Kwanzaa Confusion

            Note – I wrote this in late 1999 or early 2000.

Seven Principles Of Kwanzaa

1.         Umoja (unity) – to strive for and maintain unity in the family, community, nation and race.

2.         Kujichagulia (self determination) – to define ourselves, name ourselves, create for ourselves and speak for ourselves.

3.         Ujima (collective work and responsibility) – to build and maintain our communitytogether and make our sister’s and brother’s problems our problems and to solve them together.

4.         Ujamaa (cooperative economics) – to build and maintain our own stores, shops, and other businesses together.

5.         Nia (purpose) – to make our collective vocation the building of our community to restore our people to their traditional greatness.

6.         Kuumba (creativity) – to do as much as we can to leave our community more beautiful and beneficial than we inherited it.

7.         Imani (faith) – to believe with our hearts in our people, our parents, our teachers, our leaders and the righteousness and victory of our struggle.

Kwanzaa Confusion: Color or Character, Inclusion or Exclusion?

By Ken K. Gourdin


First, although some may call me naive, let me unequivocally and emphatically state that I don’t have a racist bone in my body.  I believe in evaluating each individual on his or her own merits, and in not judging an entire race, religion, creed, or other segment of society based on the shortcomings of one individual of that segment.

That having been said, I’m confused.  I thought that two major focuses of minorities in our society had been these: one, integration, and two, striving to create a society in which people are judged according to the Rev. Martin Luther King’s vision.  That is, a society where people are judged not by the color of their skin, but by the content of their character.  The more I look at our society today, however, the less evidence I see that this is the case.  Take Kwanzaa, for example, the celebration of African culture and heritage.

“Unity in the Race”?

The first foundation principle of Kwanzaa is umoja, or “unity.”  Given the divisiveness which is so pervasive in our society today, I didn’t think there was any way that unity could be considered a bad thing.  But my confusion began when I read the explanation of that principle: “To strive for and maintain unity in the family, community, nation and race.”

But unity of which race–of the African American race, or of the human race?  People who talk about unity of the white race are–as they should be–marginalized very quickly by mainstream society. But how are we supposed to establish a fully-integrated society if there are groups of all races whose aim is not integration–not unity of society as a whole–but rather unity “in the race,” whether that race be black, white, or any other?

It was my impression that racism and discrimination aren’t just African-American problems; they aren’t just problems for people of color; I thought they were societal problems, problems which couldn’t be solved by blacks, by whites, or by any other single group, but rather problems which must be addressed by society as a whole.  Am I wrong?  What about the white people–few though they were–who fought alongside blacks for integration and voting rights for everyone in the 1960’s?  Did those white folks just not “get it”?  Were they just “helpful but naive”?  What about people who experience discrimination due to other traits about which they can do nothing–and traits which cross racial, ethnic, and socioeconomic lines–such as disability?  Is that a problem only of the disabled, or a problem of society as a whole?

Does “unity of the race” allow for the breadth of opinions across the political spectrum among blacks that exists among every other segment of society, or must all African Americans march in lockstep with the same agenda?  Does “unity of the race” allow for the opinions of conservative African Americans like Ward Connerly and Thomas Sowell, who feel that racial preferences and affirmative action, however well-intended these measures might be, are an affront to blacks who would simply like to be evaluated on their merits as individuals rather than on the collective injustices experienced by their race?  Or, contrary to the old adage, is there really only one way–one acceptable political vision or one set of acceptable remedies–which will “skin the cats” of racism and discrimination?

And by the way, what if I were to marry an African American?  Would that subvert her “unity in the race”?  People who would tell me I am being disloyal to my race for doing so would quickly be branded as racist, and rightly so.  But some of the same people who talk about African American unity would tell her the same thing.  What about them?  Are certain double-standards more acceptable than other double-standards, depending on who’s doing the talking?1

“Cooperative” Race-Based Economics, and Group “Self-Determination”?

Kujichagulia, or self determination, is explained as follows: “To define ourselves, name ourselves, create for ourselves and speak for ourselves.”  To the extent that this enables an individual to avoid being “pigeonholed” by any other group or individual, I’m all for it.  But is kujichagulia speaking of race in the collective sense, as umoja appears to do?  If so, doesn’t that perpetuate the “us-against-them” mentality seemingly fostered by umoja?  Again, is there room for the plurality of opinions exemplified by the positions of Messrs. Connerly and Sowell, even if their efforts to define and speak for themselves don’t square with the agenda of, say, the NAACP?  Or must the “group” also speak for these gentlemen by attempting to marginalize them?   If so, it would seem to me that this flies in the face of the character-not-color ideal, which seeks to prevent a “group” from speaking for an individual and to allow that individual to speak for himself or herself.

