This post is really long, and I’m sorry about that. I didn’t think it
would get this big, but once I started, I couldn’t stop. As you’ll see, there’s
a lot of questions that Black people have about Kwanzaa, and I’m here to answer
What this post IS NOT: A guide to explaining how to celebrate Kwanzaa, a guide
for non-Black people to understand Kwanzaa, a list of reasons why someone
should celebrate Kwanzaa. All these things already exist in an abundance on the
internet and are easily found via a quick Google search.
What this post IS: A list of common questions and comments that arise
whenever Black people discuss Kwanzaa, usually made by other Black people. A lot
of Black people have questions for other Black people about Kwanzaa, but there’s
very little nuanced discussion or explanation that can be easily found with a
quick Google Search. In a way, I’m trying the address the ‘dirty little secrets’
of Kwanzaa; ie, I’m trying to explain the things that aren’t often talked
about, but should be. It’s not a perfect resource, there are no formal citations,
and you’ll likely disagree with a lot of my more opinionated answers. But it’s
the best I can do, so here it is. I hope you all enjoy it, share it, and please
read the whole thing.
Q: I still want to celebrate
Christmas. Can I do both?
A: Yes. While some would argue ‘no’, Kwanzaa was intentionally
delegated to December 26th, so as not to interfere with Christmas.
Many people that celebrate Christmas also celebrate Kwanzaa. Really, you can
celebrate any winter holiday and still celebrate Kwanzaa.
Q: Is it true that you can’t give gifts on Kwanzaa?
A: You can, actually. There’s a lot of confusion about the gifts that
can be given, and that’s understandable. See, one of the reasons Kwanzaa was
made was to move away from the capitalist notions of Western Christmas. Many
agree that it’s become more of a time for buying expensive gifts than being
with your family. Therefore, the social convention for Kwanzaa is to give gifts
that don’t reinforce the widescale marketing trends of Christmas. The “perfect”
Kwanzaa gift should meet all these requirements, but just meeting one of them
is fine as well:
Made by oneself, from the earth.
Reinforces Black culture.
Educational (though this largely applies for
children, most people get them books).
Supports a Black business, if bought.
Otherwise reinforces the Nguzo Saba and other
Also, keep in mind that there’s no real rule surrounding Kwanzaa gifts.
So if you know that your friend would truly appreciate a pair of wireless
headphones, then get it. As with all holidays, personal gifts are better than
cookie cutter gifts.
Also, come on ya’ll. We’re BLACK. Food is always an acceptable gift.
Q: Is celebrating Kwanzaa a requirement
to be more ‘woke’?
A: …tricky. No, you’re not a sellout for not celebrating Kwanzaa.
However, yes, recognizing Kwanzaa actually CAN help you in your journey of ‘wokeness’.
Celebrating Kwanzaa can help you decolonize your
brain, so to speak. That’s why there’s such a large emphasis on moving away
from influences of White Supremacy.
Learning the themes and being able to apply them
to your regular life can aid you in your endeavors to aid and uplift your
global Black community, your local Black community, and your own Black ass
Kwanzaa was birthed out of struggle. Following
discussions which arise at Kwanzaa events and in academic discussions
surrounding Kwanzaa can aid you in learning about the struggles that Black people
Q: Is Kwanzaa a religious holiday?
A: It is 100000000000000% secular.
Q: But I’m religious. Can I make
it relevant to my religion and my religious community?
A: Yup. Many communal and in-home Kwanzaa celebrations are religious
and/or spiritual. I know for a fact that many Black churches and Black mosques
hold Kwanzaa celebrations, so if you’re Christian or Muslim, it shouldn’t be
too hard to find a Kwanzaa celebration with your religious community, and/or
resources indicating how to recognize your religion and your race as you light
the kinara. As for other religions and spiritualities, I’ll admit that I’m not
as well-versed. I recommend beginning online, where Black members of your faith
congregate, and seeing if there’s anything that already exists. If not, think
of ways you want to recognize Kwanzaa religiously and…do it. Maybe even share
those ideas with your community. Remember, it’s an inherently secular holiday,
so as long as you aren’t going against the central themes, you can do whatever
Q: Kwanzaa is a fake holiday!
A: You’re right. I’m a fraud. I’ve been scamming people even though
literally no one person can benefit from Kwanzaa. I’m sorry. From now on, I
promise not to recognize any day that a group of people decided was important
to them. I shall only recognize holidays that naturally have significance for
the entire human species and does not at all vary by culture. So basically, I’ll
recognize no holiday, because they’re all just as ‘made up’ as Kwanzaa. Can we
chill with the ‘made up’ holiday argument? The only made up holidays are
holidays that Twitter makes up, but even then, they’re still legitimatized by
the people that recognize them.
Q: I personally don’t celebrate
Kwanzaa after finding out about Maulana Karenga’s crimes. Is that alright?
