The Kwanzaa Quandary

Cover Story

December 02, 2007|By Harold T. Fisher | Harold T. Fisher,Special to The 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.

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