Callie Crossley: I'm Callie Crossley in for Tanzina Vega. You're listening to The Takeaway. Tomorrow marks the final day of Kwanzaa, the annual week-long celebration, honoring African and African-American culture. Like most holidays, Kwanzaa looks a lot different in 2020 because of the COVID-9 pandemic, which has disproportionately impacted Black people in the US. Between that and the months of protests against systemic racism and police brutality, it's been a traumatic year for Black Americans, one that's made Kwanzaa and what it stands for especially resonant. Here to discuss that and more is Christina Greer, Associate Professor of Political Science at Fordham University and author of the book Black Ethnics: Race, Immigration and the Pursuit of the American Dream. Christina, welcome to the show.
Christina Greer: Thank you so much for having me back.
Callie: Also with us is Karen Queen Nur Abdul-Malik, Teaching Artists Director of the Folklife Center at Perkins Center for the Arts, and an international storyteller known as Queen Nur. Queen Nur, habari gani?
Karen Queen Nur Abdul-Malik: Kuumba, habari gani?
Callie: That's right. For those of us who's never celebrated, Queen Nur, what is Kwanzaa and what does it celebrate?
Queen: Kwanzaa is a harvest holiday for African Americans and people of African descent in the greater diaspora. It began in 1966 and was founded by Maulana Karenga. I say it's a harvest holiday because all year long we plant our seeds, our seeds of good. It might not be the seeds when Maulana traveled through Africa, he looked at the harvest holidays, how they would plant and work the land, and then they would have a celebration at the end.
Sometimes it would be 10 days, 14 days, 21 days. He said we don't have the opportunity to have a celebration, a harvest celebration, and so Kwanzaa was engendered so that we can celebrate the good that we have planted in our community using seven principles all year long.
Callie: It's cultural, not religious, right?
Queen: Absolutely. It is a cultural holiday. It is not a religious holiday. However, it is spiritual, because as Africans and people of African descent, we do not separate the spirit from the dailiness of our lives, but it is not religious and/or acquainted or connected to any religion.
Callie: Christina, why was Kwanzaa created, how much of it was connected to the social unrest of the late 1960s?
Christina: We have to remember that the Black Power movements of the 1960s and '70s created, in many ways, a similar parallel situation that we're witnessing today, where Black communities needed to come together to feel unified, to feel like they needed to define themselves and speak for themselves, to build and maintain their own organizations for their own protection and advancement. We find ourselves in 2020, sadly, needing to do those same things because of the lack of real substantive racial progress that has been made in this country in certain institutions.
When we think about the seven principles of unity and self-determination and collective work and responsibility, and cooperative economics as we think about issues like defunding the police, and how do we build and maintain our own stores and shops and businesses and work together and use money and resources and keep those in our communities, or purpose, or creativity, we've seen the beautiful creativity coming out of pain and anguish, which leads us into the final day, which is what it's all about in faith, and how we push our hearts forward for a better society, for a better family, for a better community, and to better ourselves.
I think that's why to have faith, which is Imani on January 1, it's such a powerful way to end the celebration of Kwanzaa.
Callie: Back then, did it catch on right away, or did it take a few decades to become more widely recognized, Christina?
Christina: I don't know how many African Americans in the United States celebrate Kwanzaa. I did not grow up celebrating Kwanzaa. I have to be honest, this is the first year that I really-- Every year I look over the principles and reflect on them briefly, but I will say that this is the first year that I really read a lot more and each morning reflected on which of the principles of the day, what they meant to me, and actually had discussions with different friends and colleagues about that.
I think, interestingly enough, we saw how Juneteenth caught on this year after the tragic death of George Floyd. So many corporations and companies and businesses around the country were thinking of real ways to celebrate and recognize Juneteenth. I haven't necessarily seen it in the same ways this year, but I am curious to see moving forward, if a new generation of Black Americans and Black people in America will see this holiday as something of a reminder, especially after the hectic Christmas holidays, when people are allowed to be back with their families again to think about these really seven important principles.
Callie: Queen, of the seven principles including Umoja (Unity), Nia (Purpose), Kuumba (Creativity), which is today's principle, which Kwanzaa principle resonate with you this year in particular, are there any that standout?
