Revisiting Kwanzaa In The Age of Obama

October 24, 2010

Michelle and I send warm wishes to all those celebrating Kwanzaa this holiday season. This is a joyous time of year when African Americans and all Americans come together to celebrate our blessings and the richness of our cultural traditions. This is also a time of reflection and renewal as we come to the end of one year and the beginning of another. The Kwanzaa message tells us that we should recall the lessons of the past even as we seize the promise of tomorrow.

-Statement on Kwanzaa by the President and First Lady


The Kwanzaa holiday was created in 1966 to introduce seven guiding principles which were seen as essential to improving the living conditions and life chances of African Americans. Unquestionably, since 1966, the lives of many professional and middle class African American have improved. In fact, some blacks rank among the highest paid professionals, and enjoy enormous social prestige. Yet, for the vast majority of African Americans, in particular those living in areas of concentrated poverty have witness their financial earning decline and their social conditions worsen.

Ironically, in the Age of Obama, the condition of African Americans has worsen: African Americans have experience a rise in poverty, continued high incarceration of young black men, many who are most likely victims of homicide; a decline in education performance, almost of African American students do not graduate; a steady increase of in HIV cases, in 2008 African Americans made up an estimated 50% of new diagnosed HIV cases, and they have experienced an unbelievable increase in children born out of wedlock-almost 70 percent of black children are born out of wedlock, and in 1963 when Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. gave his “I Have a Dream” speech, more than 70 percent of all Black families were headed by married couples; that number is now 48 percent. To be fair, it should be noted that the deteriorating of blacks dates back to the 1980s with the policies of Reagan.

Answers in Progress: Kwanzaa

The seven principles of Kwanzaa – Unity, Self Determination, Collective Work and Responsibility, Cooperative Economics, Purpose, Creativity, and Faith – express the values that have inspired us as individuals and families; communities and country. These same principles have sustained us as a nation during our darkest hours and provided hope for better days to come. Michelle and I know the challenges facing many African American families and families in all communities at this time, but we also know the spirit of perseverance and hope that is ever present in the community. It is in this spirit that our family extends our prayers and best wishes during this season and for the New Year to come.

-Statement on Kwanzaa by the President and First Lady

It has become abundantly clear that the conditions which necessitated the creation of Kwanzaa are still present today and demand our attention. The steady deterioration of the black family, self-destructive and irresponsible behavior of too many young and older black men, supported culture values and a culture orientation which discourages family stability, marriage, and academic achievement. Given these conditions, how can Kwanzaa reverse this trend?

Family-Centered Holiday

Kwanzaa is a family-centered holiday, stressing a mode of communication and behavior which serves to strengthening the ties that bind family members together, and reinforces their identity as family. Family is important and essential to child and adolescent socialization. The values and social orientation of dating, marriage, education, and morality, respect for human life, and community-building are introduced and taught in the family. Children and youth learn how to be mothers and fathers and providers and keepers of the culture in the family. To be sure, the family is smallest example of the community-its strength and illnesses, possibilities and vulnerabilities. The Kwanzaa principle Unity instructs parents to work in harmony with each other to create the conditions which nurture caring relationships and mutuality that define the essence of family. Put another way, Kwanzaa places a priority and premium on daily activities which reinforce the value of family togetherness.

Male/Female Relationships

It is now common place to hear men debase and degrade women, especially in popular music: Jay-Z, “If you’re havin’ girl problems I feel bad for you son/ I got 99 problems but a bitch ain’t one.” VH1’s reality show, Flavor of Love, presents women, in particular black women, as sexual objects, waiting to be used. Little wonder then that only 48 percent of black families are headed by married couples, and 70 percent of black children are born out of wedlock. Kwanzaa is the antidote to destructive narrative of male female relationships portrayed in popular lyrics and on reality TV shows. The principle unity instructs men and women to seek harmony and stability as expressed in poem, “Answer: This Magic Moment.”

