New York Four years ago, Evita Broughton celebrated Kwanzaa for the first time with her family — lighting a candle each night and discussing the respective principle.
But she hasn’t celebrated the holiday since.
“It felt like a school project that lasted seven nights,” said Broughton, 27, of Marietta, Ga. “I didn’t feel like I had that connection. I tried to share my experiences with others but no one else was celebrating it.”
Kwanzaa, which runs from Dec. 26 to Jan. 1, may be a mainstream holiday with greeting cards, postage stamps and public celebrations, but experts say its popularity is receding.
It will not be getting a boost from the first family. The Obamas do not personally celebrate Kwanzaa, according to White House aides, though a written message from the president is likely, in keeping with the practice of his most recent predecessors, Presidents George W. Bush and Bill Clinton.
Kwanzaa was created in 1966 by Maulana Ron Karenga, a professor at California State University, Long Beach, who is also executive director of the African American Cultural Center in Los Angeles.
The holiday was a way for African Americans to honor their culture, but it was also part of the black power movement of the era. The big boom in Kwanzaa came during its first two decades, according to Keith Mayes, author of “Kwanzaa: Black Power and the Making of the African-American Holiday Tradition.”
But he said participation has leveled off. Based on his research, he estimates a half-million to 2 million people in the U.S. celebrate Kwanzaa, out of about 40 million Americans identified by the U.S. Census as black, including those who are multiracial.
Mayes, an assistant professor of African American & African Studies at the University of Minnesota, says the black power movement was the “engine” for Kwanzaa, and the holiday faded as the movement receded. It started amid talk of revolution, black power and community control, but “in the ’90s and in the 21st century, it’s no longer referenced that way,” said Mayes, adding that white institutions celebrate it as part of a broader diversity initiative. “It’s all about inclusion, diversity, goodwill, multiculturalism.”
Although Kwanzaa started here, it has become a Pan-African holiday. The African American Cultural Center places the number of those who observe Kwanzaa worldwide at 30 million, but even that is a small fraction of the hundreds of millions of people of African descent all over the world.
The word comes from the Swahili phrase “matunda ya kwanza,” which means “first fruits.” It is not a religious holiday so it can be celebrated in conjunction with Christmas and Hanukkah. The weeklong observance is based on seven principles — one for each day — known as the Nguzo Saba: Umoja (unity), Kujichagulia (self-determination), Ujima (collective work and responsibility), Ujamaa (cooperative economics), Nia (purpose), Kuumba (creativity) and Imani (faith).
Celebrations take multiple forms, from a family lighting a candle each night in their home to an afternoon community celebration with African song and dance honoring the principles.
‘Mind-boggling’ for some
Camille Zeigler, president of the Atlanta Alumnae Chapter for Delta Sigma Theta Sorority Inc., said many of the girls who are first-timers at the black sorority’s annual Kwanzaa celebration know very little about the holiday.
“When you start talking about Kwanzaa and the history of it and what it truly means for African American people, this is something that is new and mind-boggling for some of our students,” she said.
Broughton said when she told black friends she was observing Kwanzaa, she had to give them a lesson on its meaning. They had heard of it, but didn’t know anyone who celebrated it.
Yvette Braswell, 37, of Studio City, Calif., who celebrated Kwanzaa a couple of times with her family, said once she moved to the Los Angeles area nine years ago, she struggled to find others in her inner circle who did.
“I think it’s the culture in L.A.,” said Braswell, who owns an online vintage store. She hasn’t observed Kwanzaa in years. “People’s cultural values aren’t that strong here, in my opinion.”
‘Get rid of it’
Some blacks, though, rejected the concept of Kwanzaa all along, considering it a pagan holiday and taking issue with its founder, a black nationalist and ex-con — he was convicted of torturing two women.
Nicole Duncan-Smith, 36, of Brooklyn, N.Y., considers Kwanzaa a distraction from Christmas and says it doesn’t make sense to honor the holiday’s seven principles only during Kwanzaa as opposed to all year.
“I think I have a strong connection to my African heritage,” she said, adding that she has issues with the background of the founder, Karenga. “But I don’t think this particular holiday is of African derivative.”
The Rev. Jesse Lee Peterson, founder of BOND (Brotherhood Organization of a New Destiny) and author of “SCAM: How the Black Leadership Exploits Black America” believes the holiday is racist. He advocates for blacks to see themselves as Americans — not African-Americans, thus no separate holiday.
“Get rid of it,” said Peterson, who is black. “Reject it completely. Just as we would do if a white racist came up with a false holiday to celebrate whiteness.”
But the need for African people to be connected to their culture hasn’t gone away, said Chimbuko Tembo, assistant director of the center. She said she hears from people all over the world who want to celebrate what it means to be of African descent.
“It brings me back to my ancestors,” said Ruth Dorsey, 48, a teacher who lives in Union City, Ga., who has been observing Kwanzaa for almost 20 years.
Teresa Hendrix Franco, 44, of Huntersville, N.C., has been observing Kwanzaa with her family for nearly 30 years, sometimes renting out a community center to hold all the people.
“We started celebrating Kwanzaa when people were like ‘uh huh, whatever,’ not taking it seriously,” said Franco, who is from the Bronx, N.Y. “So many people have embraced it. We have passed the word on to other people.”