Kwanzaa is an important concept I want my son to learn. Here’s where I’m starting.

Published 12/26/2022 6:00 a.m. EST

A kinara holds seven candles for Kwanzaa celebrations in a display inside Baltimore's City Hall.

When Baltimore resident Fred Keene first heard about Kwanzaa, the African American observance of heritage and self-reliance celebrated each year between Dec. 26 and Jan. 1, he knew he wanted to introduce its seven principles to his children. He also knew that covering every single facet of the holiday — including seven days of candle-lighting, homemade gifts and possibly weaving his own textile mat — seemed like a lot.

“I wanted to go beyond the symbolism and focus more on what the actions represented,” Keene said. “Lighting candles is OK, but what struck me more about these principles is what I wanted for my family, and what I wanted for my people.”

I, too, have long wanted to include Kwanzaa, created in 1966 by Maryland-born Maulana Karenga, in my holiday practices with my son, who is now 9. I think its focus on Black history and pride would benefit him. But I can’t even find my keys half the time. I admit to being intimidated by everything it incorporates, or doing it wrong. Nobody wants to get something so important wrong.

Fortunately, “we don’t have to do it in the same way,” said Karsonya Wise Whitehead, associate professor of communication and African American studies at Loyola University Maryland. “If we don’t celebrate it to its full extent, what are the parts of Kwanzaa that we can work into our lives and into our children’s?”

Whitehead, like Keene, believes that it’s possible to embrace Kwanzaa’s principles — Umoja (unity), Kujichagulia (self-determination), Ujamaa (cooperative economics), Ujima (collective work and responsibility), Nia (purpose), Kuumba (creativity) and Imani (faith) — without following all the rituals to the letter.

For instance, Whitehead noted her family didn’t do the homemade gifts and handmade mat.

“For my sons and I, we focused more on what it means to think of self-determination. They were also big readers when they were young, so I raised them to bury themselves in books by Black authors,” Whitehead said.

The adherence to the strict rules of the observance may be generational, Whitehead said. The holiday, created in the 1960s at a time of newfound empowerment and self-awareness for Americans of African descent, was important for the generation that first celebrated it. Their kids, who are Generation Xers like Whitehead and I, were sometimes raised to believe that the values Kwanzaa espouses define us as Black people. And if we didn’t live up to it, we were maybe bad at being Black?

“I came through college at a certain time, at Lincoln [University, a historically Black university]. This is who we were at that time,” she said. “I changed my name to an African name, I was growing dreadlocks. Winnie Mandela was my line name when I pledged Delta [Sigma Theta]. The Boomers were the early ones to do it, and for us it was second generation.”

As adults, our generation has “to be allowed to see where Kwanzaa fits. How do we rethink it, and how does this pure idea that Karenga had fit into where we are now?” she said. “It might not all work, but the principles do.”

Whitehead doesn’t see Kwanzaa “having a resurgence” with millennials and Generation Z because those who embrace its tenets “are the Black Lives Matter generation. They’re like ‘Why are we waiting till Kwanzaa to do this? How can we live out these themes every day?’”

Whitehead said it’s OK to improvise. “I was in CVS and there was a Kwanzaa card! It’s hard to stand on the principles of not buying things when someone created a Black section of Hallmark, and you can buy two-for-one beads on Amazon. You can do pieces of it.”

Keene said that it’s helpful to hone in on the factors that resonate the most. As an entrepreneur whose businesses have included publishing his own magazine, Mic Life, on the spoken word scene, he likes Ujamaa, or cooperative economics, which encourages supporting businesses within the Black community.

“I really thought to myself, ‘Why just use a certain time of the year? If our goal is Black empowerment, and to rise as a people, that’s something that can be used every day, in every situation, to make us a better people.’”

A lightbulb went off for me. I’m going to try to do at least one handmade craft with my son during Kwanzaa, encouraging him to do more tactical things that don’t involve screens, and explain to him how it relates. We’re also going to continue to support more Black-owned businesses. It works for us, and achieves what I want him to get out of it, which is that he’s from a heritage he can be proud of. And that’s something I want for him year-round.

“Don’t be so hard on yourself. It’s an opportunity to be better. Master the tenets, point out to the children where they are,” Keene said. “I understand that everyone wants the celebration, and the holiday. But we can go beyond.”

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