The holiday of Kwanzaa (which is celebrated each year from December 26th through January 1st) was created less than 50 years ago in Los Angeles, by a Black nationalist, Dr. Maulana Karenga. Like many within the Black Liberation movement, Dr. Karenga has many pitfalls and struggles. His zeal, highly problematic past, and fervor within Black nationalism underscore the intensity with which he and fellow Black liberation organizers fought Kwanzaa into existence, fully ready for adoption and adaption for the hungry Black folks searching for pro-Black traditions.
It was this same consistency and dedication to a sustained culture of resistance that make Kwanzaa accessible to me, a Black millennial raised in Oklahoma, 2,000 miles from the birthplace of the counter-cultural holiday. My upbringing with my white Cherokee mother left me feeling incredibly disconnected from a culture and heritage centered in celebrating Blackness.
My Grandmother, Annie Pearl, did well to pass on traditions of her side of the family rooted in Southern Black traditions, yet the nagging feeling that something was missing remained. Kwanzaa started as a tradition for my family as a result of what the F.B.I and Jeff Sessions call “Black Identity Extremism.” As an undergraduate, I began to self-educate on Black Liberation movement figures. I ventured into a political education campaign around state sanctioned violence, the Black Panther Movement, and traditions that subverted mainstream traditions that propped up patriarchy and white supremacy.
A rabbit trail of literature by authors like bell hooks, Audre Lorde, and Maya Angelou eventually led me to the very young tradition of Kwanzaa. I fumbled my way through my first celebration of Kwanzaa, and since then I’ve pieced together my own family’s longstanding holiday traditions with the new principles and practices I’ve learned from Kwanzaa.
Every year my children and I watch the same Kwanzaa documentary: “The Black Candle.” We click ‘play’ on our silver Apple television remote and within moments the dulcet voice of Maya Angelou — may she rest in power— drifts through the speakers. This movie watching tradition, along with placing out a kinara (traditional candelabra), observing Nguzo Saba (the seven days and principles) of Kwanzaa, and celebrating over food with friends, has existed in my family since my youngest still fit in her Moby wrap.
My children, Zay, Addison, and Tobias, now 10, 7, and 6 years of age, complain that Kwanzaa just isn’t as cool as Christmas, which we also celebrate. But amidst their grumbles, they also know Kwanzaa songs, the various cultural traditions, and enjoy gathering around our kinara and lighting the candle for the appropriate day. My kids recognize the pound cake during our Karamu meal. Their favorite day is Kuumba (creativity) where we use our creativity for artistic expression, problem solving, and making a unique meal together. We put work together to complete puzzles, we dance together, and assign each person a task in preparing part of our family meal for that evening.
My favorite day of Kwanzaa is the day we focus on Kujichagulia. Kujichagulia is the drive to define and name ourselves, as well as to create and speak for ourselves. I can’t think of a higher form of resistance than the self-determination that comes from refusing to let society and systems of harm dictate our identity. To step fully in our own power and speak for ourselves and create for ourselves really is how radical transformation starts.
We practice kujichagulia by talking about our names, our identities, and what we want to say about ourselves in the coming year. It was during one of our kujichagulia conversations where my oldest daughter, Zay, first told me about her need to be identified under a new name in honor of her transgender identity. I deeply believe it was the spirit and practice of Kwanzaa that gave Zay to be grounded in her power to define herself for herself.
Kwanzaa is a great example of how sustained resistance partnered with dedication to a new culture can facilitate real change and impact. This summer, social media was aflame with hashtag resistance. A populus disenchanted with our president elect fought federal appointments, new legislation, and general attacks on the freedoms of the American people. As we’ve moved into the holiday season many of us are feeling jaded and worn down, wondering if our resistance efforts have made any difference at all. Kwanzaa, and the history of the Black organizers that catapulted the cultural tradition into the mainstream can serve as a beacon of hope for us through this holiday season and in our continued efforts to resist the violent 45th presidency.
Jasmine Banks is a Black queer femme-inist who believes in cookies, cuss words, and the power of Black folks who fight for their freedom.