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January 29, 2015

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Kwanzaa Popularity Falling? Some Say That it Is

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Kwanzaa Popularity Down

Some experts say that the popularity of the traditional African American holiday, Kwanzaa, is leveling off. According to research by Dr. Keith Mayes, an assistant professor of African American Studies at the University of Minnesota, the celebration of Kwanzaa among African Americans is between 500,000 to 2 million out of the 40 million people identified by the U.S. Census as black. These numbers, if accurate, imply that the number of Kwanzaa loyalists may not have grown much from the initial push 20 years ago.

The perceived slowdown obviously gives reason for pause, as we have to analyze Dr. Mayes' findings a bit more deeply. This is not to suggest that his conclusions are inaccurate, but there may be something deeper going on. Here are some thoughts on Kwanzaa and it's perceived decline in popularity.

1) A "leveling off" is not the same as a decline: Not to be nitpicky, but one can argue that leveling off is a "glass half empty" concept in the sense that it doesn't mean that the popularity of Kwanzaa is declining (which I don't think that Dr. Mayes is implying). Instead, it means that there are people who love Kwanzaa and are committed to it. The lack of growth may be connected to a lack of marketing and public education. Since the creation of Kwanzaa by Ron Karenga, executive director of the African-American Culture Center in Los Angeles, there have been shifts in the needs and priorities of people of color. In the 1960s and 1970s, black empowerment and civil rights were fundamental to our struggle. Twenty years of economic prosperity, though, can lead to a reduction in conscious activism and a greater focus on assimilation, but trends can always reverse.

2) Post-racial America anyone? One of the interesting things about Kwanzaa is that the Obamas don't celebrate the holiday. The Obamas dismissal of Kwanzaa leads some to feel that most African Americans would never be interested in the holiday. This could not be further from the truth. While they are certainly to be admired, Barack and Michelle Obama are not the essence of black America. Instead, the Obamas are a beautiful family that must behave in a way that maintains their political popularity. One piece of evidence that America is not yet post-racial is the fact that the Obamas would likely lose votes if they were to openly celebrate Kwanzaa. Yes, folks, that fact is a reminder that in America, unapologetic blackness is still heavily stigmatized.


3) More research on the trend might be needed: 500,000 to 2 million is a fairly broad range when attempting to guess the number of African Americans who celebrate Kwanzaa. This is not to undermine the research of Dr. Mayes, but I'd love to see more statisticians get involved in order to get an accurate assessment of the trends of Kwanzaa celebration. When there are AP articles on Kwanzaa quoting the likes of Jesse Lee Peterson (who wrote that the black victims of Hurricane Katrina were victimized more by their "moral poverty" than by government inaction), I wonder if the alleged decline in Kwanzaa celebration is simply wishful thinking. Although he has a right to his opinion, Peterson should not be deciding the fate of black America. African Americans such as Peterson sometimes leverage the honest work of good scholars like Dr. Mayes for their own political benefit.

4) Many African Americans may not celebrate Kwanzaa, but they respect it: My family doesn't always celebrate Kwanzaa, but it's not because we think the holiday should disappear. After all of the psychological, emotional and financial energy spent on Christmas, we just don't have the "juice" for another holiday. I am willing to bet that a survey among African Americans would reveal that most black people have respect for Kwanzaa, even if they don't celebrate it themselves. So the alleged leveling off of Kwanzaa should not imply that the holiday is obsolete.

5) It's time for us to become informed: If there is indeed a "leveling off" in the celebration of Kwanzaa, then perhaps educating the public on the principles might be a great way to increase participation. In fact, I often wonder why it is out of the question for every major university to require students to study Kwanzaa as part of the college curriculum. If I am forced to learn details of George Washington, Ben Franklin, Christopher Columbus and other people who don't mean a thing to me, then why can't other students learn about the things that matter to my community?

6) Commercialization plays a role: Christmas has become more about trips to Wal-Mart than Jesus. Corporate America tells us that if your Christmas celebration doesn't involve your Visa card, then you've completely missed the point. To that extent, commercialization has played a huge role in the popularity of Christmas every year. By rejecting excessive commercialization, it is only natural that a young celebration like Kwanzaa will have a relatively weak following. This is a good thing, actually, since Christmas has become something that I can't quite recognize anymore.

7) Why not discuss Kwanzaa year round? The seven principles of Kwanzaa are not concepts that should be applied once a year. They are ideas that work for the entire year. I propose that we consider renewing our commitment to the principles of Kwanzaa once a month, making Kwanzaa a deeper part of the black social infrastructure.

The bottom line is that Kwanzaa is not dying and it is not dead. I consider the research by Dr. Mayes to be a call to refresh and remind ourselves about the beauty of being black. America is a melting pot of cultures, and if being post-racial means that we all have to be the same, then I don't want any part of it.


Dr. Boyce Watkins is a professor at Syracuse University and founder of the Your Black World Coalition. To have Dr. Boyce's commentary delivered to your e-mail, please click here.

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