The Kwanzaa Quandary

The Baltimore Sun

Later this month, the Hazell family of Northwest Baltimore will celebrate Christmas, like so many other African-Americans who participate in the Christian holiday based on the birth of Jesus.

Olivia Hazell also includes the ethnocentric holiday Kwanzaa in her family's end-of-year festivities, something she has done for the past 17 years.

"What attracted me [to Kwanzaa] was seeing black people together, as we say in church, on one accord," Hazell says. "Seeing everybody ... with the same focus. During Kwanzaa, there's always a lot of people involved. ... It was exciting to see children excited about who we were as a people."

The Hazells are among a growing number of people in Baltimore and around the U.S. who commemorate the secular African-American holiday, which begins the day after Christmas and continues through Jan. 1.

Kwanzaa, created by Maulana Ron Karenga in 1966, is a family-themed celebration. Over seven days, millions of African-Americans participate in candle-lighting, libation-pouring and gift-giving, as well as dance, art and other ceremonial programs to celebrate seven principles that promote family and community responsibility and cohesiveness.

The Hazells learned about the holiday years ago by attending programs with a family friend at the Enoch Pratt Free Library. It was there that the family learned the meaning of the observance and the terms and foundational principles related to it.

"What I appreciate about the principles of Kwanzaa is that when I look at what those principles are and what they stand for, to me it represents what Christ would have for the world," says Olivia Hazell, who is director of the day-care center at Morning Star Baptist Church in Catonsville.

"One of those principles is unity, another one is purpose and another faith. I also see those as things we can do throughout the year. For me and my family, these are extra things we can strive for, outside of what we believe."

She has no problem celebrating both Christmas and Kwanzaa. "One does not hinder the other," she says.

Kwanzaa has it roots in the civil-rights era.

Founder Karenga, the son of a Baptist minister, was born Ron Everett in Parsonsburg, about 6 1/2 miles east of Salisbury.

He moved to California to attend Los Angeles City College in 1958. In the early '60s, he met Malcolm X and became politically involved with the black-power movement.

It was also during this time that he began an organization called US. It promoted cultural and social change and required members to study and embrace an Afrocentric lifestyle and adopt Swahili names.

He, Ron Everett, became Maulana Ron Karenga.

Karenga, who served for a time as a professor of black studies at California State University, Long Beach, has written several books about Kwanzaa.

He lives in California, where he is head of The Organization Us, an African-American group that espouses an Afrocentric lifestyle supported by Kwanzaa principles.

In a 2005 interview posted on the archival Web site The History Makers, Karenga talks about the origin of Kwanzaa and its purpose.

"How can I teach this philosophy in a simple, but profound way? How can I produce concepts that would create both a discourse and a practice of being African? I decided that I needed a value system that is manageable," he wrote. "And I decided, the way I can do that is to study African cultures. I study African cultures and asked myself, what is the social cement and social duty that holds these cultures together and gives them their humanistic, moral content? And I believe that it's their communitarian values, values that stress family, community and culture."

And from that came Kwanzaa, the movement and celebration Karenga started 41 years ago.

The holiday, which promotes ethnic pride and togetherness, seems simple and straightforward.

Each day, participants light a candle and meditate about one of the seven principles, each of which cultivates a sense of one's own purpose within the African-American culture. (See box on this page.)

But there are those who don't celebrate Kwanzaa because they believe there are anti-Christian sentiments associated with the holiday.

They believe Karenga developed the holiday to supplant the Christian celebration of the birth of Jesus.

And there is some evidence to back up their contentions.

Calls by The Sun to Karenga were not returned.

According to Karenga's 1977 book Kwanzaa: Origin, Concepts, Practice, "Kwanzaa is not an imitation, but an alternative, in fact, an oppositional alternative to the spookism, mysticism and non-earth based practices which plague us as a people and encourage our withdrawal from social life rather than our bold confrontation with it."

The holiday "was chosen to give a Black alternative to the existing holidays and give Blacks an opportunity to celebrate themselves and history rather than simply imitate the practice of the dominant society," he wrote.

Twenty years later, Karenga - criticized for his anti-Christian perspective - took a softer view of Kwanzaa in his 1997 book Kwanzaa: A Celebration of Family, Community, and Culture.

"Kwanzaa was not created to give people an alternative to their own religion or religious holiday," he wrote.

And today, Karenga further distances himself from his earlier position. His Web site ( argues that the celebration of Kwanzaa "is a cultural choice as distinct from a religious one."

He goes on to say of Christmas: " ... one can accept and revere the religious message and meaning but reject its European cultural accretions of Santa Claus, reindeer, mistletoe, frantic shopping, alienated gift-giving, etc."

However, his earlier contentions are what have people such as LaShawn Barber, a conservative African-American blogger and Christian, concerned about where Kwanzaa fits in the black experience.

"He [Karenga] sees [Kwanzaa] as a way for Black Americans to get in touch with spiritualism, worshiping and drinking libations to the African ancestors and all that sort of thing," says Barber, who has written several articles and blogs on the issue. "That's sort of tricky when it comes to spiritual things because Christians in the Bible are admonished to not get caught up in things like that [that] purport to get them involved in other kinds of spiritual things.

"Our spiritual creation is the God of the Bible, our creator, our savior Jesus Christ, and any other quasi-religious thing or movement to support or be a substitute for that or some kind of supplement, Christians should be on the lookout for that."

Carlotta Morrow, a San Diego-based writer and researcher who has been a critic of Kwanzaa since 1978, agrees.

