Okay, I'll admit it. I'm actually closer to thirty than forty, but it's just as embarrassing that I'm a thirty-something black woman who has never experienced Kwanzaa. It's not for lack of drive, I love black people. And as far as Afrocentric celebrations go, you might not ever see me sporting an entire African ensemble, but I'd be fine to wrap some cloth around my head. It's when the lights are dimmed that I start to feel uncomfortable...I have no idea what I should do with a kinara, let alone what happens after that. I'm completely inexperienced in all things related to Kwanzaa. Sure, I've had fantasies about the whole experience, but I've never really done the deed. And at my age, it's a problem.
It's not for lack of opportunity – I've had plenty of chances, starting as early as twelve years old. In sixth grade, the principal of my predominantly white, suburban middle school announced that there'd be a competition to see who could create the most festive homeroom door. All of the homeroom presidents would be in charge, and given that I had just been elected, I delegated responsibility like we were hooking up the entrance to Oprah's Legends Ball. I completely threw myself into into decorating those double doors, decking them out in red and green on one side and a huge gold menorah on the other – dreidel next to it and everything. But much to my dismay, we were disqualified for forgetting to include Kwanzaa. I was stunned. Kwa-what? I was less shocked that I hadn't remembered it than the fact that the school even knew what it was. At the time, most of the other black kids I knew thought "Imani" had something to do with Giorgio. After being informed of my faux pas, my red-haired, aspiring Nazi of a homeroom teacher bawled me out in front of the entire class: "How could you – of all people – not remember Kwanzaa? You're black!"
Like many hangups people have, my attitude about Kwanzaa mostly had to do with my family's opinion concerning the holiday when I was growing up. They didn't have a negative attitude about it, they just didn't have one at all. The most Afrocentric thing I remember doing around the holidays was sitting between my mom's knees as she braided my hair to take pictures on a white Santa's lap. For us, the most important holiday of the winter season was Christmas. Every year, the house was decorated like a scene out of a Thomas Kincade painting. When we were very young, my aunt came over and baked cookies with my brother and me to leave out for Santa on Christmas Eve. And Santa came correct, bringing us so many presents that there was no need to even bother wrapping them for us—he just stuck them all under the tree au natural. And that was fine. Because to us – like most kids – it really all came down to the toys. The goodwill, cheer and spirit of giving part came later. And the awareness of an African American seasonal holiday came somewhere after that.
People talked about Kwanzaa, but nobody I knew was actually doing it. Not even by my senior year at college, when I spent the Christmas holidays in West Africa. I was out a Ghanain nighclub, dancing to Naughty by Nature and watching BET videos on a large screen tv monitor when I ran into a classmate of mine from school. Never had I imagined that I'd be thousands of miles from Atlanta and run into someone from college. We lived in the same hall yet barely knew eachother, but that didn't stop her from being kind enough to invite me to a New Years Day party at her parents house. "Great" I thought, "maybe I'll learn the real meaning of Kwanzaa". I just knew I'd stumble across some reference to at least one of the African harvest festivals that Dr. Karenga based the holiday on. So I showed up to the lavish estate (a complete shock to me, considering my classmate's sterile dorm room only had a bed and a desk with a pile of books on it) only to witness all of her family members – servants included – milling around, eating traditional food, dancing to high life, talking about the jewelry they just got for Christmas and the types of cars they drove. There were no libations poured, no mention of the seven principles, and I really felt let down.
For the duration of the occasion, I snooped around the luxurious home, scrounging for signs of Pan Africanism. Nothing. I gave up and sat in the parlor, pissed off that I had come all the way to Africa simply to find that nobody knew or even cared about Kwanzaa. A little toddler waddled up to me as I sat there sulking, and started babbling to me in universal baby talk. His uncles just sat back and laughed "must be Kiswahili," one said. Instead of going off and screaming "What's wrong with you bourgie Africans?!" I became indifferent. I decided that if African people didn't care about the Nguzo Saba, then I didn't need to either. Just like a person having dreadlocks doesn't guarantee they're no sellout, I didn't feel that choosing not to celebrate Kwanzaa made me any less black.
It was a personal decision that had nothing to do with my religion. I just decided to save it for after marriage. Mostly because I wanted kids. Today I have three, and considering they're not going to grow up watching Roots, I know I need to get busy. I can't take it for granted that just because this is a society that celebrates diversity more than when I was a kid, my own children won't need all the positive exposure to their heritage they can get. They're not going to have Public Enemy encouraging them to "fight the power" (like when when Flav was just a crazy brother with a clock, not showing out on national tv).
Principles like "faith" and "self-determination" are concepts I want my kids to have an understanding of not just as black people, but as human beings. And as a black person, I can't stress the importance of "collective responsibility" to them enough. So I'm ready to find out what everybody's saying is so great about Kwanzaa. Of course the first time, I want to exeprience it with someone I truly love. But after that, I want to go out and have Kwanzaa with anyone and everyone who wants to do it too. It might have taken me forever, but this will be the year I finally go all the way.