The roots of Kwanzaa

Melvin B. Miller | 1/10/2013, 9:56 a.m.

America is a nation of immigrants. Roughly 13 percent of its residents are foreign born. Add to that the number of children and grandchildren of immigrants in the U.S. and the number becomes substantial. Many Americans have a hyphenated identity such as Italo-American or Irish-American. Their roots in two countries seem to be important to them.

However, for most African Americans there is little awareness of their country of origin. They are the descendants of slaves who were brought here from somewhere in Africa in the 17th-19th centuries. Africa is a huge continent, too large to permit the intimate association a European-American might have with his family’s roots in a village in Ireland or Italy.

The celebration of Kwanzaa was established in 1966 to enhance black Americans’ ties with Africa. This is a holiday from Swahili speaking Africa, an area with which most African Americans would not naturally identify. Swahili is spoken primarily in Tanzania, Kenya and Uganda, East African countries. The slave trade was on the west coast.

People often underestimate the vast size of Africa. Those trekking across the continent to the west coast would have to travel through the Democratic Republic of the Congo (DRC), formally Zaire. That country is as large as all of the United States from the Atlantic Ocean to the Mississippi River. The landmass of all of Western Europe could fit within its borders, with room to spare. Even today the DRC has only about 600 miles of paved roads. Imagine travelling there in the slave trade days.

Nonetheless, African Americans have an affinity for Africa, just as Chinese, Cambodians, Japanese and Koreans consider themselves to be Asian, although they are sometimes at war with one another. Identification with a continent is clearly not intimate enough to generate a strong, emotional bond. There seems to be no substitute for association with the village of origin of one’s family. Kwanzaa hardly bridges the gap.

Each of Kwanzaa’s seven principles is celebrated on successive days: unity, self-determination, collective work and responsibility, cooperative economics, purpose, creativity and faith. The embodiment of those principles by the people would certainly strengthen the community even without hyphenating the identity of America’s black citizens.