A: Of course it is. Yes, it’s a bit unfortunate that you won’t recognize
it because of that, I recognize that the violent, misogynistic nature of his
crimes might make be an emotional trigger to many. I also recognize that
triggers are difficult to predict and control, and sometimes arise in seemingly
arbitrary ways. If Kwanzaa reminds you too much of his crimes, and those
memories inflict intense psychological pain, then go ahead. No one can or
should force you to celebrate it.
Q: No one should celebrate
Kwanzaa, because of Maulana Karenga’s crimes.
A: Please don’t advocate for a forceful social ‘ban’ on the holiday. If
this is your personal reason for not celebrating, then that is fine. However,
that alone does not invalidate it for our entire community for the following reasons:
Dr. Maulana Karenga does not inherently benefit
from Black people celebrating Kwanzaa. Many people launch this critique while
implying (and often openly stating) that the holiday is the ‘celebration of
Karenga’. That simply is not true. If you don’t use the official Kwanzaa
website, buy his books and products, or invite him to speak, then he benefits
nothing from Kwanzaa. From my own experience, it’s entirely possible to
celebrate Kwanzaa and not even know his name (I didn’t, until recently).
The core principles of Kwanzaa do not in any way
reinforce rape culture or any other social system that inherently justifies his
actions, or crimes similar to them. Kwanzaa is about the reverence of family,
community, and ancestry. That is all.
Many atrocities have been committed by religious
institutions, societal institutions, cultures, etc. that created other
holidays, and many holidays have had crimes committed in their names (which,
btw, Karenga’s wasn’t). All holidays have a negative history if you know where
to look. However, many holidays do not in any way celebrate that history, and Kwanzaa is one such holiday. Another
such holiday is Christmas, which is about the birth of Jesus, and not at all
about the numerous atrocities committed by Christians in his name (like chattel
slavery and the colonization of Africa).
It’s entirely possible to spread awareness about
Karenga without admonishing the holiday or those that celebrate it.
Q: I’m living in Africa and I don’t
celebrate Kwanzaa. In fact, no person actually living in Africa that I know
A: That’s because, even though it’s often referred to as a Pan-African
holiday, it’s really more of a Diaspora holiday. In many ways, Kwanzaa can be
very American centric, but those notions are easily changed in order to be
inclusive of all Black people. However, what is irremovable are the
Diaspora-centric themes and notions. The holiday’s appeal is primarily that it’s
a holiday through which Black people can feel represented as a race and
culture. If you’re living in Africa and practicing your culture, there are likely
many festivals and holidays that are wholly African (thus Black), so the need
for a holiday such as Kwanzaa isn’t as great. However, in the Diaspora, there’s
a greater need to be represented. That said, even though the holiday is
Diaspora centric, there’s no rule that African’s can’t celebrate it, and they’re
entirely encouraged to do so. Remember, the central themes are community,
culture, family and the global struggle of Black people. So long as all are
important to you, you can celebrate Kwanzaa.
Q: Why do people call it an ‘African
holiday’ if it didn’t originate in Africa?
A: Misinformation. When people that have a full understanding of the
holiday refer to it as an ‘African holiday’, they are referring to the fact
that it is a holiday for people of African descent. There is no implication of
it being a holiday from Africa, just
that it’s a holiday for African peoples, which here includes African peoples in
Diaspora. When people refer to it as an ‘African holiday’ implying that the
holiday is an established, ancient holiday in Africa…that’s pretty much a
tell-tale sign that they’ve never celebrated it, or maybe did so once a long
time ago but didn’t take the time to actually learn about it (so likely a
communal event that they reluctantly went to). Likely, many people hear others
refer to it as an African holiday and make their own assumptions. However, the
holiday has never officially been marketed as a longstanding holiday from
Africa. At most, people will draw connection between it and pre-existing
cultural trends from around the African continent and Diaspora.
Q: Okay, so here’s what I don’t
get. Kwanzaa was created by an African American for African peoples in
Diaspora, specifically those displaced by slavery. The slave trade brought
people over from WEST Africa so why does it use Swahili as it’s official
A: The same reason it uses the RBG flag and not the African-American
flag; the Pan-African movement. Around the time that Kwanzaa was invented, the
push to learn and use Swahili for business was becoming more and more prevalent
in Pan-African discussions. This was due to it being viewed as a more ‘African’
language than European language (one common critique is that it’s heavily
derivative of Arabic and uses loan words from European languages). One major
event that further legitimized Swahili was Tanzania’s adoption of the language
as it’s official language. To this day, it’s one of the wider spoken
non-European languages of Africa. Karenga was a Pan-Africanist, and an ardent
supporter of the adoption of Swahili as a global language to unite all Black
people. It’s still debated even among Pan-Africanists and Afro-centrists, but it
appears that Swahili will stay, unless a newer language that’s just as
accessible and widely used is presented. If you’re upset about that, there
really isn’t anything wrong with using another African language you know or are
interested in learning for your Kwanzaa celebration. I recommend trying to use
simple phrases for the names of the themes and symbols, though. Who knows,
maybe the language you pick will become so widespread that it becomes the new “Kwanzaa
Q: Can white people celebrate
A: …ya’ll just trying to get me killed with these questions, aren’t
Short answer: No. It’s not for them. It was created, as I’m fond of saying “For
the Negro, by the Negro, of the Negro”
Long Answer: Tricky.
