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Happy Kwanzaa! It’s so much more than a ‘black Christmas’

I had my reservations about this celebration of African heritage. Then my father and I shared a very special moment

In 1966, the African American Maulana Karenga created the holiday of Kwanzaa to give black people an “opportunity to celebrate themselves and their history” rather than indulge in the customary traditions of a white Christmas. The celebration starts on Boxing Day and runs for seven days, each marking one of the “principles of African heritage”, which include umoja (Swahili for unity), kujichagulia (self-determination) and ujaama (cooperative work and economics).

I have a complicated relationship with the holiday. I have always been suspicious of Karenga, the self-styled “master teacher” who seems more cult leader than black revolutionary, peddling a highly patriarchal message of African spirituality as some kind of salvation. It is undeniable that this festival, which takes its name from the Swahili for “first fruits”, but is set in the dead of winter, draws heavily on Christmas, yet Kwanzaa is extremely popular in black communities. I once recited a poem during a Kwanzaa celebration at Harvard, defending it as more than a “bootleg black Christmas”. And if a questionable origin story was a reason not to celebrate a cultural event, then we would all be at work on 25 December.

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