The Many Falsehoods of Kwanzaa

The holiday of Kwanzaa is now upon us. This seven-day feast (Dec. 26-Jan. 1) was devised in 1966 by Professor Ronald Everett of California State University at Long Beach, to instill a sense of cultural pride among African-American families. (He has since invented an “African” name for himself, meaning “master teacher.”) 

In recent years, Kwanzaa has gained traction in the popular media as an occasion for family gatherings. It’s rooted in the seven principles of unity, self-determination, collective work and responsibility, cooperative economics, purpose, creativity and faith. Hallmark sells Kwanzaa-themed greeting cards that emphasize these principles, conveying a message of dignity and empowerment to an oppressed people.

At least, that’s the popular account that most people hear. Even the reputable textbook publisher Prentice-Hall fell for the hoax when they added this sanitized version of the Kwanzaa story to their high school history text The American Nation.

Peruse the Official Kwanzaa Website, and it praises the “values of African culture.” But what is that, exactly? Could it be that the nations of Africa constitute a single monolithic civilization with a shared culture and traditions? For any serious student of history, this sweeping generalization should pose major problems.

I wonder, has anyone ever dared to make such claims about the countries of Europe? Do they sing “God Save the Queen” in the opera houses of Lisbon, or can you order bratwurst at the cafes on the Champs-Élysées?

I don’t think so.

In truth the peoples of Africa have never been unified, and it’s dishonest to suggest that they are now. They speak hundreds of languages, practice hundreds of religions, and jealously guard their respective identities and cultures. They’ve waged war among themselves for centuries, since long before the arrival of white colonists or slave traders. Even today Hutus and Tutsis routinely massacre one another for sport. Genocides have wiped out millions in Rwanda (remember the Don Cheadle movie from just a few years ago?) and Ethiopia, and warlords rule in Somalia and Liberia. (The latter was established by freed American slaves, a formerly oppressed group who quickly became oppressors.) Mostly it’s not about disagreements over political issues. It’s the Hatfields and the McCoys, ancient rivalries where no one remembers what they were fighting about in the first place.

This false sense of unity is apparent even in the name of the holiday. The term Kwanzaa (though not truly a word in itself) comes from Swahili, which Everett calls “the most widely spoken African language.” Another lie: Swahili is common in only a few countries, all of which have at least one other major language. And they’re all on or near the east coast, whereas almost all American slaves were snatched from the West. Further, the language isn’t uniquely African; over half of the vocabulary is borrowed from other languages, including English and French. But the biggest portion is from Arabic — which, by the way is the most common language in Africa.

Interestingly, the same “seven principles” (and their Swahili equivalents) were held by the Symbionese Liberation Army, a domestic terrorist group that went on a crime spree in California in the 1970s. The fourth principle Ujamaa (cooperative economics) was a cornerstone doctrine of the Marxist Tanzanian dictator Julius Nyerere, who forced his citizens to toil on his collective farms. During his reign, the nation declined from the enviable status of a food exporter, to the continent’s biggest food importer. Marxism promises to liberate, but invariably it enslaves.

So exactly what aspect of Kwanzaa is distinctly African, that it should hold special significance for Americans descended from the continent? Hard to say.

Everett calls it a “pan-African” holiday. Not quite. Large-scale observances there are rare. In many isolated tribal areas, the people don’t even know or care who their national leaders are. I have a friend who served as a missionary in Nigeria for many years, and by her account every Nigerian only laughs at the notion; will they really set aside their centuries-old traditions and embrace a new holiday brought by a foreigner?

They call it a harvest festival, but no farmer anywhere gathers crops in December. It uses the symbol of corn, but this grain has absolutely no cultural significance in Africa. It’s indigenous to Mexico, and no place else on earth.

On Christmas Eve 1971, the New York Times introduced us to a sixteen year-old preacher who had taken up a mission to “de-whitize” Christmas, a Caucasian holiday rooted in a Caucasian religion. (His name was Al Sharpton, and he grew to become one of the most celebrated racists of our time.)

He’s misinformed: The Christian faith thrived in Africa long before it became a major force in Europe. John Mark (author of the second Gospel) established a congregation in Alexandria in the first century, and some of our greatest theologians (Augustine, Clement, Irenaeus, Athanasius) served as leaders of African churches in the first few centuries. The Islamic invaders (and their forced conversions) didn’t arrive until the seventh.

And then there’s the date, in late December. Surely it must have some significance in African history or culture. The birth of a king, the founding of a nation, a military victory over an invading army? Such, after all, is the stuff of national holidays. Well, how ’bout it?

Not even close.

By Everett’s own account, he wanted to draw attention away from Christmas and Hanukkah. After all, a proper celebration calls for a family gift exchange and a seven-stemmed candlestick that could easily be mistaken for a menorah. This obvious syncretism (please, don’t even try to deny it) only marks him as a copycat and a killjoy.

Then, of course, there’s the flag. Again quoting the website, “The colors of the Kwanzaa flag are the colors of the Organization Us, black, red and green.”

Never heard of Organization Us? It’s a Black Nationalist group, established by Everett in 1965 as a rival to the Black Panthers. They preach the superiority of all things African, believing that black folks should separate themselves from whites, and only patronize black businesses. And the partisans of this contrived holiday don’t even attempt to distance themselves from this racist philosophy.

Interestingly, this holiday seems to be indistinguishable from the personality of Dr. Everett. It is described as an enterprise of the National Association of Kawaida (African culture) Organizations, and its official publications are produced by the University of Sankore Press. This might sound impressive until we consider that both of those organizations were established by (and continue to be headed by) Everett. Plus, the publishing company is named for an institution that doesn’t exist.

Ultimately the tragedy of Kwanzaa, or of Black Nationalism, is that they will never achieve the ends that they seek. No one has ever empowered a downtrodden people by inventing a false heritage for them. No society has ever advanced itself by embracing a self-identity based on eternal victimhood. And will they ever reconcile with the white population of our nation? Their fiery rhetoric and exclusivist teachings seem to imply that they don’t even desire to try.

Their loss.