When I was still on the board of the Black Student Association of my
college, Kwanzaa was a one-day activity before Thanksgiving break. Because we
were primarily an educational
organization, all our events had to be open to people of all races. Which I was
cool with, because people should want to and be able to learn about our
cultures, within reason. Additionally, nothing about our Kwanzaa celebration
was traditional, so I didn’t think it really mattered that a few white kids
would show up to the feast. When I became president, however, I wanted to focus
more on addressing the Black students, which I felt there wasn’t as great a
push for as there should have been. So I extended Kwanzaa to a weeklong
activity, and designated one of those days as an all-Black meeting, in response
to talk I’d heard of Black students wanting to be able to congregate with other
Black students and only Black students. I made the activity a panel that we
could use to talk about our experiences, and issues we faced as Black people,
both in community and out of the community. Recognizing how such a conversation
would be…difficult, I decided that this day would be our Black-only event. It
was a hard sell, but we were eventually permitted to have it.
I bring up this story because I know that a lot of people would have
experienced Kwanzaa events with a large amount of white people present. What they
almost never address, though, is what goes on behind the scenes of these
events, or the context they’re created under. Kwanzaa events in which white people
are not only allowed, but expected to come tend to lean more towards educational
activity. But not educational for us, educational for them. When we want to
learn about and speak on cultural trends, activities, experiences, and issues
that are more…esoteric, those Kwanzaa events tend to be more closed. Some are
explicitly closed, while others are implicitly closed. Few cultures are 100%
accessible to outsiders, and Black culture is no different. Not everything can
be or should be understood by those whom are not part of our communities.
Additionally, people often forget the danger of open spaces. This is not pure
paranoia, there is a certain amount of danger that arises when opening a space
to outsiders. As president, I recognized that. It was my responsibility to
account for the physical and emotional safety of my members, so I was
hypervigilant for any racist activity that might occur during meeting space and
activity. In the real world, our gatherings are bombed, and shot up. Our
activists are followed by corrupt police officers attempting to frame them as
dangerous. We have to account for older individuals (and, unfortunately, not so
old individuals) whom experienced graphically traumatic, violent racism. By
keeping Kwanzaa events, and other Black gatherings closed, we can better
account for safety.
Many people argue that the themes of Kwanzaa are universal and thus
everyone should celebrate it. But the themes of Kwanzaa only become universal
when all Blackness is removed from the holiday. Yes, all communities should be
united, self-determined, share responsibility, share economics, have purpose,
and faith; but Kwanzaa is about how the BLACK community needs these things and
how the BLACK community can achieve them. It is a Black holiday. There is no
way to make it accessible to all people without first removing all of its Black
themes. Once those themes are removed, it’s not Kwanzaa, it’s something else
entirely. To argue otherwise is to hold a complete misunderstanding of the day’s
significance, and a great insult to the Pan-Africanist movement and communities
that created it.
Does that mean that everyone will freak out if a white person appears
at a Kwanzaa event? Not necessarily. Myself, and most people I know who also
think Kwanzaa should be closed are completely open to white and otherwise
non-Black family members attending with people who cannot attend alone. Every
so often, I see an article or a post about a white single parent, or white
adoptees (adopters? Idk, the parents of an adopted kid) that want their Black
child(ren) to have access to their culture, and wonder if it’s appropriate to
attend a Kwanzaa festival with them. Well…yeah, of course. They’re a kid, and
presumably the family doesn’t have any close black friends/family that can take
the kid, so yeah, go with your kid. If anyone asks, just explain why you’re
there and most people would be happy that you did such, because we all just
want our people to have access to our cultures. Like, family usually gets a
pass at Kwanzaa events.
And finally, I ask why the question is always, “can white people celebrate
kwanzaa” but never, “can Asian people celebrate kwanzaa”. Or Native Indigenous
people. Or Latinx people. Or Jewish people. When formed as a statement, it’s
always “White people can celebrate kwanzaa, all people can celebrate kwanzaa.” Whenever
discussion about non-Black people celebrating kwanzaa is brought up, it’s
always through a white lens. Is this because as a people, we still expect to be
and are expected to be analyzed and valued in terms of our usefulness and
accessibility to the white social class? Is it because, fundamentally, everyone
not only expects the answer to be ‘no’, but also completely understands WHY the
answer is ‘no’ but is simply seeking validation? Both? Just take some time and
ask yourself why it’s so important that white people (non-Black people in
general, but specifically white people) celebrate Kwanzaa. Why would they want
to, knowing its history and the reason it was created?
