While Kwanzaa is and must remain an Afro-centric celebration, Karenga says, that doesn't mean only blacks can — or should — celebrate it. Clearly, pride in one's heritage, a concern for the future and a commitment to the common good — all values stressed throughout the seven days of Kwanzaa — are important to all races and ethnicities.
"Certainly everybody can come," he says. "You don't lock the door. But there are rules. African people must always be the officiants at their own celebration.
"African people," he notes, "are always apprehensive that some group might feel that they're at the head of [the celebration], rather than being part of it. African people — adults and children, wherever they are — should be the main center of the holiday. Otherwise, it's not African — just like Jews must be at the center of Hanukkah, or it's not real and authentic."
Still, Karenga stresses, one thing Kwanzaa definitely is not is an alternative to Christmas or Hanukkah. True, all three are celebrated at roughly the same time. And there are clear similarities; all three, for instance, use candles to mark the passing of the days. For Hanukkah, it's the nine-candle menorah; for Christmas, the four-candle Advent wreath; for Kwanzaa, the seven-candle kinara.
But Kwanzaa, Karenga notes, is a cultural holiday, stressing the bonds of shared experience. Christmas and Hanukkah are religious holidays celebrating shared faith.
"There is no conflict between Christmas or Hanukkah or any of the religious holidays," he says. "They have a religious purpose, but Kwanzaa has cultural purposes: reaffirming our rootedness in African culture, reaffirming the bonds between us … and reaffirming the importance of communal values, those that stress and strengthen family, community and culture."
Karenga remains proud of his work, and confident that Kwanzaa has ensured the legacy he so craved. But perhaps what makes him the most proud, he says, is how the observance of Kwanzaa has for the most part remained true to his original vision. Black culture, history and achievement remain the focus, not the gaudy trappings that have come to dominate Christmas and so many holidays.
There is no huge commercial side to the celebration, he says, no massive Kwanzaa sales or shelves upon shelves of Kwanzaa tchotchkes. There's no Kwanzaa tree or Kwanzaa wreath or, Karenga notes with a chuckle, "Kwanzaa man."
If you go
The annual Kwanzaa celebration at the Reginald F. Lewis Museum of Maryland African American History & Culture, which in addition to the address from Maulana Karenga will include music, dance and storytelling, begins at noon Dec. 28. Admission is $5. The museum is located at 830 E. Pratt St. Information: 443-263-1829 or rflewismuseum.org.