Kwanzaa All Year

Kinara (Candle Holder)

I spent more time thinking about Kwanzaa in 2020 than I had in the entirety of my life. I learned a lot of troubling things about the man credited with creating Kwanzaa, Maulana Karenga. I also learned about the Mother of Kwanzaa Makinya Sibejo-Kouate, a woman who attended graduate school with the Karenga, helped turned Kwanzaa into a practice, and spread it around the world. Mother Makinya was the best discovery of the season.

Perhaps it was because the 45th president helped to unleash a torrent of anti-blackness across the nation, or because the global pandemic was particularly deadly to Black folk, that I took what was a job task and turned it into a serious reflection. Kwanzaa offers something that is worth considering all year—not just the 7 days at the end.

So, I’ve decided to make a year of it. I will focus my writing here on the Nguzo Saba and approach Kwanzaa 2021 with a new energy and a deeper understanding of what it means to practice the principles. For six weeks, I’ll offer my thoughts on a principal and then move to the next.

First up, Umoja.


Umoja: Unity. To strive for an maintain unity in the family, community, nation, and race.

How timely is this? Unity is the theme of the moment. President Biden talked about it in his inaugural address and now Republicans are using it as a bludgeon to avoid accountability for crimes against the Republic.

Umoja offers a definition of unity that centers on things that are good and of mutual benefit. And it does so at multiple levels—family, intergenerational, local community, and global community. What is good and of mutual benefit among Black people? If it is good for us, is it good for others?

I embraced Black feminism as an adult. What appealed to me most was the core of the message of the Combahee River Collective that asserted when Black woman are free, everyone will be free. I’ve adopted it as a first principle. I test every social policy against it. If it is good for Black women, it is good for everyone.

(NOTE: It’s more complex than it sounds. See Targeted Universalism.)

A simplistic reading could easily devolve into “What if everyone felt that way?” To which I must respond, power and position matter. And that is what is most annoying about the recent insurrection and the claims to victimhood of white nationalists and white supremacists. I encourage anyone who doubts the applicability of my first principle to test it out. Add any other identity to “Black woman” and think through what a fundamental improvement in that life would mean for everyone else.

The only exception to the principle would be Indigenous women, and I fully accept that. I am not sufficiently steeped in Indigenous feminism to engage in any discussion of it, but I suspect that policy solutions for Indigenous woman—given the specific history—might not extend to others in the same way. I am open to learning more.

Back to Umoja, which is really about Black unity. We have quite a bit of work to do in the U.S. Many of us have fully embraced capitalism, which makes it hard to be in unity with Black labor. Others of us have embraced political elitism, which makes it hard to be in unity with Black folk who are more interested in using politics to improve lives than in using it for personal advancement. Some have fully embraced a white evangelical theology, which makes it hard for Black folk to love themselves and work together for our collective liberation. And the list goes on.

What then can be done to get us to unity? I accept that it matters. This is going to be tough one to wrestle with.