How to Celebrate Kwanzaa Despite the Actions of the Founder
The holiday is a collective that is bigger than any one of us. Let’s continue the tradition.
I celebrated Kwanzaa for the first time as an undergrad, after I nearly suffocated from the stark Whiteness of the liberal arts college I attended. On campus, Kwanzaa safely shrouded me in Blackness, Black creativity, and the Black community — if only for a week. Since then, the celebration’s seven founding principles have guided much of my life and work as a writer and advocate:
Collective Work and Responsibility
Initially I never questioned if I should celebrate the cultural holiday established by Dr. Maulana Karenga. But two years ago, I learned that Karenga was convicted of assaulting and falsely imprisoning two women in 1971, a handful of years after founding Kwanzaa. The decades-late discovery left me feeling slimed, like a tortured contestant on Nickelodeon’s Double Dare. Immediately I wanted to distance myself from the seven principals, to separate myself from the icky tentacles of its founding father. Immediately too, I began to think more deeply about the intersection of art, its creators, and public responsibility and accountability.
I concluded that acknowledging Karenga’s felonious acts alongside this beautiful cultural holiday can stand as a powerful reminder that we must hold our cultural icons — be they singers, actors, or activists — to a public accounting. We must hold them to standards — and sentences — that will communicate that assault and abuse in their varied forms are never acceptable. Instead of denying their crimes, rationalizing them, or simply overlooking them, we must acknowledge them and demonstrate that there are lifelong consequences, be they penal, personal, or public.
Kwanzaa originated in 1966, as the United States underwent massive political and cultural change through the civil rights movement, the Black Power Movement, and the Vietnam War protests. Kwanzaa sprouted on the heels of Malcolm X’s assassination and…