Ujamaa, or cooperative economics, means to “build and maintain our own stores, shops, and other businesses together.”  There’s that pesky word “our” again.  Just who are “we,” and who  are “they”?  What is “ours,” and what is “theirs”?    And how can truly “cooperative” economics be race-based?  If I were a business owner, and I refused to hire qualified African Americans on the basis of their race, the victims of that discrimination could lodge a valid complaint with the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission.  Ujamaa, however,  seems to indicate that if the reverse were true, the resultant victims of discrimination wouldn’t have a case.

If I were a business owner and I needed help, common sense would dictate that I accept any assistance which is extended to me through honorable means, regardless of the race of the person extending the offer.  In fact, if I were to reject such help because the person offering it were black, I would be branded a racist.  Is the same not true if the person needing help were black and the person extending the offer were white?  Ujamaa seems to indicate not.

To Build–or to Not Tear Down?

I wish to consider the definition for Nia, or purpose, in two parts.  The first part is this: “To make our collective vocation the building of our community.”  I ask again, whose vocation, and whose community?  Many African American activists talk of “the black community.”  Here again, if the aim is integration, talking to one segment of a society we hope to unify, or talking about one segment of the society we hope to unify, instead of talking to or about society as a whole, isn’t going to achieve that aim.

Kuumba, or creativity, is defined like this: “To do as much as we can to leave our community more beautiful and beneficial than we inherited it.”  There is a far less “creative” solution to community decay, however.  Kwanzaa was an outgrowth of the Watts riots.  Instead of talking about community building, why don’t we talk–to everyone–about community maintenance?  The fact remains that if a community is maintained–and not torn apart, as in the Los Angeles riots of 1965 and 1992, respectively–there is nothing to build or rebuild.

And if we truly want to engage in community maintenance, we cannot countenance the behavior which tears down a community by attributing it to a collective race-based rage, by explaining it away with psychosocial mumbo-jumbo, or by vaguely attributing individual lawlessness to “society” when the vast majority of the members of that society are law abiding.  We cannot countenance the destruction of parts of our cities in the name of celebration, as has occurred to varying degrees each time the Chicago Bulls won an NBA Championship.  (Incidentally, the Lakers look like the team to beat this year.  I wonder if anyone is already making celebratory-if-destructive plans.)   If so, to countenance these plans, and all other plans, excuses, and explanations for community destruction would be to negate the value of individual kujichagulia.

That, in my opinion, is part of the answer: to make the individual who is guilty of lawless destruction accountable for his acts; to resist the temptation to lay the blame for individual acts on the collective “society”; and to resist the temptation to attribute those acts to a vague psychosocial malaise which stems from theories of racial or socioeconomic oppression.  The crucial downfall of such theories is that they fail to account for the countless people who are exposed to similar circumstances, yet fail to react in the manner predicted by the theories.  And many people, including African Americans, feel that it is just as much an insult to attribute antisocial behavior to their race as it is to blatantly discriminate on the basis of it.  Granted, some people enjoy the advantage of better socioeconomic circumstances than others, but again, to attribute lawlessness solely to such adverse circumstances fails to account for the people who honorably succeed in spite of them.

Greatness: “Traditional,” or Intrinsic?

The conclusion to the definition of Nia reads like this: “ . . . and to restore our people to their traditional greatness.”  But why is it necessary to “restore our people” to their “traditional greatness”?  Perhaps it is because some have bought into the lie that how other people treat them somehow adversely affects their intrinsic value as human beings.  Nonetheless, their human dignity remains intact regardless of the treatment received.  However egregious an insult may be to an individual, it is not necessary for him or her to “restore” intrinsic value, value which has never been lost, by resorting to old traditions.

I have no qualms with anyone who wishes to search his or her pedigree for honorable traditions which have been lost, and who then wishes to revive those traditions.  I recognize that being connected to something greater than one’s self lends an additional sense of meaning and purpose to one’s life, and helps to further define his or her sense of being.  However, these aims can only be achieved if one strives for that added definition and meaning independent of others’ perception–whether that perception be “great” or not.

Conversely, it seems that the idea of “traditional greatness” is not rooted in the need to be intrinsically valued as equal to everyone else.  Rather, this idea seems to imply that some are less “traditionally great” than others, and that a person can derive additional “value” from the idea that “my” traditions are somehow greater than “your” traditions.   It was my understanding that we’re all–regardless of the “greatness” of our traditions and in spite of our failure to live up to this national ideal–“created equal” in the first place.

Faith–But In Whom?

And finally, there is imani, or faith, which is explained like this: “To believe with our hearts in our people, our parents, our teachers, our leaders and the righteousness and victory of our struggle.”  I don’t consider myself a religious zealot, nor even a member of the so-called religious right, but I find the absence of some form of supreme being  in that statement to be conspicuous.

Isn’t it faith in God which sustained slaves through their trials?  Isn’t it faith in God which, as Abraham Lincoln said, sustained the unity of a nation which was almost torn apart by civil war?  Isn’t it faith in God which motivated people like Dr. King?  To put one’s faith in any human being, no matter how great a person, how great a parent, how great a teacher, or how great a leader, requires us to assume the risk that this person might fail us.


