Photos by Nate Miller.
In her latest column, conservative pundit Ann Coulter drags out everyone's favorite whipping boy of a holiday, Kwanzaa, for her annual verbal lynching. Ann, like many on the right, claims that Kwanzaa was invented by the FBI to discredit black militant groups. Started in 1966 by Professor Maulana Ron Karenga, Kwanzaa was designed to celebrate the ancient heritage of the African diaspora, yet that doesn't stop people from trying to find fault.
Ann giggles at practically every aspect of the holiday, especially the idea of collective community action:
“Kwanzaa praises collectivism in every possible area of life—economics, work, personality, even litter removal. ('Kuumba: Everyone should strive to improve the community and make it more beautiful.') It takes a village to raise a police snitch.”
Helping to keep garbage off the street is a slippery slope toward communism, as we all know. Making light of Kwanzaa is like challenging a blind man to a scavenger hunt. Research by Keith A. Mayes, author of Kwanzaa: Black Power and the Making of the African-American Holiday Tradition, claims that only around two million people celebrate the holiday in America. That's half the population of Los Angeles. Kwanzaa is about as accepted in America as Ramadan is in Israel. I wanted to know who this dedicated minority of a minority that celebrates Kwanzaa really is.
I went to the Kwanzaa Heritage Festival in the Leimert Park neighborhood of LA. Los Angeles claims to be the birthplace of the holiday, because Professor Karenga taught at Cal State Long Beach when he invented Kwanzaa, so I hoped to get some insight as to why anyone would participate in something that a large subsection of the American population thinks is ridiculous. What I found was a small, but passionate group of people making an attempt to bring about positive change in the world.
Kwanzaa is celebrated for a week, from December 26 to January 1. Adherents light seven candles, one each night, which is a strange callout to the Jewish holiday of Hanukkah, which is also celebrated in December. Each candle represents one of the following Swahili virtues:
Umoja (Unity): To strive for and to maintain unity in the family, community, nation, and race.
Kujichagulia (Self-Determination): To define ourselves, name ourselves, create for ourselves, and speak for ourselves.
Ujima (Collective Work and Responsibility): To build and maintain our community together and make our brothers' and sisters' problems our problems, and to solve them together.
Ujamaa (Cooperative Economics): To build and maintain our own stores, shops, and other businesses and to profit from them together.
Nia (Purpose): To make our collective vocation the building and developing of our community in order to restore our people to their traditional greatness.
Kuumba (Creativity): 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.
Imani (Faith): To believe with all our hearts in our people, our parents, our teachers, our leaders, and the righteousness and victory of our struggle.
Ngona, a merchant at the festival, tried his best to explain the importance of Kwanzaa to the African-American community. He said he'd been celebrating since the beginning, told me he knew Professor Karenga, and saw the holiday as a way to “bring people together.” According to him, “heroin, crack cocaine, all those things are destroying us. We need this.” With his son behind him, Ngona expressed hope that future generations of black kids would be proud of where they came from, which he said they're slowly forgetting.
Like any street festival, there were vendors like Ngona shilling their wares to passersby. Small-time entrepreneurs thrive on gatherings of this nature, because they are a cheap, easy way to expose their goods to neighbors and like-minded consumers. I'm not in the market for a bongo or a ceremonial tribal mask, but someone must be.
Other vendors were less obviously benign. Thomas Loftin, a man that purported to be a business expert, was hawking motivational DVDs and seminars. He said they would teach me how to purchase land on the suburban outskirts of Los Angeles County in order to build a home that I would then sell for a profit to the lower income residents of inner city areas like Leimert Park that are being forced out by gentrification.
Where would I get the capital for an investment like this? A low-interest bank loan, of course. As everyone knows, it's very easy to get a bank loan. All you have to do is ask and they'll give you money! Also, buying land in the suburbs is super smart.
Selling get-rich-quick schemes in poor areas like Leimert Park is smart, and I bet it works more often than not. I asked Thomas if he lives in Leimert Park, and he said that he didn't. He lives in Rancho Palos Verdes, a wealthy black neighborhood near Inglewood.
Commerce is one area in which Kwanzaa is similar to other winter holidays. Making money is also a major part of Christmas.
The Christmas holiday formed around the existing Winter Solstice as a means to convert pagans to Christianity. December 25 might not even be Jesus's birthday. These dates were just useful to the early Christians. There's also that whole thing about Jesus being a deity who died for our sins and ascended to Heaven to sit next to his dad and help pass judgment on the human population of Earth.
All of these bizarre bits of history and theology aren't exactly considered when you're out buying an iPad for your sister, but Christmas is as much a man-made celebration as Kwanzaa. It only was created a few centuries earlier. Just because something is old doesn't make it more valid. If that were true, then we should all be Zoroastrians.
The neighborhood of Leimert Park is almost 80 percent black. That sort of population homogeneity in a major city makes it one of the centers of black culture in America, and in that country, much resentment still exists toward blacks. The Polarized Public? Why American Government Is So Dysfunctional, a new book by Emory University political scientist Alan I. Abramowitz, publishes an analysis of exit polls from 2012 election voters by the American National Election Studies. Those voters who self-identified as conservative Republicans scored high marks in what the author refers to as “racial resentment,” which roughly translates to a feeling that black people are moochers who could be happier if they worked harder.
In an environment like this, Kwanzaa and other community activities seem highly advantageous for black Americans. Kwanzaa encourages responsibility, honesty, respect for others, charity, a strong work ethic, and other traditionally American values. What part of that is offensive to Ann Coulter is anyone's guess. The United States government isn't doing much for black communities other than distributing EBT and welfare, and even that's too much intervention for conservatives to stomach. Kwanzaa attempts to encourage positive change in the black community through not only collective action, but also individual responsibility.
Also, at a time when pundits want to remind minorities that Santa and Jesus “were white male historical figures,” maybe black people would be more comfortable with their own holiday.
The one thing that has to go from Kwanzaa if it's ever going to be even remotely popular is poetry. This lady, and a few others, interrupted the festivities to berate us with their ham-fisted rhyming about social justice and economic equality. I don't care if your poem is about free tacos and handjobs at the Senior Center near my apartment. I don't want to hear it.
Poetry is like line dancing. No one actually enjoys it, and everyone's already tried.
Yes, Kwanzaa seems pretty fucking ridiculous. I'm still not sure why this lady is dressed up like a clown. I was scared of her, and I'm sure I wasn't the only one. Yet, how is this any more absurd than a morbidly obese white man piloting a flying sled to drop presents down a chimney in celebration of the birth of the half-human son of God? Really, every holiday is horseshit. They're all constructs of the cultural circumstances of the era they were invented in.
Maybe it's finally time for the war on Kwanzaa to end. It's a harmless event that might actually help a few people. Plus, at least Kwanzaa's main purpose isn't to sell toys... yet.