Awesome Kwanzaa: A Made-Up Holiday for a Made-Up Country

Over at Slate Melonyce McAfee defends the holiday which, like the people for which it was founded, seems ever under attack:


Still, I'm not ready to join the naysayers who mock Kwanzaa as a pseudo holiday, created to annoy white people and kept alive to peddle cards and kente cloth. "No one is quite sure just what Kwanzaa is," Jonathan Safran Foer deadpans in a New York Times op-ed this morning. Debra Dickerson called the holiday a "cop out" in a Times op-ed from 2003 because it sidesteps the traditions hard-built by African-Americans over the last centuries. "Insofar as Kwanzaa negates the quintessential Americanness of the slave-descended, it is an affront to the heroism and enunciated goals of our oppressed ancestors," she wrote. 

But what's more American than tweaking an institution to suit your needs? Some folks who don't go to church pine for more than the dancing black Santa from Wal-Mart. Plus, Kwanzaa and Christmas are not mutually exclusive--'tis the season of peaceful co-existence. A rule of Kwanzaa states that one "should not mix the Kwanzaa holiday or its symbols, values and practice with any other culture." But Kwanzaa starts the day after Christmas, so until Dec. 26, you can drink eggnog out of a gourd shell.

I don't celebrate Kwanzaa. I only celebrate Christmas because of my wife and son. I generally don't like holidays. And while I come from a family of black radicals, my Dad generally derided Kwanzaa as "fake Christmas." The holiday season in the Coates house generally meant more time for work. (Sadly, it's becoming that in my household, too.)

With that said, Kwanzaa-hating has always struck me as the most bougie and snobbish of holiday traditions. It's that cool that Jonathan Safran Foer thinks that "no one is quite sure what Kwanzaa is," but I'm not sure "what Hanukkah is." And for most of my life, no one I knew was quite sure either. I'm only barely sure "what Christmas is." (Celebrating the birth of your savior with an orgy of consumption?)

It's just seems bizarre in America, of all places, to stand on vintage. Has there ever been a more mongrel, more made-up, country that this one? Have there ever been two more "made up people" then the "white race" and the "black race?" This country is a mongrel mess -- and its traditions are, too. That's the whole charm of the thing. No one who takes the Easter Bunny seriously should mock Kwanzaa. This is about equality. Black people have right to make shit up, just as white people have the right to make shit up. 
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Ta-Nehisi Coates is a national correspondent at The Atlantic, where he writes about culture, politics, and social issues. He is the author of the memoir The Beautiful Struggle.

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