Now that you have young love

Insist upon the dawn’

Its mornings bright with sun and rain

That summon up continuity

Now that your love is bounded and

Culturally confirmed, do not forget:

First meetings, great and early laughter

Preparation for first dates, delicate touches and

Kisses that quicken heartbeats, love notes and

Phone calls into the midnights’ dawns

Do not forget promises; there area always pure promises of, “forever yours”

-Haki Madhubuti

Kwanzaa thus serves to reinforce relationships between men and women, instructing them to be respectful of each other’s humanity, and to seek to develop each other in love and togetherness. Each Kwanzaa, those who are in relationships assess their relationships and their commitments to their partner, striving to build stronger bonds of love.

Black Men: In Love and In Trouble

In recent years, terms such as crisis, at-risk, marginal and endangered, are used with increasing regularity to describe the plight and condition of young Black males. The reason such stark and ominous terms are used with reference to Black males is quite clear: a broad array of social and economic indicators point with alarming consistency to the undeniable fact that large numbers of individuals who fall within these two social categories, Black and male, are in deep trouble. Whether the indicators relate to employment or education, health or crime, Black males are consistently clustered toward the end of the spectrum generally regarded as least desirable, and most vulnerable. For example:

  • 29.4% of African American males born in 1991 (the year my son was born) will spend some time in their lifetime incarcerated (Department of Justice).
  • The number one cause of death for 15-24 year old black males is homicide (2004 Centers for Disease Control and Prevention)
  • Black men in the United States have the shortest life expectancy (69.5 years) of all other racial and ethnic groups – averaging over six years less than white men who live 75.7 years (2005 National Center for Health Statistics)
  • Unemployment among black males is higher than any other population at 14.1% (Bureau of Labor, January 2009).
  • Over seventy percent of black children in America are raised by in parent households where no father is present (National Center for Health Statistics, 2007).

“More strikingly than patterns of military enlistment, marriage or college graduation, prison time differentiates the young adulthood of black men from the life course of white males. Imprisonment is now a common life event for an entire demographic group,” said Becky Pettit, one of the study’s authors and a University of Washington assistant professor of sociology.

Enough said. The situation with black males, in particular, young black men, is no longer a problem but self-perpetuating conditions that is heart of the disintegration of the black family. Kwanzaa offers a cultural framework for black male regeneration, beginning with the Seven Principles of Kwanzaa: Unity- between black men and black women; Self-determination, redefining young black male identity from “gangstas,” “pimps and players,” to fathers and brothers; Collective Work & Responsibility, being “my brother’s and sister’s keeper,; Cooperative Economics, the practice  of African Americans working together to develop self-reliant, locally-based and community controlled economy and profiting from them together; Purpose,  building safe and thriving communities through service and sacrifice; Creativity, an ethic and practice of continuous improvement; and Faith, believing in capacity of black people to make progress (beginning with oneself).

Building Healthy and Thriving Communities

It is self-evident that children live in families and families live in neighborhoods. Today, many African American neighborhoods are not aligned with the aspirations of the families in those neighborhoods. Gangs, drug trafficking, gun violence, school dropout, and teenage prostitution have come to characterize too many neighborhoods of color. Black neighborhood youth find identity with street gangs, and meaning in gang violence. Even youth who are not members of gangs adopt the gang lifestyle- “keeping it gansta,” or referring to friends as “homies” or “homeboy.”

Kwanzaa seeks to align African American neighborhoods with shared values (7 guiding principles of Kwanzaa) of the families which inhabit those neighborhoods. The share values of Kwanzaa provide youth and adults with a shared identity, common purpose and collective destiny. Rather than the individualist orientation “looking out for number one” or in its worse state-“all against all,” Kwanzaa provides for culture framework which advocates that every member of the family and community is constituted by a web of interpersonal relationships which sees itself as collectively responsible for the success and failure of the neighborhood- its children and youth, the quality of education they receive, and the safety and well-being its neighbors.

