on kwanzaa

My family used to celebrate Kwanzaa. There’s no reason why we stopped, other than sheer laziness and a feeling of inappropriateness. Each day, we would light a candle and gather around the kinara, reading over a little pamphlet outlining the principles of the day, butchering the Swahili in the process (I pronounced Kujichagulia as Coochikajalia for the first ten years of my life, I shit you not) in ways which depicted our essential Americanness. We never bothered to celebrate Kwanzaa as a distinct holiday with its own composite traditions, did not do the individual activities which were called for for each corresponding day, and NEVER celebrate Kwanzaa in place of the good, wholesome day of our Lord and Savior’s birth. As the years went by, the kinara remained on the windowsill in the dining-room where it stood complicit while my mother killed pothos after pothos plant in its environs, gathering dust, the green and red candles losing their color with each year of neglect until everything was a sort of gray. One year it fell while we were cleaning, shattering on the ground, only to be replaced by a new one, its novelty sparking us to celebrate half-assedly once again. We haven’t celebrated Kwanzaa since.

It’s Kwanzaa again and I’m bulk-writing, so this will likely come out first. I wanted to title this article “Stop celebrating Kwanzaa” but that was 1) too inflammatory and clickbaity, and 2) not necessarily my intention in writing this piece. My goal is not to convince you to stop celebrating Kwanzaa, nor is it my goal to argue that African-Americans do not deserve their own community celebrations and holidays. However, Kwanzaa is one of the most artificial and othering holiday to be widely celebrated in the United States for reasons which are at the heart of African-American experience. The deep wound which is African-American history in the United States refuses to heal, primarily because as a people we continue to feed ourselves the lie of our essential incompleteness, of our un-Africanness. Much of African-American cultural rhetoric (primarily among bourgeois Blacks who actually celebrate Kwanzaa) corroborates the opposite of the one-drop rule; the fact that one-drop of European ancestry, or indoctrination into a European worldview, makes one fundamentally un-African. Well, for one, this ignores the history of colonialism which essentially made all Africans un-African, yet it also continues the robbery and disenfranchisement of African-Americans of their cultural heritage, of their ontological history. This is not an issue which I can address in an essay, or a book. It will take an entire lifetime, perhaps multiple lifetimes, to convince the nation that we are, and have always been, a distinct and fully-formed people.

My sister recently bought my father an ancestry test for Christmas. I hate these things for a lot of reasons; they’re primarily money-making gimmicks; they can waive the confidentiality of your genetic records to the police in the case of an investigation; the databases are comprised primarily of samples from European nations, leading to scarce results for people of West and Central African descent, like my father. But above all, ancestry tests, as my mother said, attempt to provide closure to a people “robbed” of their history. Finding out an ancestor was from Ghana, or from Nigeria, or Benin, or the Gambia, provides certain people with a kind of comfort that is beyond my nihilistic understanding, and therefore I can only scoff sarcastically at how people authentically feel in the micro about the history of our people. My issue, as I’ve said elsewhere, is that ancestry does not work like this. Having a tangible relationship via DNA to a Ga fishing village in Southern Ghana does not mean that you are Ga, or that you are Ghanaian, or that you have anything at all in common with the Ga or Ghanaians besides some shared mitochondrial DNA and Black skin. Many slavers did not discriminate the enslaved Africans they sold into bondage, and your ancestors could be from all of the aforementioned nations and many more yet. At the same time, many African-Americans who do these quizzes are always surprised by just how white they are. And they aren’t white, of course, because white is a racial term, but the amount of white blood in the African-American body should ostensibly lead us to claim France or Scotland or England or Saxony as our homelands, and not Ghana, but it doesn’t for reasons which to most African Americans are absurd. Fundamentally, you are an African-American, and this person is Ghanaian, and while on paper and in theory these are just words, you are not the same as the people from that village; you are worlds apart, and that’s fine.

The idea that African-Americans are without history and just came into being in the middle of the 18th century, is a logical fallacy and is ahistorical. Much of our culture can be traced back to the enslaved Africans who brought their culture with them into captivity. These Africanisms, whether we choose to consider them legitimate or not, nevertheless tether us to history in ways which many African-Americans overlook. The rhythmic tonality of Gullah is the remnants of the tonal languages which the enslaved Africans spoke and into which they attempted to squeeze the atonal English language. While Gullah’s otherness is quite apparent insofar that African-Ameircan English speakers likely cannot understand unabated Gullah, our own language is rich with African retentions which we dismiss as slang or improper. The melanin we love and cherish so much was a gift from our ancestors from West Africa, and so too was our curly hair, strong teeth and sense of humor. Oral literature is a holdover from Africa, and the most popular forms of African-American media (comedy, music, theatre) are all inherently oral for reasons we don’t consider historical. Much of our religious tradition is directly related to traditional African religions, even if church aunties find such ideas of latent paganism in their devotion deeply troubling. Perhaps it’s the fact that I’ve studied these things academically that I can see through the muck and filth of an ideology which clouds our cultural judgment, but the truth is out there, waiting to be understood. We are not without history, even if our history was heavily mediated, and the archive itself a patchwork of found objects and unwanted memories. It does us no good to reject what we have, to give away our only and most prized cultural heirlooms.

My siblings and I circa 1999 at a Kwanzaa celebration.