Queen: Always, Kujichagulia (self-determination), that's one that's always high on my list. That's because we have to name ourselves, define ourselves. I'm really thinking about languaging this year. As people are talking about anti-racism in this, people are talking about right white supremacy, labeling is very, very important, how we look at that, and what we define and call ourselves as, even when you go into right for grant and communities are marginalized or underserved, that we can flip that language and change that language, so we define ourselves and identify ourselves with empowering words and for identity and to raise up our youth and our generations with empowering.
Another one that's always important to me is Nia. Just yesterday, I saw Alicia Garcia, and she had the purpose of power behind her book that she has written, and purpose is always that's in my daily life. It is key, so are the seven principles actually. We should work those seven principles, use those seven principles to impact our communities 365 days of the year, but knowing our purpose in understanding our greatness, because along with those seven principles comes the recommitment to our communities, the celebration of the good and of our history and of our strong foundation like the Mkeka is our foundation, it's our root, and so we celebrate all of that as well.
The symbols are important that we place upon the table, as is every single principle. This year, there's not a principle that's not aligned with moving our communities forward in terms of Black Lives Matters movement, even in climate change, because our environment is important. It's not a principle that is not apropos.
Callie: Christina, we saw countless white people and non-Black people of color observe or acknowledge other holidays like Juneteenth this year. Is Kwanzaa, also being honored outside the Black community today?
Christina: I genuinely don't know. I haven't read any stories that-- This summer when we saw so many different types of people and cultures celebrating Juneteenth and recognizing it and writing about it and what it meant to them, I have not seen that same level of fervor. That doesn't mean it's not happening. I do think that there's some confusion about Kwanzaa still, as Queen Nur mentioned, it is not a religious holiday, but because it falls so closely within the Hanukkah, Christmas time period, I think some people get a little confused and think that is an African-American religious holiday, which it is not.
I do think that it can be inclusive because of the seven principles that Queen Nur has laid out for us. I think it would be especially in this time of collective healing in the United States, I would love to see a real substantive conversation about Umoja, which is a unity, or Nia, which is purpose, or Ujima, which is our collective work and responsibility, or thinking about schoolchildren who have not been in school for several months, how do we keep Kuumba in creativity in their minds and hearts as they go back to virtual school in January?
I think that there is room for conversation and inclusion. I just don't know if many non-Black Americans have picked up this important celebration as something that they're interested in. To be honest, I don't know how many Black Americans would feel comfortable necessarily with opening it in a specific way. I think that that would be a different type of conversation about what this holiday would mean if it's opened up to a wider audience without real conversation about why it was necessary and why it's still necessary for Black people in this particular country.
Callie: Queen Nur, you thought hard about not even having a celebration this year, even though now you decided to go for it with a virtual one. Why do you think this is important and what do you think about the resurgence of interest and the more widespread adoption of Kwanzaa in the future?
Queen: I think that what happened was, I was thinking in my mind, Kwanzaa, it's a gathering, it's about ingathering, it's about coming together and they're like, "We can't come together," but yet we have seen from March how people have ingathered, how people have come together. I know a family that meets every Friday on Zoom. We have meetings in terms of businesses, I'm an artist, so there's been many meetings across the Zoom platform. It has blown up in other platforms as well.
We always find a way to ingather, and the thing about the disease principles, again, have to be lived 365, and as we're talking about correcting justice, you can look at these principles to say that we're going to do that. When you talk about in a broader sense, I've seen people come of different ethnicities to our Kwanzaa festivals in the past, but predominantly it is African-American, and it is an African-American holiday that is also celebrated in other parts of the world where there are people of African descent.
We've seen people, the marches that are very integrated, as people are marching towards justice, so the principles can apply to that, but we must have a way that we are saying why it was founded, was to celebrate. We have to tell our own stories, because when we don't, what we do have is injustice, is inequity. This is a way to keep us and every remembrance, every commitment to that.
Callie: Queen Nur is an international storyteller and Director of the Folklife Center at Perkins Center for the Arts. Christina Greer is an Associate Professor of Political Science at Fordham University and author of the book Black Ethnics. Thank you both for joining us and happy Kwanzaa.
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