Culture Orientation

Culture is a people’s brain or intelligence, dictating how they see themselves and the world and how they respond to their social condition. The popular culture of African Americans, in particular black youth is now informed by the worse of its “street” element. Historian and cultural sociologist Orlando Patterson Popular culture has an intoxicating pull on youth people, especially those with weak family and culture ties. Orlando Patterson argues that sociologist need to pay more attention to what has been called the “cool pose” culture which for many young black men is “almost like a drug, hanging out on the street after school, shopping, and dressing sharply, sexual conquest, party drugs, hip-hop, music and culture.”

Whatever the nomenclature, “cool pose” or “keeping it real” or something else entirely, this peculiar aspect of the contemporary black experience Thomas Chatter, Washington Post editorial writers, argues – the inverted-pyramid hierarchy of values stemming from the glorification of lower-class reality in the hip-hop era- has quietly taken the place of white racism as the most formidable obstacle to success and equality in the black middle classes. Contrary to the “cool pose” culture, Kwanzaa grounds young people in cultural values and historical models- Martin Luther King’s “service ethic”, Anna Julia Cooper male/female model of Complementarity, the youth example of struggle by SNCC, and Motown’s songbook. In brief, the key crisis in black life remains the culture crisis-the crisis in view and values.

Enhancing Education

More people of color are taking the SAT, but test scores for black students remain lowest among racial and ethnic groups, according to data released this week by the College Board. Black students scored at least 72 points behind the overall average in critical reading, mathematics and writing. A major contributing factor to the decline in academic excellence by young blacks is the “cool pose” cultural orientation, which equates learning and academic achievement with “acting white, negating black historical intellectual accomplishment-W.E.B. DuBois, Anna Julia Cooper, George Washington Caver, Mary McLeod Bethune, Barack and Michelle Obama.

The African American holiday Kwanzaa with its emphasis on continuous learning (Creativity principle) and high achievement can be an effective intervention for families and schools. Kwanzaa provides incentives for children and youth to read and excel in school. Books are one of the seven Kwanzaa symbols, and are a mandatory part of Kwanzaa gift giving. No matter what is given during Kwanzaa, a book must be given. The book is to remind both parents and the child of the importance and priority of learning and education. In addition, the Kwanzaa symbols are instructive for reinforcing academic learning.  Take for example the symbol of the African American flag. The color black is symbolic of black people (black youth); the color red is symbolic of effort and work; and the color green is symbolic of the future and hope that comes from the effort and work. In the context of school, the lesson is that students who appreciate learning, respect each other and who, put forth an earnest effort at studying will excel academically and achieve in life.

Revisiting the Purpose of Kwanzaa

Given the scope of the crisis facing blacks in America, the spread and celebration of Kwanzaa, with emphasis on the practice of the seven guiding principles as a way of living for African Americans, is central and essential to eradicating the conditions which have given rise to the cultural malaise and social pathology which has arrested the development of African American. As is the practice of Kwanzaa, in 2010, families, neighborhoods and networks or black organizations must take assessment of what each has accomplished in relationship to the seven guiding principles of Kwanzaa. Beginning with the family and then expanding outward to the local and national African American community, the time has come for blacks to practice daily: Unity, Self Determination, Collective Work and Responsibility, Cooperative Economics, Purpose, Creativity, and Faith.

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One Response to Revisiting Kwanzaa In The Age of Obama

  1. afroexpress on December 26, 2010 at 4:54 pm

    I agree that the black community needs to be rejuvenized. I only wish we could return to the demographics that existed when Rev. Doctor Martin Luther King Jr. gave his “I have a dream speech”. Then we had black men who would be fathers to the children they make. Kwanzaa is NOT the answer to turn this around. The creator of this holiday was motivated by hatred not love. Hatred of God and hatred of white society. The gangsta hip-hop, pimps-n-ho’s pop culture we have today, together with a continued racist agenda that encourages us to get all we can from the government is what is and will continue to ruin us as a society. We need to return to God and self-sufficiency. Where is our honor, where is our pride? Turn from racism and stand on your own two feet with God as your guide. That’s what is needed.

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