"We can't serve two masters, and the purpose of the Scriptures, the purpose of the Bible is to make us better men and women," Morrow says. "So anytime you have culture teachings that attempt to do what God wants to do in your life, then it becomes more than just a cultural celebration."

Lola Jenkins, vice president of Ancestors Roots Inc. in Baltimore, disagrees.

Also known as Mamma Lola, Jenkins has celebrated Kwanzaa for more than 25 years and is an expert on it. Her organization has put on elaborate Kwanzaa functions around Baltimore for 17 years.

"I was raised on Christmas," she says. "It's the most beautiful holiday there is in spirit, but it just became a thing of toys and commercialism. I learned about the principles of Kwanzaa and got interested in it and started [celebrating] in probably 1979 or '80."

The cultural respect people feel during Kwanzaa is reaffirming, she says.

"If we had the same kind of love, respect and honor for each other 365 days a year ... that would be great," she says. "The love that we feel for each other on that particular holiday, I never get enough of."

The Rev. Willie F. Wilson, who has led the 7,000-member Union Temple Baptist Church in Southeast Washington since 1973, is a longtime friend of Karenga.

"I think the principles of Kwanzaa jibe very much with the teachings of Jesus Christ," says Wilson, whose church celebrates Kwanzaa. "In fact, those seven principles of Kwanzaa are quite spiritual, and in fact, certainly should bring us into a more positive lifestyle and relationship with our creator, and [make us] a more positive and productive Christian."

Olivia Hazell, whose father was the pastor of Mount Lebanon Baptist Church in Baltimore, has no ambivalence about celebrating Kwanzaa.

"Kwanzaa is one of those things I can add to my life from the external world and still not take me off focus from my faith at any time," she says.

The Nguzo Saba

(The Seven Principles of Kwanzaa)


(Unity) Dec. 26 - To strive for and maintain unity in the family, community, nation and race.


(Self-determination) Dec. 27 - To define ourselves, name ourselves, create for ourselves and speak for ourselves.


(Collective work and responsibility) Dec. 28 - To build and maintain our community together and make our brothers' and sisters' problems our problems and to solve them together.


(Cooperative economics) Dec. 29 - To build and maintain our own stores, shops and other businesses and to profit from them together.


(Purpose) Dec. 30 - To make our collective vocation the building and developing of our community, in order to restore our people to their traditional greatness.


(Creativity) Dec. 31 - To do always as much as we can, in the way we can, in order to leave our community more beautiful and beneficial than we inherited it.


(Faith) Jan. 1 - To believe with all our heart in our people, our parents, our teachers, our leaders and the righteousness and victory of our struggle.


The Symbols of Kwanzaa

Mazao (Crops) - These are symbolic of African harvest celebrations and of the rewards of productive and collective labor.

Mkeka (The Mat) - Symbolic of tradition and history, and the foundation on which we build.

Kinara (The Candle Holder) - Symbolic of our roots and of our parent people - continental Africans.

Muhindi (The Corn) - Symbolic of our children and our future, which the children embody.

Mishumaa Saba (The Seven Candles) - Symbolic of the Nguzo Saba, the Seven Principles, the matrix and minimum set of values that African people are urged to live by in order to rescue and reconstruct their lives in their own image and according to their own needs.

Kikombe cha Umoja (The Unity Cup) - Symbolic of the foundational principle and practice of unity, which makes all else possible.

Zawadi (The Gifts) - Symbolic of the labor and love of parents and the commitments made and kept by the children. Gifts are given mainly to children. They must always include a book and a heritage symbol. The book is to emphasize the African value and tradition of learning stressed since the days of ancient Egypt, and the heritage symbol is to reaffirm and reinforce the African commitment to tradition and history.


Commercial success

The debate about Kwanzaa's purpose continues but has not hindered its commercial success.

The holiday has become part of popular culture. It is not unusual to see "Happy Kwanzaa" greetings on television commercials after Christmas Day. The U.S. Postal Service first issued a Kwanzaa stamp in 1997 and has issued several in the years since.

Presidents Bill Clinton and George W. Bush have issued annual Kwanzaa messages from The White House.

And retail stores have tried to capitalize on the holiday with signs, greetings, cards and clothing.

According to the 2007 annual report issued by the National Retail Federation, 2 percent of American consumers celebrated Kwanzaa last year.

That number has been on a slow but steady rise since Kwanzaa was first included in the report in 2003. But it is still small compared to the 5 percent of consumers who celebrated Hanukkah and the 93 percent who celebrated Christmas in 2007.

Esther Armstrong, who sells African art, jewelry and clothing at Sankofa African and World Bazaar in Baltimore, has offered Kwanzaa paraphernalia, such as kinaras and Kwanzaa cards, for the past four years.

She's a Christian who recognizes the benefits of Kwanzaa's principles but does not celebrate the secular holiday.

She says the demand for Kwanzaa items at her shop has been and continues to be very strong.

"They [customers] wanted Kwanzaa cards, so we made sure we included Kwanzaa cards when we put in our orders for the holidays," Armstrong, 55, said. "They wanted candles. They wanted the bowls. They wanted the mats, so we make sure we incorporate all of that."

One thing that has surprised her is the number of non-African-American business owners who have purchased Kwanzaa items from her shop.

"Funny enough, it's mostly white people who are coming and getting it for the businesses. ... They want to show that aspect of embracing culture and diversity," she said. "So it's not just the individuals who are practicing, for lack of a better word; the businesses are also trying to be involved."


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