As I thought about writing this blog reflecting on Kwanzaa, I struggled with how honest and transparent I wanted to be writing about Kwanzaa and sharing my feelings as a black man living in America at this particular moment in history—a moment characterized by strong differences of opinions that are playing themselves out along racial lines.
I find it both difficult and insightful reflecting on and celebrating Kwanzaa within the current climate of racial tensions, riots and protests surrounding all of the recent killings of African American men and boys by police officers, who, because of grand jury decisions not to return indictments, have not even been required to go to trial for any of these killings.
One of the reasons I find it insightful reflecting on and celebrating Kwanzaa within this current climate of racial violence against black men is because Kwanzaa was founded almost 50 years ago in the midst of the Black Power Movement—a movement in response to white supremacy and racial violence against black people.
Kwanzaa was founded in 1966 by Maulana Karenga, who also founded the black cultural nationalist organization United Slaves (US). In the late 1960s, US was one of the many black organizations (along with the Black Panthers) targeted by the FBI. Kwanzaa began at the height of the Black Nationalist movement—just one year after Malcolm X was assassinated and the Watts riots ripped through Los Angeles.
Two years ago (i.e. 2012) three black women, Alicia Garza, Patrisse Cullors and Opal Tometi created a social movement on Twitter identified as #BlackLivesMatter. The movement was a call to action after 17-year-old Trayvon Martin was posthumously placed on trial for his own murder while the killer, George Zimmerman, was not held accountable for stalking and killing Martin.
According to the Black Lives Matter website, "Black Lives Matter is an ideological and political intervention in a world where Black lives are systematically and intentionally targeted for demise."
The Black Lives Matter movement has gained national and international recognition since the failure of two grand juries to return indictments against the police officer responsible for killing Michael Brown in Ferguson, Missouri, and the police officer responsible for killing Eric Garner in Staten Island, New York.
In addition to these two cases, there is also the case of John Crawford III, a 22-year-old African American man killed inside a Wal-Mart store in August after a caller phoned police accusing Crawford of brandishing a gun and pointing it at customers. The surveillance video from the store, however, reveals Crawford simply looking at a toy rifle and talking on a cell phone (with his wife and parents). The video also reveals police confronting Crawford and within a span of seconds shouting and shooting Crawford twice, killing him. Similar to the Michael Brown and Eric Garner cases, an Ohio grand jury concluded police were justified in killing John Crawford.
Then there's the case of Tamir Rice, a 12-year-old black boy shot and killed by police in a park in Cleveland, Ohio while playing in the snow with a bb gun. According to police accounts, Tamir was confronted by officers responding to a 911 call about a male who appeared to be pulling a gun in and out of his pants. The 911 caller said the gun was "probably fake," then added, "I don't know if it's real or not." A video recording of the incident shows a Cleveland police officer less than 10 feet away when he shot and killed Tamir. As of the writing of this blog, the two officers involved in the shooting have been placed on administrative leave, but no decision has been made regarding whether charges will be filed against the officers.
These and countless other incidents leave many black people furious. Years of anecdotal evidence—as well as research and numerous studies—demonstrate that there is a pattern of policing in black communities and in response to black people that results in a far greater likelihood of black men and boys being shot and killed even when they are unarmed and pose a physical threat to no one.
It is within this context of police killing black men with impunity—a context that suggests and reveals a systemic devaluing of black life—that I find myself reflecting on the historic importance of Kwanzaa.
While I have often reflected on the cultural significance of Kwanzaa, I have typically reflected less on the historic importance of Kwanzaa, especially as that historic importance relates to present realities of violence and injustice perpetuated against black people.
In a context of systemic and institutional racial violence against black people that devalues black life, Maulana Karenga developed Kwanzaa as a celebration for black people to recognize and honor both the individual and communal value and worth of black life.
Nearly 50 years after the founding of Kwanzaa, the #BlackLivesMatter movement has brought people of various colors and nationalities together to continue the fight against systemic racial violence against black people by emphasizing the value, worth and importance of black lives.
For those who may be completely unfamiliar with Kwanzaa, Kwanzaa is an annual cultural observance, celebrated Dec. 26 through Jan. 1. The celebration honors African heritage in African-American culture, focusing on seven core principles (Nguzo Saba).
These seven communitarian principles are: Umoja (unity), Kujichagulia (self-determination), Ujima (collective work and responsibility), Ujamaa (cooperative economics), Nia (purpose), Kuumba (creativity), and Imani (faith).
The emphasis on the Nguzo Saba stresses the importance of communitarian values that prioritize family, community and culture.
While Kwanzaa began as African American celebration, the values promoted are beneficial for all people and lead to the building of stronger communities and a stronger nation.
As an African-American professor who teaches on a predominantly white college campus, I believe the increase in the celebration of Kwanzaa on predominantly white college campuses provides an opportunity for students of various racial and ethnic backgrounds to understand the principles of worth, value and human dignity promoted by Kwanzaa. Kwanzaa provides an opportunity to use African-American cultural experiences as a lens through which to examine and reflect upon the values and practices of our broader society—especially when such practices devalue the lives of certain groups of people.
To that end, as I reflect on Kwanzaa 2014, I wish everyone, "Heri za Kwanzaa" (Happy Kwanzaa).