The Forty Year Old Kwanzaa Virgin

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.


Anonymous said...

I am a 30 year old Kwanzaa Virgin too much for the same reasons as the writer of this piece, no exposure. I grew up in a predominately black school system in Atlanta and went to an HBCU, even so none of those institutions really focused much on the Kwanzaa celebration. Last year I took some initiative to find out exactly what the holiday was about. While I found the principles of Kwanzaa to be very enlightening not only for the black population but for the population as a whole I am still not so sure I am sold on the whole thing. I think preparing for Christmas is challenging enough with cooking, buying presents, and preparing for family. I don't think I am ready to add one more element to my plate. I guess for the time, at least, I will remain a Kwanzaa vigin...

Mrs. J said...

Don't be ashamed, I went to an HBCU as well and wasn't pressured into it there either! It's a personal decision. :)

Lori said...

Mrs. J,
The story you told about looking for Kwanzaa in Africa made me chuckle. Now, you do know Kwanzaa is very much an "African-AMERICAN creation" right? (smile) In any case, I've had the pleasure of participating in a number of Kwanzaa celebrations over the years. There really is no "one way" or "right way" of celebrating the holiday. Each one in which I've participated has been different.

In my hometown (Memphis) there is a sizeable African American population and for years, various community and civic organizations have sponsored Kwanzaa events that are free and open to the public. Typically, at these events the 7 principles and the symbols of Kwanzaa are discussed, the appropriate candle or candles on the kinara are lit, libations are poured and there may (or may not) be speakers, drumming (on African drums), food and the like. If there is a Blk newspaper in your area, you might want to check there for similar community celebrations.

I have a friend who for the past several years has regularly invited folks over to celebrate one night or afternoon of KWZ. At the last one I attended, in addition to discussing the principle of the day and lighting the candles, she served a variety of African dishes and had a couple of her nieces entertain us with a short skit. In recent years, ESSENCE magazine has done a good job of presenting recipe and entertaining ideas for home-based KWZ celebrations.

The very first KWZ in which I actively participated (brought food, made a presentation, etc) was one I got drafted into by one of my sister-in-laws. Some of my more "religious" relatives were somewhat leery of the whole notion, but it turned out to be a lot of fun and one of the more memorable. To appease those who feared our actions would get them stuck with a one-way ticket to hell, we incorporated quite a few Christian-like aspects to the celebration. We said prayers, we had each person talk about what they were thankful for and we even (at my sis-in-law's insistence) sang one of those ole Negro spirituals (LOL). At the end of the formal presentations, my niece's boyfriend shocked everyone by dropping down on one knee, whipping out a ring and asking for her hand in marriage.

In our own house, rather than a full-scale event, we typically have a "Kwanzaa moment." We light the candles, we talk about the symbols and the principles and we pour a libation in memory of our ancestors. And to be honest, our son's sudden interest in the holiday when he turned 8 is the main reason we started doing that (smile). Anyway, sorry for being so long-winded, but hope that helps.

Mrs. J said...

Thanks, Lori –

Yeah, the African piece might have been surprising to some people, but I really did go over there looking for the original harvest festival our Kwanzaa was based on (and for people in traditional garb to fling their arms out upon seeing me and shout "Welcome home, my sister!", but that's another post). Looking back, I was pretty naive during those college days...about men, my credit, Kwanzaa...

Anyway, I appreciate your letting me in on your family's experience with the holiday. There are no black papers up here (just this blog LOL) because we live in the sticks (my husband's a professor). But we'll be spending the holiday in Philly and will light the kinara with friends of ours who have been doing it since their five year old was born. My older daughter will be thrilled, their girls are like cousins to her and she'll be so happy to participate in their family's tradition with them.

Now, if I can just get her to stop calling the kinara a "menorah", everything will be cool...

I really love the fact that it's a celebration that leaves so much room for creative expression. Including marriage proposals (how sweet!:))

Keith said...

Mrs. J you're being to hard on yourself. It's not a "problem" that you never celebrated Kwanzaa. In my entire life I've only known one family that celebrated the holiday, and the following year they didn't. I too am a Kwanzaa virgin, no where near 40 *smile*, but still quite ignorant of the holiday. This year my family will make the attempt and it'll probably not be perfect, but I know it'll be just right. Enjoy it!

plez... said...

I'm an actual, real live 40 year old Kwanza Virgin! Never celebrated it. And probably never will. I think it starts sometime after Christmas, but I don't have any friends or relatives who celebrate it. And after the way Christmas shopping pillages my bank account, if it costs more than a couple of bucks to pull off, I doubt I'll be able to afford it, either! *smile*

By the way, I love this blog, I'm going to BlogRoll you so that I'll visit it on a regular basis.

Mrs. J said...

Thanks, plez! It's great to have you in our community. I look forward to checking out your blog.

Anonymous said...
This comment has been removed by a blog administrator.
Anonymous said...
This comment has been removed by a blog administrator.
Mrs. J said...

Dear anonymous commenter whose posts I've deleted twice,

The opinions of Tony Snow are not welcome on this blog. This anecdotal essay was based on personal experience which I have every right to share with the readers of Our Kind of Parenting.

If you have a different point of view and aren't too cowardly to show your true identity, please feel free to post it here with your name. Unless you're Tony Snow.

Most Sincerely,

Mrs. J