Can We Save Kwanzaa?

With the support of Nguzo Saba, African-Americans can still celebrate the true, uncommercialized meaning of Kwanzaa.

Kwanzaa, a holiday born in the midst of the 1960s Civil Rights Movement, has experienced a resurgence in the last decade and is now part of the annual round of December holidays. Hallmark stores across the country are stocked with Happy Kwanzaa cards. Companies like McDonald's and Chevrolet tout magazine ads that say "Harambee" in popular African-American publications. Even House Beautiful magazine's website offers a Kwanzaa overview, complete with recipes and links. Everywhere we turn, we see the blanket December holiday messages emblazoned before us:

"Happy Holidays! Buy your Christmas/Hanukkah/Ramadan/Kwanzaa gift here."

And there is Kwanzaa--the newbie of the bunch. As a member of the black diaspora, I immediately think, Finally! Kwanzaa has arrived! And then, as I read a magazine page a little closer, as I click to see what the Kwanzaa link leads to, I wonder: At what cost is Kwanzaa featured among these holidays? What exactly are we celebrating when Kwanzaa is not only being featured-but it's also being used in advertisements-just like the other December holidays?

Of course, I know that this is American capitalism. Where there is a buck to be made, an American will be in on it someway, somehow. As an American, I tip my hat to the resourcefulness and forethought of advertisers, and the greeting card and gift corporations. Many companies have been successful at repackaging their current merchandise and advertising it as a possible Kwanzaa gift. As an African-American, I wrestle internally about whether to buy into this idea. Should I purchase Kwanzaa gifts from a major company or not? Would we really be buying in the spirit of the seven principles (Nguzo Saba) of Kwanzaa if our gifts and products aren't meaningful?

Christopher Jean-Baptiste from Brooklyn, N.Y., is not surprised about major corporations advertising Kwanzaa. "We live in a capitalistic society. Something like that is expected," says Jean-Baptiste.

Jean-Baptiste, a desktop support technician at an internet company in New York, began to celebrate the holiday at home with his younger brother three years ago. "I mean, if organizations and companies would give to the homeless, soup kitchens, or if they will have a workshop on Kwanzaa for kids, then that would be great."

But Kwanzaa isn't really about charity. Kwanzaa is about three things: community, family, and culture. According to the Official Kwanzaa Website, the gifts, called zawadi, are given to children for the commitments they make and keep. Zawadi should always include books and heritage symbols that uplift and support African-American culture.

Is it too late to save Kwanzaa?

No. It's not. I think it is still quite possible to celebrate Kwanzaa in the way it was originally intended. According to the African-American Cultural Center in California, the celebration involves highlighting each principle of the Nguzo Saba, or seven principles of the holiday. The cultural center, the official clearinghouse and authority on Kwanzaa, stresses the importance of resisting the corporate commercialization of Kwanzaa and reaffirming the essential meaning of Kwanzaa. By upholding the principles of Kwanzaa, we can support our communities, our families, and our cultural preservation. That is how we can celebrate it in true form-minus most of the tacky commercial attempts to make a dollar.

But like anything worth having or preserving, it will involve a concerted effort. Kwanzaa is more than a cute stuffed puppy dog wearing an African dashiki or a coffee mug that says "Happy Kwanzaa!"

Here are some suggestions about how you can buy Kwanzaa products and gifts consciously:

  • Handcraft your gift or products. There are many crafts and homemade items that would be useful for any family member. Creating your own gift is preferable, because it allows you to use your creativity, your talents and your resources. Some suggestions include jewelry, soap, placemats, or other gifts for the home. For a child, you can make an African mask or create a black-history game.

  • Give the gift of you. Many of us think that we need to give material. However, gift giving is generally for the children of the family. Sometimes the best "gifts" are those we can't hold in our hands. Impart knowledge, guidance, or your expertise to a young person in your family. Kids and adults can share a story, experience, song, or other item of value from their generations. African-American children are our treasures, the new fruit of the Kwanzaa harvest. They need our guidance and the example of our lives as adults to guide them into adulthood. Just knowing that Daddy's career is successful and fulfilling to him, or that Auntie Angela knows how to crochet a sweater, or that cousin Mike volunteers, is enough.

  • Shop responsibly. If you don't have time to make gifts and decorations for Kwanzaa, seek out the best and most beautiful items and products. For example, whenever you can, buy from an African-American-owned company that makes a product you seek with high quality. Smaller scale African-American vendors often make products in keeping with the respect for knowledge and our heritage that is so integral to celebrating Kwanzaa. Supporting businesses in our communities is a way to get into the spirit of ujamaa, or cooperative economics, which is to build and maintain our own businesses and to profit from them together.

    This isn't a knock at "the system." Rather, it's a vote of support for a specific section of the system under which we all operate. Many smaller African-American-owned businesses are not a part of the mainstream, and they may not have the marketing budgets or the financial resources major corporations do. It may take a little more work to find these companies, but they often offer quality products-and they will benefit from your business. Because of the growing American economy, African-Americans as a group buy more and have more purchasing power than ever. According to the black-consumer-market authority Target Market News, African-Americans spent close to $300 billion in 1999 on products and services. Think of how well we could build our African-American communities if we put more money back into them.

    A Kwanzaa celebration is most fruitful when you offer others your best virtues. A Kwanzaa gift can mean more than just checking off another person from your gift list. The thought and energy you put into a Kwanzaa gift is one of the rewarding parts of giving it.
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