The principles of Kwanzaa are worthy ideals for which to strive, but in order for us to achieve those ideals, they must be inclusive rather than exclusive. While they may originate with a single race, they must focus on society as a whole rather than on that single race.  Many might then ask, “What about other celebrations, like Christmas, Ramadan, and Chanukah?  Aren’t they just as exclusive?”  The difference is that while these celebrations focus on specific groups–Christians, Muslims, and Jews respectively–either the groups cross racial lines, or the celebrations are rooted in events which their participants accept as historical fact, or both.

Kwanzaa, on the other hand, was apparently “carved from whole cloth,” not by a native African, but rather by an African American.  The traditions of the celebration are not rooted in the same sort of historical basis as the other celebrations.  It is true that this fact alone doesn’t detract from their importance, but might that be the very deficiency which the celebration’s founder perceived–and tried to compensate for–when framing its ideals in such an apparently exclusive manner?  The difference is that while Ramadan, Chanukah, and Christmas may sometimes seem exclusive by the failure of their practitioners to include others regardless of race, creed, or culture, Kwanzaa appears to be exclusive by its very nature.

As a senior in high school, I was selected to attend the week-long National Young Leaders Conference in Washington DC.  At a dinner one evening, about five hundred delegates to the conference were seated in a room around circular tables for dinner.  Since I have a disability, I made the decision to sit at the table closest to where I entered the room, a table which was occupied by one or two black students.  By the time everyone found a seat, I was the only white person at that table, and all of my fellow delegates at this particular table were the only black students in the room.

I have always believed that if you’re comfortable in your own skin, no one can make you second-guess that condition.  But that dinner did reinforce the old clichè that “birds of a feather flock together.”  I couldn’t blame my black fellow delegates for adhering to that axiom.  Had I been a member of a minority of perhaps a dozen people in a roomful of five hundred, I might have done the same thing.  But if we are to become a truly-integrated society, even after we have conquered discrimination and racism, our toughest hurdle will be to keep “birds of a feather” from “flocking together.”  In order for that to happen, people of all races will need to reach out to include people of all other races.

The Salt Lake Tribune reported on a local Kwanzaa celebration in the December 28, 1999 edition which was led by Sister Maryam, a Houston native who obtained her anthropology degree from the University of Utah.  Personally, I found it a bit ironic that someone would come from a more racially-diverse community to one which is less so to study something like anthropology.  In the article, she stressed that “all nationalities should be included in the holiday,” and added, ‘African people like for everyone to share in our happiness.’” If so, one is only left to wonder why this desire for inclusion isn’t expressed more plainly in the celebration’s ideals.


1. The well-publicized ridicule of Tamera Mowery, who is black, for her marriage to white Fox News reporter Adam Housley has again brought to the forefront many of these issues.  Michelle Malkin makes many of the same points I do in her column of January 15, 2014 which I accessed on line at the following address on January 16, 2014:  (Hat tip to Dan Peterson at for bringing Ms. Malkin’s column to my attention).  While I did not mention U.S. Supreme Court Justice Clarence Thomas in the original piece, he is another excellent example of blacks who are marginalized because they don’t hold “correct” views.  While Connerly and Sowell are not mentioned in the excerpt below, Ms. Malkin also mentioned them elsewhere in the column:

Supreme Court Justice Clarence Thomas was excoriated by black liberals for being married to Virginia, who happens to be white. The critics weren’t anonymous trolls on the Internet; they worked for major media outlets and institutions of higher learning. USA Today columnist Barbara Reynolds slammed Thomas and his wife for their color-blind union: “It may sound bigoted; well, this is a bigoted world and why can’t black people be allowed a little Archie Bunker mentality? . . . Here’s a man who’s going to decide crucial issues for the country and he has already said no to blacks; he has already said if he can’t paint himself white he’ll think white and marry a white woman.”

Howard University’s Afro-American Studies chair, Russell Adams, accused Thomas of racism against all blacks for falling in love with someone outside his race. “His marrying a white woman is a sign of his rejection of the black community,” Adams told the Washington Post. “Great justices have had community roots that served as a basis for understanding the Constitution. Clarence’s lack of a sense of community makes his nomination troubling.”

California state-senate Democrat Diane Watson taunted former University of California regent Ward Connerly after a public hearing, spitting: “He’s married a white woman. He wants to be white. He wants a colorless society. He has no ethnic pride. He doesn’t want to be black.”



About kenngo1969

Just as others must breathe to live, I must write. I have been writing creatively almost ever since I learned to write, period! I have written fiction, book- and article-length nonfiction, award-winning poetry, news, sports, features, and op-eds. I hope, one day, to write some motivational nonfiction, a decent-selling novel, a stage play, and a screen play.
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One Response to Kwanzaa Confusion

  1. Pingback: Reflections on Rioting in Missouri | My Blog

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