Academia

Merry Christmas, Kwanzaa is Over

The disappearance of a strange holiday

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In the days leading up the Christmas, one couldn't help but notice that references to Kwanzaa, the decades-old African-American holiday that captured so many dull minds during the Great Culture Wars of the 1990s, were almost nonexistent. Kwanzaa, an Afrocentic celebration of black self-reliance (or something) that so spooked the "war on Christmas" types, has largely disappeared. Back in the day, its champions and critics alike thought it could potentially replace Christmas in the very Christian African-American community.

But now, silence.

Does anyone remember that back in the early 1990s, AT&T ran television ads suggesting that blacks call their families during Kwanzaa using their telephone service? That stores stocked Kwanzaa candles and  kente clothes? That student unions were festooned with Marcus Garvey's pan-African flag? In 1995, a local activist triumphantly told The Boston Globe, "We're at the point now where Kwanzaa has gotten so big that we feel like Santa Claus is really on the way out."

Or take this 2004 item from the conservative website Newsmax, lamenting that a "Stroll through your local card and party store and you'll find Kwanzaa items….Check out almost any appointment calendar and you'll find it duly noted on December 26 that 'Kwanzaa begins.'" And it was pretty amazing to watch nervous college administrators and city employees create space for a holiday that few blacks had ever heard of. And it was, when one bothered to figure out just what constituted a specifically African-American holiday, amusing to see that it was a monumentally stupid hybrid of Christmas, Kwanzaa, and Franz Fanon.

From the Maoist calls for the celebration of "collective work and responsibility" and "collective vocation [of] building and developing of our community," and the festive promise to engage in "cooperative economics," to the astoundingly banal calls for "creativity" and the admonitions "to believe with all our heart in our people," the principles of Kwanzaa were stuck in the failed revolutionary movements of the 1960s and weren't particularly appealing to 21st century black youth. When reading these boring, mildly cultish, and utterly dreary moral instructions, it's easy to see why Kwanzaa failed as spectacularly as Tony Martin's academic career.

Indeed, one Kwanzaa instruction book for purchase on Amazon.com explains that the holiday "celebrates the African harvest," a line that would surely strike the captive people of Zimbabwe and the 20 million hungry souls in the Horn of Africa as a cruel joke.

My non-American wife was shocked and slightly bemused when I explained that the deep traditions of Kwanzaa, with which she was strangely familiar, were only created in 1966 by a bizarre black radical named Ron Karenga. She was equally incredulous when I explained that Karenga, a minor league Black Panther and later a college professor at California State University, was once sentenced to prison for holding a member of his organization hostage and burning her with an iron. The founding Santa Claus of Kwanzaa was, it seemed, the holiday version of Rick James.

(The Los Angeles Times reported on the incident, helpfully explaining that Karenga's victim "Deborah Jones, who once was given the Swahili title of an African queen, said she and Gail Davis were whipped with an electrical cord and beaten with a karate baton after being ordered to remove their clothes. She testified that a hot soldering iron was placed in Ms. Davis's mouth and placed against Ms. Davis's face and that one of her own big toes was tightened in a vise. Karenga also put detergent and running hoses in their mouths, she said." As far as can be determined, none of this is part of the Kwanzaa ritual, though the celebratory detergent and hose in the mouth sounds festive.)

But when I visited a greeting card store in West Hollywood yesterday, there were plenty of Christmas cards (mostly scrubbed of Christianity) and piles of Chanukah gewgaws—but nothing Kwanzaa-related. The local Barnes & Noble featured tables of Christmas and Chanukah books and gifts, though there were no volumes on the recent history or celebration of Kwanzaa to be found anywhere in the store.

Karenga's holiday rose and fell with the culture war. And it hardly needs explaining to even the mildly libertarian reader that if there was money to be made hawking T-shirts, lighters, and beer cozies that outlined the Leninist principles of gift collectivization or bore the image of Karenga, the Kwanzaa industry would have seen significant growth in the past decade.

It is, perhaps, an encouraging sign of the times. In many respects, the Great Culture Wars are over, and while most black studies departments still embrace the balkanizing principles of multiculturalism, the great majority of African Americans have little interest in dressing up like Jim Brown and lighting candles that symbolize the workers controlling the means of production.

So Merry Christmas. Happy Chanukah.

And, perhaps for the last time, have a righteous Kwanzaa. 

Michael Moynihan is a senior editor of reason.