Q: Do you really think it’s fair
to have a holiday that not everyone can celebrate? How can you expect our
situation to improve, or the culture to spread if we aren’t open to everyone
A: Well, fundamentally, lots of holidays are closed off to outsiders,
either implicitly or explicitly. I’m not Jewish, so I don’t celebrate Yom
Kippur or Rash Hashana (I hope I didn’t misspell those). I’m not Muslim, so I
don’t celebrate Eid or Ramadan. Just because it’s not a spiritual holiday does
not mean there’s any less of a reason for it to be closed. And even if it weren’t
closed (which technically it isn’t formally closed), I again ask, why would
someone that is not part of our culture want to celebrate it? I am not South
Asian, so I do not celebrate Diwali. I am not Mexican, so I do not celebrate
Dia de Los Muertos (my keypad doesn’t have the proper characters, sorry to my
Mexican friends). If a friend invited me to one of those activities and I in no
way felt that I was intruding on a closed event, then I would go.
Secondly…we expect that our situations to improve and our cultures to spread
based on our own efforts, not someone else’s. Yeah, it’ll be difficult, but we
can do it. That’s kinda the whole point of Kwanzaa….
Also, my personal belief is that both closed and open activity is beneficial
for a social movement. Kwanzaa is but one of many closed activities. Black
History Month is but one of many open activities.
Q: Is Kwanzaa political?
Kwanzaa is political in that EVERYTHING related to Black people is
politicized. Technically, Kwanzaa
shouldn’t be political, but it is. But that’s not our fault. Affirming
ourselves and our culture and our experiences should not be politicized.
Admitting that there are problems that we as a people face both in community
and out of the community should not be politicized. Working together to fix the
problems we face should not be politicized. Being BLACK should not be
politicized. But it is, so Kwanzaa is.
Look at it this way, Kwanzaa is about as political as “Black Lives
Matter” or “Black Excellence”.
Q: Isn’t Kwanzaa just a holiday
for crazy, radical, Black Supremacists?
A: I think you already have your mind made up on that, judging from how
you phrased that question.
Q: Is it wrong to use Kwanzaa for
A: Yes and no. Yes it is wrong to abuse
Kwanzaa for your own gain as an individual.
Is it wrong, however, to use Kwanzaa as an opportunity to promote your
business, which you hope to use to aid our people? No, not at all.
That’s a bit tricky but here’s an example: Say you make, idk, a Christmas
themed jacket with a Black Santa on it. Christmas just ended, but you need an
excuse to keep selling it, so you market it as a “Kwanzaa” jacket, or you
market it as both from jump to appeal to both markets. The money you’re using
goes to yourself, for whatever reason, and you have no intention of using it to
build wealth that you’ll then redistribute to the community. This is wrong. You
should be ashamed of yourself.
Now say that you’re a designer that creates a Kwanzaa themed jacket that you
then advertise and promote to sell. While the money you get from these sales
does directly benefit you, you have every intention of using the wealth and
resources you build from this business to aid the Black community. This isn’t
an afterthought, though, it’s an integral part of your career plan to one day
use what you’ve gained from these sales to aid the Black community. This is not
only okay, but a great example of the Ujima principle.
It goes without saying that only Black people should seek to profit off
of Kwanzaa, regardless of whether or not they want to use that profit to help
the Black community. Additionally, even Black business owners are encouraged
and expected to support Black businesses while conducting their business (so if
you’re making a jacket, try and get your cloth from a black-owned company, or
use a black-owned bank, etc).
Q: This all sounds like
something I’d be interested in. But it’s two days before…can I do it next year?
A: Of course. I actually am unable to celebrate Kwanzaa this year
because of my living situation. However, I’m trying to do small things to still
recognize the holiday (like making this post). I hope that next year things
will be better so I can start going to the communal events, or even have my
first real in-home Kwanzaa. If you can’t do it this year, that’s fine.
And that’s all the questions I can think of right now. Sorry that this post was
so long but, as you can see, there’s a lot to unpack here. If anyone has any
questions, feel free to ask and I’ll try and answer them.
I really hope that this post makes more Black people open to
celebrating Kwanzaa either this or next year. To be honest, it makes me very
sad (and a little frustrated) that so many of our people don’t celebrate it.
Because once you really begin to learn about the holiday and it’s meaning, you
realize just how amazing it is. I’d really like to see a future where Kwanzaa
is bigger than the proverbial cookout, but I’ll need all your help to make that
a reality. So let’s all pull together on this, family. Or, as we say during