers): How do you feel about holidays being made up?  Is this a good solution to give African Americans a sense of common culture, identity and perhaps pride?  Is it too exclusive of others?  Please share your thoughts on the subject in the comments section below this article.

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Historical Evidence

For more information, please see…

Mayes, Keith A.  Kwanzaa: Black Power and the Making of the African-American Holiday Tradition.  Routledge, 2009.


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