There was a time, during my years in college, when I didn’t believe in Kwanzaa. Indeed, I indulged in arguments against it.
Many nights, I would lay on the bed inside of my campus apartment under a desk lamp, highlighting passages from books on the culture wars like Arthur Schlesinger’s “The Disuniting of America: Reflections on a Multicultural Society.” I also read any and everything by Black conservatives Thomas Sowell, Glenn Loury, John McWhorter and Shelby Steele.
In the minds of those authors, Kwanzaa and its founder, the radical pan-African Maulana Karenga, represented what Schlesinger called a “cult of ethnicity” that would eventually culminate in the “disuniting” of America.
By stoking our pride (long stricken by the experience of being enslaved) with all of this talk of African customs, tribes, kings and queens, Blacks were also stoking the flames of racial separatism. Rather than a melting pot containing many parts melded into a cohesive national whole, an influx of so many invented ethnocentric holidays like Kwanzaa would lead to our great melting pot itself dissolving into molten obsolesce.
What Blacks needed, McWhorter argued, is not to separate and revel in their differences and in their victimhood and in some glorified, yet mythical past, but to try assimilating into American society like other ethnic groups through sustained cultural achievement and economic success — critical for entry into the Great American Middle Class.
Fascinated by the prospect of Blacks’ volcanic flirtation with disunion, I would spend hours inside of the undergraduate library at the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign watching old C-SPAN footage of former PBS host Tavis Smiley’s “State of Black America” segments, where people like Cornel West and the late comedian Dick Gregory — figures I considered at the time to be racial zealots — would hold forth in some church or auditorium on all manner of Blackness.
I argued with these zealots in my head, that inner argument once spilling out into a Black Studies class, where I also argued with the professor about why America was, indeed, a great multiethnic and multiracial melting pot, and why we Blacks should not stoke the flames lest we melt the pot that contained our very essence, which I believed at the time was still, beneath all of our struggles, American.
“How do you define multiculturalism?” the journalist and conversationalist Charlie Rose once asked the late Schlesinger during a 1992 segment of his now-canceled show, which also once aired on PBS.
Schlesinger had been on the show to debate Cornel West on the “definition of multiculturalism in the context of American society,” according to a summary of the segment online, which you can access at: https://charlierose.com/videos/20810.
I reference Rose and Smiley knowing full well that they’ve both been canceled since the emergence of the #MeToo movement — both for alleged sexual misconduct.
We don’t have to condone the alleged behavior of these two men to watch the dialogues generated on their respective platforms, because the conversation is bigger than them. Indeed, some of those conversations that Rose and Smiley facilitated were indictments of the culture that allowed powerful men like them to thrive — an indictment that West would make explicit in his debate with Schlesinger.
“When multiculturalism means teaching our kids about other continents, other cultures, other creeds, other colors, I’m all for it,” Schlesinger told Rose. “When it means teaching American history, for example, in such a way as to give proper recognition to achievements of groups that have been ignored or neglected in the way history has been taught in the past — I’m all for that.”
But multiculturalism gets into trouble, Schlesinger continued, when it promotes and accelerates “separate racial and ethnic communities,” particularly when the United States “has been the only country on a large scale that’s managed to hold together for two centuries. You don’t kid around with that. I still hold the idea of a common culture with one people.”
“Where do you depart from that, if you do?” Rose asked West. “There are those who say, ‘Push[ing] too far can lead to a kind of balkanization of America.'”
“Any form of ethnocentrism or jingoism or chauvinism is immoral,” West said. “It’s wrong. Where we might disagree is first in the very term itself. I view the term multiculturalism as actually obscuring and obfuscating what is fundamentally at stake in this particular moment in American history and that is, in part, the pernicious and vicious effects of white supremacy, male supremacy, vast income inequality and homophobia.”
Some 30 years later and four years into the presidency of Donald Trump, it’s more obvious than ever who won that debate. For me, arriving at West’s conclusion has not been so much an intellectual progression as a socio-cultural-emotional one.
Since enrolling in college roughly 15 years ago, I’ve had multiple encounters with the police, several potentially disastrous; I’ve known what it is to be unemployed and rootless in my prime working years through no lack of striving; and to be financially precarious in my late 20s and early 30s, despite a $120,000 college degree.
I have lived through not one, but two, major economic recessions; two protracted wars; two existential acts of terrorism (9/11 and 11/16); the coronavirus pandemic; the Holocene mass extinction; an unprecedented era of income inequality; and planetary breakdown under the weight of climate change.
A knowingness deeper than knowledge has disabused me of my earlier conservatism. I touched the melting pot and was burned.
But there is also the knowledge.
A vast historical literature — including David Silverman’s “This Land Is Their Land: The Wampanoag Indians, Plymouth Colony, and the Troubled History of Thanksgiving,” Lisa Brooks’ “Our Beloved Kin: A New History of King Philip’s War” (winner of a Bancroft Prize) and Robert G. Parkinson’s “The Common Cause: Creating Race and Nation in the American Revolution” — has demonstrated the American “melting pot” to be a violent myth, albeit an enduring one.
