JANUARY 29, 2004
Kwanzaa: A Reply
M. Randolph Thompson
Culture, acculturation, and assimilation are powerful phenomena that play immense roles in shaping the lives of individuals and societies. Martin Marty proves in his article on Kwanzaa (Sightings, December 29) how much he and his subject, Debra J. Dickerson, have been shaped.
It is clear to me that people are not able to express pure and accurate thinking on the cultural mores of others where they share no common or direct relationship to its expression. Debra Dickerson is, I assume, an African-American sister and Martin Marty is of European descent. With that said, they are both examples of how much culture, acculturation, and assimilation impact individuals, even with regard to their own people and color. How one can share the same color and ethnicity of a group, and yet be at odds with the commonly held beliefs of that group, reveals the ways we are shaped within ethnic identities by myriad factors including class, environment, geography, exposure to various media outlets, institutions, life experience, etc.
Does Dr. Marty suppose that Ms. Dickerson has found so many African-Americans who have difficulty with celebrating Kwanzaa, Christmas or both, that there is a general problem with the validity of both Kwanzaa and Christmas for all African-American Christians? Further, does he suggest that all European brothers and sisters do not participate or share in the validity of Kwanzaa and Christmas? As a theologian who can only theologize from the world in which he lives, works, and relates to, he could not possibly suggest that Ms. Dickerson's position somehow legitimately devalues Kwanzaa? To the contrary, Ms. Dickerson's argument reminds us that we need to recognize Kwanzaa and value it for its contribution to the building of self-esteem, ancestral connections, community, and other powerful elements needed to continue our matriculation from a history of oppression and the effects, impact, and results of racism.
Kwanzaa is a unique lens through which all people, whites and blacks, can appreciate black history and the black experience. This recognition in no way diminishes, replaces or competes with the birth of Christ, but enhances for many of us the need for a savior. Further, for Debra and other blacks who have benefited from their ancestral roots and a society that has attempted to rectify the remnants of oppression, Kwanzaa remains a necessary catalyst for reminding and connecting a people to a history that should never be forgotten, no matter how much progress is made.
For those of us who are grounded in the Word of God and yet realize the nature of our ethnic and ancestral history, Kwanzaa serves as a great complement to the celebration of the Christ event. It would have been more useful to hear Dr. Marty express some insight with regard to his own cultural identity and the traditions that have grown up to supplant and compete with the Christ story.
Dr. M. Randolph Thompson is Senior Pastor of Community Covenant Church in Calumet Park, Illinois.