Yet still, living so long in the West has fundamentally reinvented African-American identity. We are not African, and it is irresponsible to call ourselves Africans. Regardless of people’s personal philosophies about the murderous hatred and unequivocal contempt which Euro-Americans bear towards us, removing the American from African-American is self-delusional. If what disgusts African-Americans so much is the fact that we embody American cultural values, despite feeling distinct and outside of them, that we are conduits and vessels of American imperialism, despite being subjected to imperial violence, that we are just like the Euro-Americans which the world loves to hate and hates to love, it is because African-Americans are afraid to realize that they are, in fact, more American than African, that the only thing which ostensibly binds us to Africa is the black badge of shame in which we must live. We are, to use James Baldwin’s words, bastards of the West; we hate our father for never claiming us, and in turn, begin to emulate his mannerisms in our futile attempt to be anything other than him. We cannot move around an image we refuse to acknowledge.

Kwanzaa is but one manifestation of a general cultural anxiety about the absence of authentic African-American identity. It served, in its conceptualization, as a symbol of an African-American desire to reject an Occidentalism essential to our genetic and ideological makeup. As Elizabeth Pleck writes, “In exoticizing the African continent, American blacks, far from revealing a pan Africanist solidarity based on familiarity, instead showed how Western their views were” (Pleck 22). Yet, let’s be more comprehensive. Kwanzaa, for one, is a holiday designed to be harvest festival drawn from a variety of African festivals and traditions, despite all of the names for its traditions and customs being in Swahili. The choice of Swahili is related to that language’s history as a non-tribal lingua franca of East Africa, although the majority of African-Americans trace their lineage back to West and/or Central Africa. What’s remarkable is that the languages of these regions of Africa (and most Niger-Congo languages in general) are vastly tonal, a feature of language which is mostly absent in English, yet is central to meaning-making in a language like Igbo or Twi. Swahili is also not a non-tribal language, being spoken by the Swahili people, although their ‘possession’ of their language is not as solidified as we see elsewhere on the continent. The symbolism of Swahili as a language of pan-Africanism is an interesting question, really, for there is little about the Swahili people which connects them to African-America, although their language is conveniently non-tonal and easier to learn than something like Hausa. Swahili is not a lingua franca of all of Africa (that’s more likely English than any other language…) and therefore is not a unifying language in Africa, and if it is, it certainly wasn’t during the time of our ancestors. Similarly, there are other ancestral languages, like Wolof, Serer and Fula, which do not have tones and make more genealogical sense than Swahili, although it’s not my intention to state that Swahilis were never enslaved in the New World.

The significance of Swahili as a language of Pan-Africanism, primarily due to its relative ease of pronunciation, and popularization through the phrase Uhuru! (independence) is likely what led Karenga to use that language as the vehicle for Kwanzaa celebration, despite African-Americans having little if any connection to the Swahili people, East Africa or the Swahili language. This reveals the vastly artificial nature of Kwanzaa as a cultural holiday centered around the African-American need for “faith, determination, courage and abiding hope in the future,” in nuanced, essentially African ways (Riley 5).  Kwanzaa is not the first artificial holiday. Thanksgiving, for one, is just as artificial – It was Lincoln who reinstated Thanksgiving as a ploy to boost the national economy and foster camaraderie towards the end of the Civil War. December 25th as the day of our Lord and Savior Jesus Christ’s birth is an arbitrary date which most Christian theologians acknowledge, but we continue to celebrate Christmas on the 25th nevertheless. It is not the artificiality of Kwanzaa which is disturbing, but the degree to which Kwanzaa represents a Western appropriation on an essentialized African experience. The historical revisionism which African-Americans have suffered at the hands of White supremacy, forcing us to reconsider and distance ourselves from our past is a kind of cultural trauma whose sensation is only felt through the representation of imposed repression; a cultural anxiety we must all endure, which induces cyclical re-traumatism. The fact that Kwanzaa is an attempt to bring history back into our being may seem a noble cause, but its total manufacture is so distracting that whatever feeling of centeredness it may induce is 1) probably contemptuous to Africans who look on on Kwanzaa celebrators, clad in the very kufis and grand boubous they were mocked for wearing as children, with unabated and inexpressible disdain 2) undone once we realize that Kwanzaa is only a way of deluding us further into refusing to acknowledge the wound of history, and declining to address an issue we have yet to fully .

It’s not my job to tell you what you need to do to exist in the world, to feel secure and at home in your skin. All of the things which frustrate me about African-Americans are invariably a manifestation of White supremacy as the insidious ideological system, the near-inaudible whispering in your ear, telling you that because your history is not like everyone else’s, you and your people are fundamentally undone. Embracing this ideology is our cultural undoing for it perpetuates a dangerous rhetoric which was developed to rob us, in the first place, of a repressed and suppressed history. My intention is not to convince you that Kwanzaa is this imperialist holiday designed completely from the fundamental Western ideology at the heart of our existence, but to prompt you to better understand the uncanny resemblance that African-Americans have with their Euro-Americans siblings. The phrase “we’re all people” can be read so many ways, and in the case of Kwanzaa and African-American identity, it is quite remarkable how much we resemble our Euro-Americans, the very people we so love to hate and hate to love.

 

Works Cited

 

Pleck, Elizabeth. “Kwanzaa: The Making of a Black Nationalist Tradition, 1966-1990.” Journal of American Ethnic History, vol. 20, no. 4, 2001, pp. 3–28. JSTOR, http://www.jstor.org/stable/27502744.

Riley, Dorothy Winbush. The Complete Kwanzaa: Celebrating Our Cultural Harvest. Book Sales, 2002.

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