The reality is that America’s sense of herself, that “common culture” that Schlesinger held almost sacrosanct, was, at its core, built in opposition to the identities of Native Americans and Blacks, who were cast as “domestic insurrectionists” and “merciless savages,” so that the Founding Fathers could unite whites living in 13 diverse colonies that were often at odds around a “common cause,” which was necessary to wage a protracted war against the British. That “common cause” was racial prejudice, Parkinson writes.
I believe Schlesinger’s critiques of multiculturalism are still some of the strongest out there (critiques that even West concedes), so I’m not inventing straw men. There are, indeed, forms of Black ethnocentrism that are pernicious.
The problem I have with most conservatives and even some liberal whites like Schlesinger is that they don’t extend their most penchant, legitimate critiques of multiculturalism, which they are all too eager to aim at “invented” ethnocentric holidays like Kwanzaa, to more pernicious and deliberately weaponized forms of white ethnocentrism — such as the Fox News version of Christmas.
I need Black conservatives like John McWhorter and Shelby Steele to denounce the cult of victimhood and ethnocentrism embodied in Donald Trump even more aggressively than they do those tendencies among Blacks, because the former variant is the more potent national threat.
As Howard professor and Black studies scholar Greg Carr says, all holidays are inventions and that’s perfectly OK; they only become problematic “when somebody gets hurt.”
For those who may not know, Kwanzaa was first celebrated in 1966. Karenga, the holiday’s inventor, said he wanted to “give Blacks an alternative to the existing holiday [and an] opportunity to celebrate themselves and their history, rather than simply imitate the practice of the dominant society.” Karenga lived under racist oppression and Kwanzaa was a response to that oppression.
The holiday runs each year for a week, from Dec. 26 through Jan. 1. Each of the seven days of Kwanzaa celebrate seven principals of African heritage: Umoja (unity), Kujichagulia (self-determination), Ujima (collective work and responsibility), Ujamaa (cooperative economics), Nia (purpose), Kuumba (creativity) and Imani (faith).
Now contrast Kwanzaa with Thanksgiving, which some Native Americans instead call a Day of Mourning, because they still understand the brutal and bloody history Thanksgiving’s Plymouth mythology obscures.
This obscuring act has long been a feature of American history. For instance, white historians like Schlesinger would have been learned in the scholarship of men like William Dunning and John W. Burgess, both scholars of Reconstruction who built a whole school of history premised on the myth that the decade or so after slavery — when Blacks were allowed a degree of political autonomy and self-determination (Kujichagulia, if you will) — was defined by “negro incapacity.”
Eric Foner, one of the premier historians of the Reconstruction period and the author of the classic work on the era, “Reconstruction: America’s Unfinished Revolution,” writes about this white ethnocentric mythology in the preface to the updated and reissued 2014 edition of his classic book.
“The childlike blacks, these scholars insisted, were unprepared for freedom and incapable of properly exercising the political rights Northerners had thrust upon them,” Foner writes.
“The fact that blacks took part in government, wrote E. Merton Coulter in the last full-scale history of Reconstruction written entirely within the Dunning tradition, was a ‘diabolical’ development, ‘to be remembered, shuddered at, and execrated.'”
This is what professional historians once wrote in books and dissertations and scholarly articles about perhaps the most robust era of Black political self-determination in this country’s history and yet, the intellectual progeny of this egregious school of thought have consistently had the nerve to lecture Blacks on how expressions of multiculturalism like Kwanzaa pose a threat to America.
The most violent and the most hurtful form of ethnocentrism in this country has always been white ethnocentrism, which whites have always denied and under which even Blacks, like myself years ago, have fallen sway.
Thankfully, world-class historians like Foner and his forerunner, the great Black scholar W.E.B. Du Bois (who wrote the very first history of Reconstruction that countered the white mythology propagated by Dunning and others), have helped correct the record and their work now comprises the historical gold standard on the period.
This isn’t, though, to say that historians like Dunning and Schlesinger left no serious contributions to the profession. For instance, I still think Schlesinger’s Pulitzer Prize-winning “A Thousand Days” is a wonderful work of literature. I don’t agree with canceling a person or thing outright due to aspects of them I find problematic, even contemptible.
All Americans, regardless of race or culture, have to unlearn the hurtful mythology of white supremacy and disabuse ourselves of this egregious white ethnocentrism. One way we can start is by not always dismissing and denigrating, out of hand, the practices and customs of people who aren’t white.
Secondly, in order to give ourselves space to learn honestly and evolve, we have to resist the temptation to be judges, jurors and executioners — often for people who don’t think, look or act like us, or who we don’t know personally (this being the easiest way to judge, because it makes it harder to imagine ourselves capable of the actions we condemn).
“Don’t be in a hurry to condemn because he doesn’t do what you do or think as you think or as fast,” Malcolm X once said. “There was a time when you didn’t know what you know today.”
Instead, let’s humble ourselves and learn what different practices are about, why and how they came to be, and what values they’re premised on. Critique them in good-faith and argue about them in love. Let’s also celebrate them, not as cults alien to the American experiment, but cultural encampments located firmly within it.
Kwanzaa isn’t just a holiday for Blacks; it offers some deeply valuable lessons for everybody.