Robinson Burrell III lights the candle representing Kwanzaa principle of Ujima(collective work and responsibility) during the annual Kwanzaa Celebration at the Benjamin Banneker Historical Park and Museum on December 28 in Catonsville, Md.The program in it’s eighth year celebrated with performances by the Baltimore County Chapter of Jack and Jill America and the Growing Griots, a youth storytelling program affiliated with the Griot’s Circle of Maryland. (Photo by Mark Gail/The Washington Post via Getty Images)
by James Braxton Peterson
On the third day of Kwanzaa, Wisconsin State Senator, Glenn Grothman released a statement titled: “Why Must We Still Hear About Kwanzaa?”
In it he lambasts the holiday, claiming that “almost no black people today care about Kwanzaa” and that “it’s time it’s slapped down once and for all.”
The third day of Kwanzaa, Ujima which is Swahili for Collective Work and Responsibility, is an ironic day upon which the republican state senator decided to release his racist diatribe, mostly because work and responsibility are so often the calling cards for those on the right who racialize their own “makers and takers” discourses with visions of impoverished “lazy” people of color always already in mind.
But it is racist in a couple of other ways as well.
Senator Grothman’s central gripe about the cultural holiday – Kwanzaa is not a substitute for any religious practice – rests with his criticism of the holiday’s founder – Maulana Karenga – whom he describes as a “racist” who “didn’t like the idea that Christ died for all of our sins . . .”
According to Grothman there is no way to separate the message of Kwanzaa from its founder.
For him, the radical past of Karenga disqualifies the value of the Nguzo Saba, the seven principles of the cultural holiday that by most accounts have universal communal and familial significance.
As someone whose family has celebrated Kwanzaa for nearly forty plus years, I am well used to explaining Kwanzaa to black folks as well as white folks.
I grew up with the perennial crucible of not opening any gifts on Christmas because for my family, gift-giving only took place during the Kwanzaa celebrations. Each year as an adult with my own family (we also celebrate Kwanzaa and we are Christian) I weather through the countless explanations, definitions, and validations that this particular holiday has, for me, always required.
Please make no mistake about it. Although some several hundred thousand black Americans celebrate Kwanzaa (and maybe some several million observe the holiday in some form through consuming Kwanzaa paraphernalia), many black people are skeptical of the holiday and, like the senator, have a deep distrust of the holiday’s founder, but most black people know of Kwanzaa – mostly because of the consistency and cultural vibrancy with which families like my own have celebrated it for decades.
So Senator Grothman’s press release is not news to the black community. His assumption that we know little or nothing of the founder is both incorrect and paternalistically racist. His suggestion that the holiday is being forced on the black community by white left wing “nuts” is inaccurate, offensive and racist as it relies on the age-old white supremacist paradigm that black people simply aren’t intelligent enough to make their own decisions as individuals or as a community.
Over the last several decades, my family has continued to celebrate Kwanzaa as a unit but we have also throughout the years (during Kwanzaa and in our personal and professional lives) practiced the principles of the holiday. We have always invited our community into our celebrations, but more importantly we have also always maintained our commitment to serve our family, the black community and this nation.
In the forty plus years that we have embraced the Nguzo Saba, we have not once even mentioned or commemorated Dr. Karenga as a part of our observance of this cultural holiday. Not because my parents or any of my siblings have issues with the founder of Kwanzaa, but because the founder’s personal and political life has little or nothing to do with the value of unity, self-determination, collective work & responsibility, cooperative economics, purpose, creativity and faith to our families and/or to our communities.
At this point in my life and career I see little point in defining and/or defending Kwanzaa to any one, least of all some racially incensed republican state senator in Wisconsin. However, because Senator Grothman has somehow garnered national news media attention for his ignorance and racism he has also earned himself a personal invite – from me to him – to come celebrate the first day of Kwanzaa 2013 with me and my family – in the spirit of Unity.