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Jewish World Review / December 30, 1997 / 1 Tevet, 5758

Mona Charen

Mona Charen The Spirit of Kwanzaa

The International Black Buyers and Manufacturers Expo and Conference, an association representing more than 1,000 black-owned businesses, has sent a blistering letter to large American firms like Hallmark Cards and Giant Food, telling them to keep their hands off Kwanzaa-related products. The sale of Kwanzaa products by non-black businesses, the organization contends, is "arrogantly exploitative of the culture of African people." According to The Washington Post, Sala Damali, one of the founders of the IBBMEC, said, "Many companies look at it as a normal exercise of commerce. We find it insulting and disrespectful to the actual spirit of Kwanzaa."

Well. First, let us consider what the response would be if an association of white business owners (that very idea is anathema) were to issue a statement saying that blacks should not sell items related to, say, St. Lucia's Day, a Scandinavian festival. It would be called racist within a nanosecond.

The notion that only blacks should buy and sell Kwanzaa products is equally offensive.

As to the "spirit of Kwanzaa," that is a more sensitive matter. Americans have clasped Kwanzaa to their bosom. Major TV stations elevate it to the same status as other winter holidays, like Christmas and Hanukkah, by broadcasting "Happy Kwanzaa" greetings between Christmas and the New Year. Products for Kwanzaa, including candelabras and greeting cards, fill the stores. A quick Lexis-Nexis search of Kwanzaa stories in major newspapers turns up hundreds of feel-good features about the "spirit of sharing" (Los Angeles Times), the "feast for body and soul" (Baltimore Sun), "food, fellowship and pride" (Seattle Times) and "community unity" (The Orlando Sentinel).

Most Americans, eager to respect the traditions of every group, assume that Kwanzaa is what it sounds like: a traditional African celebration handed down over the generations.

But Kwanzaa actually began in 1966, the brainchild of Ronald Everett. Everett -- who rejected his "slave name" and adopted the title "Maulana," Swahili for "master teacher," and the name (Ron) Karenga -- was a radical black nationalist who founded a gang called US (United Slaves) and did battle, figuratively and literally, with the Black Panthers. Karenga wanted to design an alternative to Christmas for American blacks. So, with a pinch here and a word there -- Kwanzaa is adapted from a Swahili phrase meaning "first fruit" -- and heavy borrowing from non-African symbols like the candelabrum, he stitched together his holiday.

It is reasonable to ask why American blacks, who have been Christian longer than the Mormons or the Christian Scientists, should need an alternative to Christmas. But Kwanzaa is catching on. The holiday lasts seven nights and is dedicated to seven principles. These principles are little more than the self-important gaseousness of 1960s radicalism: unity, self-determination, collective work and responsibility, cooperative economics, purpose, creativity, and faith. Amiri Baraka, nee LeRoi Jones -- he changed his name at Karenga's urging -- has now become a Marxist and blesses Kwanzaa by describing it as "really socialism -- collective work, cooperative economics."

Ron Karenga is now a respected member of the American establishment. He is a professor at California State University at Long Beach and the chairman of the Black Studies Department. He would like people to forget his violent, even vicious past. When the United Slaves and Black Panthers tangled, people were killed. Karenga hates to see it called murder. It was, he insists, just a "shoot-out." He would also like people to forget the time he spent in prison for ordering the torture of a young woman.

Do the millions of black Americans who celebrate Kwanzaa think of it as the ritualization of socialism? Doubtful. Do they object to the mainstreaming of Kwanzaa symbols and products? Probably not. Do they know anything about Karenga and his past? It doesn't seem so. When Karenga spoke at the Million Man March, he went virtually unnoticed.

But the holiday's origins in a terrible time and with a terrible person are certainly relevant to its legitimacy. Unlike the birthday of Martin Luther King, Kwanzaa celebrates separatism and black nationalism. Perhaps the IBBMEC is right. Perhaps the practice of so many big American corporations to domesticate the holiday with greeting cards and special products is "disrespectful to the actual spirit of Kwanzaa." It is not a spirit that bears close examination.


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©1997, Creators Syndicate, Inc.