Kinaras Stay Lit: Unpacking the Future of Kwanzaa in the Black Community

Felice León
·2 min read

“It doesn’t matter if only one person celebrates [Kwanzaa]. It is part of African-American history and in a way that suggests that it’s permanent, it’s never going away.” —Keith A. Mayes, Ph.D.

It’s that time of year again!

While we all know that Christmas is the Beyoncé of holidays, among the trifecta of December festivities exists (what I like to refer to as) Black Christmas, or Kwanzaa.

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But, Black people, my people: How many of you all plan on celebrating Kwanzaa this year? Better question: With the year’s racial reckoning, and the insatiable appetite for Black culture (because everybody wants to be Black until it’s time to actually be Black), should Black people be celebrating Kwanzaa?

For those who are new to Kwanzaa, the seven-day celebration was founded in 1966 by Maulana Karenga, co-founder of the US Organization, and is a part of the Black Nationalist tradition. It begins on Dec. 26 and every day promotes one of seven core principles: unity (umoja), self-determination (kujichagulia), collective work and responsibility (ujima), cooperative economics (ujamaa), purpose (nia), creativity (kuumba), and faith (imani).

But the celebration, which is about affirming Black power and pride, is not without its criticisms.

Keith A. Mayes, an associate professor of African-American and African studies at the University of Minnesota, points to three main critiques about Kwanzaa, including one about its founder Maulana Karenga, who served time for imprisoning and assaulting two Black women. “He [Karenga] was a polarizing figure on a number of different levels for different people,” explains the scholar and author of Kwanzaa: Black Power and the Making of the African-American Holiday Tradition.

Beyond Karenga, Professor Mayes notes that at its core, Kwanzaa is about returning Black people to their roots. Kwanzaa started in the midst of the Black freedom struggle—a time when the reconnection to Africa was so desperately needed. Times have changed, but as the deaths of Breonna Taylor, George Floyd, Ahmaud Arbery and Tony McDade have shown us, they’ve also stayed the same.

What is the future of Kwanzaa, especially as America’s racial reckoning continues?

“I think the future of Kwanzaa is what it’s always been. It’s going to remain something that people know,” Mayes said, adding, “Maybe it’s not our generation that will take it to another level, maybe the next generation. So I think it has the potential to grow.”

Watch the entire episode of Unpack That above. Habari gani!