Shopping for Roots
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Shopping for Roots

by Richard J. Rosendall
Originally published on December 26, 2003 in FrontPage

One summer day, on a gay chorus discussion list, a conductor programming her December holiday concert solicited "suggestions for decent Kwanzaa pieces." She was not the first to have that multicultural inspiration; a colleague quickly shared a song entitled "Harambee" (A Call to Unity). The irony of this exchange between two white musicians was that there is nothing in the history of Kwanzaa, a seven-day African American festival that begins on December 26, to suggest that the unity in question was intended to encompass either white people or gay choruses.

Should Americans uncritically celebrate any and every alternative cultural expression, even when the alternative in question actually repudiates that inclusiveness? Are everyone's values entitled to be defended except our own? Can we at least try to understand what we are singing?

I am aware that a critical examination of Kwanzaa by a non-black author is bound to be met with suspicion by many blacks. A number of white conservatives have already slammed Kwanzaa for what they call its ancestor worship, or for its having been invented by an American. Those do seem rather brazen criticisms, considering that the critics honor their own forebears and have no objection to Thanksgiving. As someone who has written a same-sex wedding ceremony for friends, and as a fan of free markets, I respect the entrepreneurial spirit of those who respond to a hunger for new celebrations by risking creation. As to whose business it is, that is one of the questions I wish to explore.

My first impression of Kwanzaa was of an enrichment of holiday celebrations, an expression of pride in African heritage, and another aspect of diversity within the broader American community. Upon further examination, the philosophy and politics behind Kwanzaa are more troubling, precisely because Kwanzaa represents a turning away from the wider American community and a repudiation of the free markets that its own success exemplifies.

According to the official Kwanzaa website, the celebration was created "to reaffirm the communitarian vision and values of African culture and to contribute to its restoration among African peoples in the Diaspora," and "as an act of cultural self-determination, as a self-conscious statement of our own unique cultural truth as an African people." 1 In this one sees not only the primacy of the collective, but the erasure of the American in "African American."

Kwanzaa, or "First Fruits," was invented in 1966 by a black American named Maulana Karenga (formerly Ron Everett, now chair of the Black Studies Department at California State University, Long Beach), who drew inspiration from various African harvest festivals. 2 Kwanzaa and its father were true creatures of the Sixties. The year before Karenga created Kwanzaa he founded US, or United Slaves, a radical black nationalist organization. US (which Karenga has also explained as standing for "us black people") followed the "Path of Blackness," summarized by Karenga thus: "The Seven-fold path of Blackness is to Think Black, Talk Black, Act Black, Create Black, Buy Black, Vote Black, and Live Black." 3

One wonders which of these was being practiced by the two US members who shot to death two Black Panthers at UCLA in January 1969 in a dispute over leadership of the university's new Afro-American Studies department. And how did Karenga's path of blackness lead him to torture two black women in May 1970, for which he was convicted of felonious assault and false imprisonment the following year? 4 I am not inclined to dismiss a creation as illegitimate based on the unsavory past of its creator, but looking to Karenga's past for insights into Kwanzaa's origins seems appropriate given that Kwanzaa is itself about origins. 5

One seeming incongruity of Kwanzaa is its timing. December is not a traditional month for harvest festivals in either the Northern or Southern Hemisphere. There may be something harvested somewhere in Africa that month, but in fact the explicit reason for the scheduling of the festival was to create an alternative to Christmas, not to mark a particular event on the African calendar. While this may be a jarring note from a Pan-Africanist who seeks to break with the colonialist past and rediscover African roots, it is a pragmatic enough consideration. After all, Christmas itself was placed on the calendar against the Roman festival of Saturnalia.

Karenga in 1977 described Kwanzaa as "an oppositional alternative to the spookism, mysticism and non-earth based practices which plague us as a people." 6 The chief spook in question is the same Christian God that inspired a generation of African Americans to lead a non-violent revolution for civil rights. But Karenga, as we have seen, is not strong on non-violence. In fact, the red in the Kwanzaa flag stands for the Struggle - that is, the blood that must be shed in order for black people to be redeemed. In this at least Karenga shows greater affinity for American tradition, since our own flag and history also contain plenty of red.

