Dr. Maulana Karenga founded the cultural holiday of Kwanzaa in 1966. As a consequence, the 2016 observance of Kwanzaa marks the holiday’s 50th Anniversary. As I have pointed out in previous articles, the African American community has seen many 50th commemorations within the past few years. There was the 50th commemoration of the 1963 March on Washington in 2013. A highlight of this commemoration was seeing President Obama deliver a commemorative speech at the foot of the Lincoln Memorial. Simply stated, Obama stood where King stood. Symbols and gestures mean a great deal. They provide us with a lifeline and a stamp of legitimacy when most of a society’s cues attempt to delegitimize or render one’s existence as insignificant. There was the 50th commemoration of the Civil Rights Act of 1964 in 2014. There was the 50th commemoration of the Voting Rights Act in 2015. This week we are observing the 50th commemoration or celebration of Kwanzaa. We can also add that this year marked the 50th anniversary of the founding of the Black Panther Party for Self-Defense. In some cases, these commemorations provide a ruler by which we can measure how far we have progressed within these past fifty years.
These temporal markers also give us time to reflect and show our gratitude for our Founding Mothers and Fathers. During these times we must also take inventory of what we have and not simply be labeled as the “have nots.” Unfortunately, I do not believe we will have any national acknowledgment of the 50th commemoration of the Fair Housing Act of 1968 in 2018. There will not be a prominent national figure in government who will eloquently attest to the purpose of the law and draw parallels as to how far we have come and what must be done to move forward. Dr. King was not present at the signing of the 1968 law. As a consequence, 2018 will also mark the 50th anniversary of the assassination of Martin Luther King, Jr. What national governmental figure will be able to articulate the remembrance of our loss? Nevertheless, let us not forget either of these significant occurrences in our history. That would be the ultimate tragedy.
Regrettably, many Black Americans run away from Kwanzaa. Many are afraid to even acknowledge it as being in existence. They say we are Americans, not Africans. They say we speak English not Swahili or African. In the past, some would argue that it is Communist inspired. Perhaps today the most ill-informed of us would even go so far to say that it is related to terrorism and being anti-American. The underlying fact that such ignorance is that Blacks in America do have an African lineage and African roots. It is this simple fact upon which Kwanzaa rests. Dr. Karenga dedicated this observance to a people who were stolen from Africa and beaten into a self- hatred of who they were and from whence they originated. Dr. Karenga was simply saying let us not forget our agrarian past and nature of the first fruits of our harvests. As the scripture says, “Whatsoever that you sow, that shall you also reap.” Our sojourn in America had brought forth bad crops. Someone had tampered with our seeds and placed the detrimental in with the good. Dr. Karenga was just saying let us be careful as to what we sow. Let us plant that which uplifts us. Let us plant that which will protect us. Let us perform a type of cultural Sankofa and recreate that which once sustained us in order for us to be healthy again and remain healthy.
Kwanzaa begins on the 26th of December and goes until the first of January. This seven day period is marked by a daily observance of the seven principles which constitute the Nguzo Saba. The seven principles are as follow: Umoja/Unity, Kujichagulia/Self-Determination, Ujima/Collective Work and Responsibility, Ujamaa/Cooperative Economics, Nia/Purpose, Kuumba/Creativity and Imani/Faith. The Nguzo Saba is to serve as a type of cultural GPS to assist African Americans in finding their heritage and finding strength and fortitude to continue living and flourishing in the United States. Nevertheless, these observances are not exclusive of other cultures or homelands. Anyone who chooses to may participate in Kwanzaa with contradicting one’s own beliefs or cultural heritage.
Umoja is not only a call for unity among Blacks in America, but unity of people across the globe. Self-Determination has been a universal longing since the first person. This principle invokes a type of freedom born of an acknowledgement the right of every human being to live free from oppression. Ujima and Ujamaa place emphasis on coming together to pool one’s resources for the greater good. Every contribution helps to uplift regardless as to the size of the contribution.
Creativity is another significant trait among people of African descent living in the United States. One of the more perplexing questions asked by those who would oppress Africans in America is “Why does the caged bird sing?” Creativity has been used by Africans in America to endure enslavement, segregation, and discrimination. It has been used to offer counseling in the face of overwhelming odds and treacherous setbacks on the road to freedom. Whether it be poetry, song, dance, or acting there is a type of creative synergy that permeates through the African American sojourn in the United States. I can hear Jimi Hendrix in the swing of Henry Aaron’s bat as he broke Babe Ruth’s homerun record. It is as if Mae Jemison soared on the voice of Patti LaBelle to become the first African American woman in space. Nina Simone, Miles Davis, and John Coltrane serenade Barack Obama and Michelle Obama every day.
In the final analysis there is Imani. Yes, there is faith. As the scripture says, “Faith is the substance of things hoped and evidence of things not seen.” For those who were born in the midst of enslavement and never travelled beyond a plantation’s borders Imani provided a type of knowledge that there was something greater than this particular moment of suffering. Imani gave evidence that this situation of enslavement was not meant to be and would not endure forever. Imani is still working as we prepare to end 2016. Therefore, let us use this Kwanzaa for introspection and then gaze out at the universe and behold, as Kunta Kinte said, “the only thing greater than ourselves.”
Anthony Neal earned his Ph.D. in political science at Atlanta University (now Clark Atlanta University). Dr. Neal is an associate professor at State University College, Buffalo. The author of numerous book reviews and journal articles, he has had his work published in the Western Journal of Black Studies, the Journal of Black Studies, and Black Issues in Higher Education. In 2014 Dr. Neal received the university’s Faculty Appreciation Award, was named Instructor of the Year by the university’s United Student Government, and Professor of the Year by the Student Political Society in the Department of Political Science. In 2015, he published The American Political Narrative which is a succinct yet poignant narrative about the development of the American political system and what is needed to maintain it. In 2016, he will publish a book of poetry entitled “Love Agnostic | from 9/11 to Charleston”
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