DECEMBER 29, 2003
Martin E. Marty
In three more days Kwanzaa will end. If you are not an African-American, it will mean little to you. Ron Karenga, the inventor in 1966 of this "family, community, and culture" event timed to overlap and compete with Christmas observance, devised it as a "whites'-hands-off" celebration. If you try to be wholly enclosed in African-American culture, you will be wholly for observing Kwanzaa. And if you are in the African-American majority, you probably will be of two minds and two hearts about observing it along with Christmas. You are ambivalent.
So is Debra J. Dickerson, author of the soon to appear The End of Blackness, who writes on this ambivalence in the New York Times (December 26). Brought up Southern Baptist, the op-editor remains, as she says, "respectful of my discarded religion" and says that "Kwanzaa, like Christianity, does nothing for me but I have to respect that it does for others." So hers is a pro-respect piece, not even an implicit "celebrate Kwanzaa" or "go to church" altar call.
Dickerson describes how blacks are torn between friends who invite them to Kwanzaa rituals and sneer at Christmas observance or who celebrate Christmas but are uneasy about accepting (or rejecting) Kwanzaa doings. (Many black churches finesse this by celebrating both.)
Picking up from Dickerson, and on my own: Kwanzaa was invented in the days of red-hot expressions of "blackness" and anti-whiteness. It found its wedge in the years of hyper-multiculturalism. By that I mean: for a while blacks, like everyone else including WASPs, were told to become separate and stay insulated from others' celebrations and observances all around them. Each tradition was to be seen as a rejection of all other traditions; all celebrations were to exclude all but their own kind. That counsel did not work. The forces of syncretism (the mixing of religious and cultural traditions, mutual borrowing, etc.) are too strong, especially in a capitalist culture in which economic energies seek ever-wider markets. Some of the militancy is gone from the Kwanzaa observance, and non-blacks are made less uneasy by the observance.
Back to Dickerson for a moment: although she rejects Kwanzaa and, for present purposes more importantly, Christianity (without telling us where she has landed), she knows that despite all the terrors, horrors, unspeakable hatreds, and dehumanizing acts of slavery wrought by Christians with strong sermonic support by white pastors, slaves did an amazing thing. They, along with their segregated successors, turned once-imposed Christianity on its head, rendered everything topsy-turvy, produced great spiritual and soul songs, and remade biblical and evangelical Christianity into a distinctive (but not necessarily particularist or hateful) instrument.
That instrument provided, and provides, more dignity, meaning, purpose, and motivation for gathered African-Americans than any other force around. Take part in inner-city activities for good, year-round, and, as a black or non-black citizen, you will find yourself rubbing elbows with heirs of black Christian liberators.
Happy end of Kwanzaa, and Happy New Year this Thursday, January 1, 2004. Faint
cheers for Kwanzaa, three cheers for respecting the black church heritage.