From One Middle Passage to Another

Another incongruity of Kwanzaa is that the Seven Principles (Umoja, Kujichagulia, Ujima, Ujamaa, Nia, Kuumba, and Imani) 7 are Swahili words, despite the fact that Swahili is an East African tongue while most African Americans are descended from West Africans. The notorious Goree Island, for example, which was used for three centuries as a slave warehouse, is off the coast of Senegal. 8 Those who passed through Goree Island were more likely to speak languages like Akan, Mende, Hausa, Yoruba, and Igbo. Most African Americans, unfortunately, are not able to trace their roots. Kwanzaa, therefore, is an attempt not to retrieve the past, but to reinvent it.

It is curious that in an effort to return to African sources Karenga should choose a language like Swahili, which was so heavily influenced by the trans-Arabian slave trade. Imani, for instance, the Seventh Principle of Kwanzaa, is from the Arabic for "faith." An Arab hearing Karenga refer to the Seven Principles as Nguzo Saba would recognize his own phrase for "seven parts." Swahili is euphonious and exotic enough, but what point is there in renouncing one's own legacy of past slavery only to adopt someone else's?

As a festival drawn from many sources, Kwanzaa tends to treat African traditions and cultural values as if they were monolithic, whereas Africa is notoriously tribalist and there are vast differences from region to region. If unity (the First Principle of Kwanzaa) existed in Africa, there would be far fewer languages and far more Tutsis alive today.

Among the African variations that receive little mention from Karenga and his fellow Afrocentrists are the indigenous forms of homosexuality that have been observed in cultures throughout the continent. This is reported in the 1998 collection, Boy-Wives and Female Husbands: Studies of African Homosexualities, edited by Stephen O. Murray and Will Roscoe. 9 When African leaders like Zimbabwe's Robert Mugabe denounce homosexuality as a Western vice, they overlook the fact that what was introduced by the West was not homosexuality but intolerance towards it. Nor are the cultural "corruptions" only from the West. In the case of Nigeria, anti-gay laws derive from both British law and Islamic Sharia law.

The greatest incongruity about Kwanzaa is that it is based on Marxist values more than African ones. 10 This is evident in the emphasis on collective work and cooperative economics, the subordination of the individual to the community, the utter silence on the subject of liberty.

Even if these values can be traced to African roots, there is nothing liberating in the embrace of doctrines that have succeeded nowhere in the world, certainly not in Africa. Ujamaa, the fourth principle of Kwanzaa (Swahili for "familyhood," from the Arabic for "community," translated by Karenga as cooperative economics), was the very word used by former Tanzanian President Julius Nyerere when he forcibly relocated tens of thousands of his citizens to collective farms in a disastrous socialist experiment. Nyerere actually suppressed an existing coffee cooperative that did not conform to his theories, while demonizing the Swahili concept of soko huria, or free markets.

The largest African economy, South Africa, provides perhaps the best refutation of Karenga's cooperative economics. Nelson Mandela, despite his loyalty to his Communist allies, knew quite well that his goal of a non-racial democracy would be doomed if he did not keep the capitalists from fleeing the country after the collapse of Apartheid. The leg up that South Africa has on the rest of the continent is dramatically illustrated by a NASA composite photo of Earth at night, in which virtually the entire continent south of the Mediterranean coastal region is shrouded in darkness until you reach Johannesburg. 11 The light of Africa is not fueled by Marxism any more than the AIDS pandemic can be defeated with traditional healers. Those who reject Western economics and medicine do so at their peril.

Liberty by Any Other Name

African Americans can hardly be faulted for wishing to reclaim the African heritage that was stolen from, and beaten out of, their ancestors. Indeed, it can enrich all of us, just as American music was immeasurably enriched by African American music. This is called cultural appropriation by those who take a jealous view of their heritage, but such appropriation occurs naturally whenever different peoples encounter one another. However inequitable the circumstances, both sides contributed to what we are.

