Kwanzaa Still a Mystery, Misunderstood by Many

How much do you know about Kwanzaa? The Afrocentric holiday has been celebrated for nearly 40 years, but some young African Americans still know nothing about Kwanzaa.

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FARAI CHIDEYA, host:

Today is the first day of Kwanzaa, the African-American cultural celebration that begins the day after Christmas and runs through the new year. Every day of Kwanzaa is represented by a principle or theme, and today's is umoja, or unity. The other six principles are self-determination, collective work and responsibility, cooperative economics, purpose, creativity and faith, principles the holiday's founder felt were integral to the foundation of the African-American community. Back in 1966, educator Dr. Maulana Karenga created Kwanzaa to bring together African-Americans in celebration of heritage. Today you can find Kwanzaa greeting cards and gifts, plus young African-Americans who don't know anything about Kwanzaa, as our journey through Los Angeles revealed.

(Soundbite of traffic)

CHIDEYA: The corner of La Tallera(ph) and La Cienega in the African-American neighborhood of Ladera Heights. Reginald Armstrong and his buddy Jaleel Miller(ph) are standing at the bus stop.

So have you ever celebrated Kwanzaa?

Mr. REGINALD ARMSTRONG: I celebrated Christmas, you know.

CHIDEYA: But not Kwanzaa? Do you know what Kwanzaa is?

Mr. ARMSTRONG: Not really. Can you tell me what Kwanzaa is?

CHIDEYA: It's this sort of Afro-centric holiday. There's seven principles that you're supposed to observe.

Mr. JALEEL MILLER: Ain't that a Jewish holiday?

CHIDEYA: No, Jaleel, Kwanzaa is not a Jewish holiday. That's Hanukkah. Author Eric Copage is unfortunately not surprised by the lack of knowledge about Kwanzaa. He's written extensively about Kwanzaa, most recently the book "Fruits of the Harvest."

Mr. ERIC COPAGE (Author, "Fruits of the Harvest"): I find it a little disturbing that some of the younger generation--I'm talking about people in their 20s and teens--don't seem to know very much about our history at all.

CHIDEYA: Copage argues, even in a post-civil rights era, black pride is necessary armor against the slings and arrows of the world. Kwanzaa reminds us to exercise that power regularly.

Mr. COPAGE: We have to what I call exercise muscular black pride; that is, doing positive things on a daily basis.

(Soundbite of traffic)

CHIDEYA: When we go to another African-American neighborhood in Los Angeles, Leimert Park, the level of knowledge about Kwanzaa is markedly different. Three men are gathered in the posh Lucy Florence Coffeehouse to discuss science programs for African-American children. Tory Brannon-Reece(ph), founder of the Los Angeles Malcolm X Festival, makes a point of celebrating the holiday.

Mr. TORY BRANNON-REECE (Founder, Los Angeles Malcolm X Festival): I've been involved in the Kwanzaa movement, if you will, here in LA for the past 20 years or so. The founder of Kwanzaa resides here, Dr. Maulana Karenga. They do a big feast each year. And there's also many festivals here that celebrate Kwanzaa. Akhil Kujichagulia(ph) is his name, a guy who does a Kwanzaa festival here many years in LA, right here in Leimert Park, actually. So I celebrate through the festivals and through some of the feasts that go on, and various celebrations around the city. Yeah.

CHIDEYA: So Akhil Kujichagulia--his name includes one of the principles of Kwanzaa.

Mr. BRANNON-REECE: Yeah.

CHIDEYA: Can you name the rest of the principles?

Mr. BRANNON-REECE: Oh, my goodness, now you got me. Self-determination--let's see if we can do it from the Swahili, which is kujichagulia--give me one more, y'all. If you give me one more, I can get the rest of them. This is terrible. (Laughs) This is terrible.

CHIDEYA: OK, I'll give you one...

Unidentified Man: You're on your own, buddy.

Mr. BRANNON-REECE: Don't tell them who I am.

CHIDEYA: OK.

Mr. BRANNON-REECE: Faith. I'm out of practice.

CHIDEYA: See? See? Pop quiz. Let me see if I can, 'cause, see, I have a cheat sheet. No, but I got six out of seven without the cheat sheet, so--umoja, ujima, ujamaa, nia, kujichagulia, harambe.

Mr. BRANNON-REECE: No, harambe is a greeting...

CHIDEYA: Is it? Ooh, dag. I'm busted, huh? All right. All right.

Mr. DALE SIMMS(ph): My Swahili's a little rusty. OK. All right. Got it. We have umoja, kujichagulia, ujima, ujamaa, nia, kuumba and imani. See, I remember them.

CHIDEYA: Tory's friend Dale Simms wonders if stating the principles in English instead of Swahili would help people understand the holiday better and grasp its historical significance.

Mr. SIMMS: If you were to take away the Swahili name and look at the different principles, the principles were around 500 years ago: unity, self-determination, collective work, cooperative economics, purpose, creativity, faith. Those are principles that our forefathers and foremothers lived by.

CHIDEYA: Or maybe it's a question of marketing, says Tory.

Mr. BRANNON-REECE: Well, in a way, it should be marketed, but one of the potential dangers is that it will become much like Christmas and other holidays. The spiritual meaning of these holidays have been pretty much tossed aside and it's become more of a capitalist exercise to spend money, to make money, etc. And the whole purpose of Kwanzaa was to again infuse people with a spiritual and a cultural consciousness that could help advance a political or a social or cultural movement. And so I'm concerned that, in fact, in the last five years, Kwanzaa has been marketed and has been criticized as having become much like what's happened with Christmas and other holidays, and there is an inherent danger in marketing if the wrong ideas are put out.

CHIDEYA: Kwanzaa came out of the black power movement four decades ago. Today African-American society is culturally and economically different. Whether or not Kwanzaa is celebrated 40 years from now depends on how successful efforts to promote the holiday are and whether the seven principles of Kwanzaa mean as much to future generations as they did to those who started the celebration.

Thanks for joining us. That's our program for today. To listen to this show, visit npr.org. If you'd like to comment, call us at (202) 408-3330; that's (202) 408-3330.

NEWS & NOTES was created by NPR News and the African American Public Radio Consortium.

I'm Farai Chideya. Tony Cox will be filling in for a vacation Ed Gordon the rest of the week. This is NEWS & NOTES.

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