Happy Kwanza to all … though I confess, it’s my “Not Yet” Holiday.
I first heard of Kwanzaa in 1993 as an assistant teacher at a private girls’ school on the Upper East Side of New York. This job was my first since leaving Pacific Northwest Ballet and provided my first concentrated exposure to children since I’d been a kid myself. While the black population in this school hovered around 5%, there was much talk of this African American festival which completed the diverse December trio. At the “Holiday Assembly,” along with the compulsory Christmas and Hanukah medley, the girls sang a West African song with terrific gusto.
Was Kwanzaa new, I wondered? Where had it been when I was growing up? And, as a black American woman—mixed-race notwithstanding—shouldn’t I know about it?
I made a mental note to find out what the deal was. First I asked my father, though I had an idea of what he was going to say. My father had always identified himself as black—not African American. Black history, black culture—these were what he valued. He did not look to Africa for grounding or validation. To do so, he felt, would undermine the proud, American legacy of blacks, as well as their contributions to this country. He appreciated his ancestry; our house was full of African art and photography which he found beautiful. But Dad did not identify with Africa itself. To my father, Kwanzaa felt contrived—which he explained in something of a diatribe.
For me, since it was not part of my childhood, I currently have no personal template for Kwanzaa. Still, I respect it as a celebration of family and heritage, an honoring of ancestors and the survival of a people. I often wish I could do more to support my children’s black identity, which is a challenge. I am their only surviving black relative as my father, for all intents and purposes, was mine. When my kids see my relatives, they see white, Jewish ones, the same as they’ve got on my husband’s side.
I tell my husband: we should look into Kwanzaa, maybe incorporate a few rituals into our life, attend one of the many open Kwanzaa celebrations in our town. If only for the exposure, just to see what it’s all about and increase our kids’ cultural competence. He is supportive; he is all for it. Though of course I am the one who must make it happen. Next year we’ll do it, I say every year. But we don’t. Not because I’m resistant. Not because I think my father would object. Instead, it’s laziness and exhaustion. Frankly, after eight days of Hanukah and one very long Christmas—of presents and cooking and cleaning, I am all holidayed out.
But that doesn’t mean I won’t find the time next year.