Kwanzaa, an African-American midwinter celebration, began on Monday. Is it a ‘real’ holiday, or only a ‘made up’ myth? (More)

Mithellaneous, Part I: A ‘Made Up’ Holiday

This week Morning Feature considers the role mythology in contemporary culture. Today we look at the controversy surrounding Kwanzaa, an African-American midwinter celebration. Tomorrow we consider how social media influence the growth of contemporary mythology. Saturday we conclude with the mythology of New Year’s celebrations.

In the beginning (of culture)….

We swim in a sea of mythology, stories of gods and humans, stories of historical and contemporary events. Some myths have at least kernels of facts, others are entirely fiction, and many cannot be proved as either. Myths perform a variety of social rules: exploring the as-yet unexplained, proposing models of behavior, encouraging cultural coherence, and positioning our individual experiences within broader narratives.

While there are no ‘universal myths’ – Joseph Campbell‘s proposed monomyth is an abstraction that blurs cultural differences – mythology itself is universal. That’s hardly surprising for our profoundly social species. Our ability to communicate and cooperate enabled Tree Ape to survive and thrive as Plains Ape. Biologists classify us as Homo sapiens sapiens, but a better term might be Homo narratus: storytelling man. Our brains are wired to create, remember, and respond to stories.

The story of Kwanzaa

Shared stories define and distinguish cultures, and that recognition led Maulana Karenga to create the African-American midwinter celebration of Kwanzaa:

First, Kwanzaa was created to reaffirm and restore our rootedness in African culture. It is, therefore, an expression of recovery and reconstruction of African culture which was being conducted in the general context of the Black Liberation Movement of the ’60’s and in the specific context of The Organization Us, the founding organization of Kwanzaa and the authoritative keeper of its tradition. Secondly, Kwanzaa was created to serve as a regular communal celebration to reaffirm and reinforce the bonds between us as a people. It was designed to be an ingathering to strengthen community and reaffirm common identity, purpose and direction as a people and a world community. Thirdly, Kwanzaa was created to introduce and reinforce the Nguzo Saba (the Seven Principles.) These seven communitarian African values are: Umoja (Unity), Kujichagulia (Self-Determination), Ujima (Collective Work and Responsibility), Ujamaa (Cooperative Economics), Nia (Purpose), Kuumba (Creativity), and Imani (Faith). This stress on the Nguzo Saba was at the same time an emphasis on the importance of African communitarian values in general, which stress family, community and culture and speak to the best of what it means to be African and human in the fullest sense. And Kwanzaa was conceived as a fundamental and important way to introduce and reinforce these values and cultivate appreciation for them.

The impulse for Kwanzaa lay in a widespread experience of exclusion. In 1966, the legal apartheid of Jim Crow was not a historical event. Despite the Civil Rights and Voting Rights Acts of 1964 and 1965, there remained vivid memories and often still-lived experiences being prohibited from sharing white spaces – hotels, restaurants, restrooms, schools, swimming pools, even water fountains – yet expected to share white stories. With few exceptions, black Americans’ history, religion, art, and community were constrained by white traditions and white sensibilities. The result was stories of “what we are not” … white American stories with subtractions grounded in presumptions of black inferiority.

Kwanzaa tells a different story, celebrating the different-ness of African-American experience, grounded in a shared sense of “what we are” rather than “what we are not.” In so doing, Kwanzaa embraces the functions of mythology: exploring the unexplained through harvest rituals, proposing models of behavior and encouraging cultural coherence through the Nguzo Saba, and positioning individual (African-American) experiences within broader (African) narratives.

Is Kwanzaa ‘made up?’

Not surprisingly, there has been widespread pushback against the Kwanzaa mythology. The Textbook League called it a hoax. The American Family News Network, offering “Your Latest News from a Christian perspective,” called Kwanzaa “a fraud … a holiday based on skin color.” The Carolina Review, a conservative student newspaper at the University of North Carolina, decried Kwanzaa as “Afrocentric and Marxist.” Jewcy says it “opposes the American creed.”

Most of these criticisms gleefully describe founder Maulana Karenga’s 1971 felony conviction and involvement in the Black Power movement, although omitting how the FBI’s COINTELPRO infiltrated and sought to discredit that movement. It is a classic example of the ad hominem fallacy: discredit Karenga, then imply (or state outright) that everything about Kwanzaa is tainted by his past acts.

Lest that not be enough, the critics then note that there is no holiday called Kwanzaa in Africa, nor even a widespread midwinter harvest festival, and that the Swahili language – from which Karenga drew the terminology of Kwanzaa – is spoken by less than 10% of Africans rather than being the “pan-African” language Karenga claims. All in all, they say, Kwanzaa is a “made up” holiday myth.

And it is. So are white American myths about Santa Claus (most trace to Clement Clark Moore’s poem “A Visit From St. Nicholas”), Columbus discovering the world was round (based on Washington Irving’s The Life and Voyages of Christopher Columbus), and arguably every other myth of every other culture on earth. While myths often include at least germs of fact – St. Nicholas did exist, Christopher Columbus did sail across the Atlantic, and there are harvest festivals in Africa – few if any are entirely factual.

What makes Kwanzaa different? Partly that its invention is recent, and mostly that it attempts to create an positive mythology for a group that many want to see defined in negative terms. A black Americans’ story of “what We are” challenges many white Americans’ stories of “what They are not.”

Myths matter, and the ways they matter are not determined by factual accuracy. Kwanzaa is a myth, no more or less than any other.

Habari gani?



Happy Thursday!