Wednesday, December 31, 2008

Thoughts of a Middle Aged White Guy on the Last Days of Kwanzaa

Today is the last day of Kwanza. It is a man made holiday that was started in the 1960’s during a time when Africaan Americans were wrestling with issues of how their African origins meshed with an American identity.

The holiday starts on December 26 and ends on January 1. Each day stresses a particular value, the name of which is given in Swahili.

I looked on one of many Kwanzaa web sites for a list of the seven values stressed in the course of the holiday. The site lists the themes as follows .

Umoja (oo-MO-jah) Unity stresses the importance of togetherness for the family and the community, which is reflected in the African saying, “I am We,” or “I am because We are .

“Kujichagulia (koo-gee-cha-goo-LEE-yah) Self-Determination requires that we define our common interests and make decisions that are in the best interest of our family and community.

Ujima (oo-GEE-mah) Collective Work and Responsibility reminds us of our obligation to the past, present and future, and that we have a role to play in the community, society, and world.

Ujamaa (oo-JAH-mah) Cooperative economics emphasizes our collective economic strength and encourages us to meet common needs through mutual support.

Nia (NEE-yah) Purpose encourages us to look within ourselves and to set personal goals that are beneficial to the community.

Kuumba (koo-OOM-bah) Creativity makes use of our creative energies to build and maintain a strong and vibrant community

Imani (ee-MAH-nee) Faith focuses on honoring the best of our traditions, draws upon the best in ourselves, and helps us strive for a higher level of life for humankind, by affirming our self-worth and confidence in our ability to succeed and triumph in righteous struggle.

I am completely torn in how I relate to this holiday. Most disturbing is the total lack of any mention of a Supreme Being or Creator in the entire seven day span of Kwanzaa. I am not disturbed by the fact that the holiday is man made. I am disturbed by the fact that it is man centered. In this respect, it seems to be just another secular humanist propaganda pitch dressed in ethnic garb.

The central themes of Kwanzaa are frankly ambiguous and incoherent. If I ever had to sit through a Kwanzaa sermon on the seven principles of the holiday, I would probably nod off to sleep

Not at all disturbing to me is the Afrocentric nature of Kwanzaa. Unlike other ethnic minorities in America, most African Americans do not have a neatly mapped family tree. Most did not leave Africa under comfortable circumstances. Indeed, they were sold as slaves by rival tribes. Therefore, evidence of ties to a specific African nationality, tribe or language group are fragmentary at best. Peculiarities of dialect, folk tales passed from generation to generation or a distinctive craft can be an ethnic marker. In the absence of family names and stories passed down with a direct link to a town or village in Africa, baffling and ambiguous clues are the only way to reconstruct the past.

There is a group of African Americans in South Carolina who weave very distinctive baskets from a particular species swamp grass.The designs are very elaborate. The craft is passed down in families and is directly traceable to a particular part of West Africa. These people are considered fortunate to have so concrete a clue as the baskets they weave. The majority of African Americans do not have such certainty .

One branch of my family came to America with no information about where they were from. I know very little about them. I know what region they came from. I also know that they buried a child at sea who would be my uncle. Beyond these fragments of information, I know almost nothing. I compensate for this lack of knowledge by collecting stories of immigrants and learning about the approximate area from which my grandparents originally came . It is from this that I can understand the restlessness of African Americans, who were in most cases even stripped of their names.

Kwanzaa is a man made holiday. It is a conscious effort to create a generic African Afrocentric festival. Its vocabulary is Swahili which grew out of contact between Africans, Arabs and Persians. There are many languages spoken in Africa. Why choose Swahili? Could Norwegian be considered a language that represents Europe? Does it resemble Albanian, Czech or Sicilian? Africa is no less diverse than Europe.

The founder of Kwanzaa was a radical anti white activist named Ron Everett, who crowned himself with a cluster of grandiose African names. Even within the Black nationalist movement, he was violent to his opponents. Indeed, the time he served in prison was for the kidnapping and torture of two women who were his ideological rivals within the Black nationalist movement. The dominant themes of Kwanzaa are nationalistic and human centered rather than promoting any worship of G-d.

With all of its fatal flaws, I understand the reasons that Kwanzaa resonates with many African Americans. The African American experience is an integral part of the American historical narrative. It can not be left out of American history. To leave the interpretation of the African American experience to radical atheists or Muslims would be a tragic mistake.

Communists like to dismiss religion as “the opium of the people”. They are quick to note that the Christianity taught by slave owners to their slaves stressed servility. In some localities, teaching a slave to read was considered a crime. Understandably, literate slaves quickly identified with the narrative of the Exodus and developed a theology that affirmed the humanity of African American believers.

The African Methodist Episcopal Church is one example of African Americans defining their own faith and not leaving such a task in the hands of those who believed them to be inferior. Their web site describes their beginnings as follows.

“The AMEC grew out of the Free African Society (FAS) which Richard Allen, Absalom Jones, and others established in Philadelphia in 1787. When officials at St. George’s MEC pulled blacks off their knees while praying, FAS members discovered just how far American Methodists would go to enforce racial discrimination against African Americans. Hence, these members of St. George’s made plans to transform their mutual aid society into an African congregation. Although most wanted to affiliate with the Protestant Episcopal Church, Allen led a small group who resolved to remain Methodists. In 1794 Bethel AME was dedicated with Allen as pastor. To establish Bethel’s independence from interfering white Methodists, Allen, a former Delaware slave, successfully sued in the Pennsylvania courts in 1807 and 1815 for the right of his congregation to exist as an independent institution. Because black Methodists in other middle Atlantic communities encountered racism and desired religious autonomy, Allen called them to meet in Philadelphia to form a new Wesleyan denomination, the AME.”

There are many people in Africa as well who belong to religious movements in which political control of the denomination is in the hands of Africans and not Europeans. This is an entirely understandable development. Many religious denominations were born of a desire for local control. Politics and religion are never completely separate.

Revolutionaries such as the Communists and the Black Panthers tend to blame capitalists or white people for the ills of society. Traditional faith lays primary emphasis on the responsibility of the individual to improve his or her self. Traditional faith communities recognize that the best system is still only as good as the individuals within it. An indigenous religious denomination based upon this realization can accomplish a great deal. If it is based on class warfare and denial of individual responsibility, then its fruits are likely to be bitter and toxic.

I can understand the need of African Americans to define their own history and to take pride in it. It is unfortunate that radical and destructive elements have been the first to recognise this need. There is a place for honouring the African American contribution to the world of faith and the special lessons that African American history adds to our national dialogue. Kwanzaa points to this need. It does not meet it. A holiday that is man centered and not G-d centered will not uplift those who celebrate it. If Kwanzaa were a car, it would be a lemon. As such, it should be towed, junked and replaced. I hope this happens soon.

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