Facing up to that legacy, rather than escaping into a mythologized past, would be a more useful focus of collective effort. The cross-fertilization of intersecting cultures holds the key to a constructive approach to reclaiming one's roots. Instead of choosing between the different threads that make us up, we can embrace all of them without romanticizing them. Most of our ancestors, whether African or European, were not kings and queens. Neither can we overcome the legacy of slavery with a steady-state conception in which whites are forever the designated villains and blacks the designated victims. Idealized or demonized historical narratives provide little guidance for facing our common future.

Our destinies are inextricably intertwined by our shared history. Whether they like it or not, the heritage of white Americans contains African threads; and whether they like it or not, the heritage of black Americans contains European ones. You do not shed the European portion of your heritage merely because you take an Afrocentric name, nor do you give up your stake in the greater society of which you remain a part. In addition to colonialism (which existed in Africa before the white man came), Western heritage includes free markets and individual liberties, as well as the idea that all men are created equal.

Rejecting that idea four decades ago as a sham, Karenga and other radicals adopted a revolutionary posture and an Afrocentric program. In doing so they repudiated integrationists like civil rights strategist Bayard Rustin, who pointed out that Black Studies "will hardly improve [black students'] intellectual competence or their economic power." In the campaigns by Karenga and his comrades to "Buy Black" and create autonomous communities, the language of liberation was a poor substitute for development capital. As Rustin wrote in his 1970 essay "The Failure of Black Separatism," "The call for community control in fact represents an adjustment to inequality rather than a protest against it." 12

Ultimately, we cannot escape the challenge presented by our diversity. For all our differences, we share a single economy, we ride the same planes, we work in the same office towers. Whether we accept it or not, our nation has not a collection of balkanized destinies but a single American destiny. Despite our inequities, each of us can hurt and be hurt. Each of us can create and tear down. Whatever needs to be done, we cannot do it by withdrawing from each other.

Being the heirs of Western civilization and free markets carries responsibilities. There is something corrupt about enjoying the fruits and freedoms of the West while speaking only of its faults. Yet we are blinded by arrogance if we imagine that the only worthy fruits are our own. The world is not a zero-sum game. The vast continent of Africa offers many riches for those prepared to study it without ideological blinders. This does not require pandering. The white choral directors I mentioned earlier should ask themselves how progressive it is to applaud a message that essentially tells black people to stay in their ghettos.

There is another word that was brought to Africa by the Arabs, a good Swahili word that does not appear among the Seven Principles of Kwanzaa: Uhuru, or freedom, from the Arabic for a freeborn person. In the course of its travels, a word can be embraced by a new people and gain new meaning.

Thus Uhuru, taken long ago from Arabian slave traders and more recently adopted by groups like the African People's Socialist Party, 13 is no one's exclusive property. Now there is a fine theme for a festival.


1 FAQ: "Why was Kwanzaa created?" The Official Kwanzaa Web Site

2 Maulana Ndabezitha Karenga, "Kwanzaa," (website defunct)

3 Clyde Halisi, ed., The Quotable Karenga, US Organization, Los Angeles, 1967

4 Paul Mulshine, "Happy Kwanzaa," FrontPageMagazine, December 24, 1999

5 Ann Coulter, "Kwanzaa: holiday from the FBI," Universal Press Syndicate, January 1, 2001

6 J. Lawrence Scholer and the Editors, "The Story of Kwanzaa," The Dartmouth Review, January 15, 2001

7 "The Values of Kwanzaa," The Official Kwanzaa Web Site

8 Babacar Diop, "Goree Island"

9 Stephen O. Murray and Will Roscoe, editors, Boy-Wives and Female Husbands: Studies of African Homosexualities, St. Martin's Press, 1998

10 Tony Snow, "The Truth About Kwanzaa," Jewish World Review, December 31, 1999

11 National Aeronautics and Space Administration, composite photograph of earth at night

12 Devon W. Carbado and Donald Weise, editors, Time on Two Crosses: The Collected Writings of Bayard Rustin, Cleis Press, 2003

13 African People's Socialist Party, March and Rally for Human Rights & Peace, Dolores Park, San Francisco, October 27, 2001

Copyright 2003 by Richard J. Rosendall. All rights reserved.