Play Live Radio
Next Up:
0:00 0:00
Available On Air Stations

Significance Of Kwanzaa Changes Over The Years


Rounding out the holiday season, Kwanza comes to an end today. It's the only official African-American holiday. And it began at the height of the 1960s black nationalist movement; just one year after Malcolm X was assassinated, and the Watts riots ripped through Los Angeles.

But the generation that helped create Kwanzaa is growing older, and the holiday doesn't seem to hold the same significance for many younger African-Americans. Journalist Gene Demby recently joined NPR, to report on issues of race and ethnicity. We asked him about where he thinks Kwanzaa stands today.

Gene, I think this is your first time on the air. Welcome to the NPR family.

GENE DEMBY, BYLINE: Thanks for having me.

GREENE: So it sounds like really, in the beginning, it was all about black power.

DEMBY: In its early stages, it was. But pretty quickly, it was adopted by big corporations as kind of a shorthand for diversity in America and multiculturalism.

GREENE: Became kind of another Hallmark holiday, in a way?

DEMBY: Sort of. One of the recurring criticisms of Kwanzaa is that its corporate presence has outpaced its actual participation.

GREENE: Mm-hmm.

DEMBY: I spoke to Professor Keith Mayes at the University of Minnesota-Twin Cities, who - literally - wrote the book on Kwanzaa. What Mayes says is that Kwanzaa kind of neatly mirrors the evolution of black politics over the last half-century. He pegged the heyday of Kwanzaa in the late '80s, early '90s. And if you think about what's happening at that time, you have Public Enemy; you have people at black student unions, and universities across the country, who are advocating for divestment from South Africa. There are all kinds of things happening, like that. And the currents that made that moment possible, have kind of waned, right? So, at that time, you think of someone like Al Sharpton, who is a radical in a track suit...


DEMBY: who now, in 2012, he is kind of a mainstream Democratic figure. And so a lot of the currents that helped make Kwanzaa into kind of a countercultural force, have waned a little bit.

GREENE: So who is celebrating Kwanzaa today?

DEMBY: When I posed the question to Twitter about whether people observed or not, one of the things that people kept saying was that their exposure to Kwanzaa was in either school assemblies or in churches; and once they kind of left those bases, they no longer adhere.

GREENE: So people were tweeting you back, to talk about Kwanzaa?

DEMBY: Yeah, a lot of people were. Everyone seemed to find that the principles that Kwanzaa celebrates - you know, self-reliance, creativity, unity - they seem to value those principles, even if they don't necessarily celebrate the rituals.

GREENE: You mentioned that as a child, you celebrated Kwanzaa in some ways. Tell me what role it played in your life, you know, growing up; and how you celebrate today, if you do.

DEMBY: In my Catholic Church growing up, there was a kinara near the advent wreath. Part of the ritual of the holiday is the candles for each of the principles of Kwanzaa. There are seven principles...


DEMBY: ...and on every day, you light one of the candles. And so I think I was like a lot of kids in the '90s for whom Kwanzaa was kind of in the background - at least where I grew up. It didn't take a lot of primacy. A good friend of mine wrote a piece for; in which she said that her family had tried for a while, to do Kwanzaa. And part of it is, you have to get over the kind of initial psychic barrier to something that is not part of the firmament of holiday celebrations.

GREENE: It takes a certain amount of energy to say: I'm going to try something different, and be different.

DEMBY: Right. I've been in places where people have been really sincere in their observance of Kwanzaa. But there are other places where I think a lot of people feel that people are trying to make Kwanzaa happen. And I think that's always a hurdle.

GREENE: And all this makes me wonder, what do you see as the future of the holiday? I mean, could it catch on, you know, more - again, or are we going to see it kind of wither away?

DEMBY: Well, Mayes - he's not pessimistic about Kwanzaa, but he feels that it's already plateaued. He feels that the heyday was firmly in the late '80s and early '90s; and that because the kind of political currents that made that moment possible have kind of dissipated, that there isn't the same kind of stuff fueling Kwanzaa's growth. You know, we have a black first family, but it's not clear if they celebrate it. It kind of exists in the background, and people kind of acknowledge its existence. But it doesn't have the kind of cultural primacy that it might have had maybe 20 years ago.

GREENE: So on the last day of Kwanzaa, would I say Happy Kwanzaa? Or what do...

DEMBY: I think you're supposed to say the name of the principle of the last day of Kwanzaa. I'm not sure what that Kwanzaa principle is. But I think Happy Kwanzaa is a sufficient response - or a sufficient salutation.

GREENE: Well, Happy Kwanzaa to you.

DEMBY: Happy Kwanzaa to you, too.

GREENE: Gene, thanks for coming by.

DEMBY: No problem.


GREENE: NPR's Gene Demby covers race and ethnicity. And by the way, we looked up that last day's Kwanzaa principle. It's imani, which means faith.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC) Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

David Greene is an award-winning journalist and New York Times best-selling author. He is a host of NPR's Morning Edition, the most listened-to radio news program in the United States, and also of NPR's popular morning news podcast, Up First.
Gene Demby is the co-host and correspondent for NPR's Code Switch team.