Opinion Columns & Blogs

Mark McCormick: Kwanzaa about culture, values

Discuss problems besieging African-Americans and the discussion eventually settles on values.

Why do so many African-Americans, as the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr. once asked, buy what they want and beg for what they need? Why do so many black parents purchase Xboxes and Jordans for their children, yet haven’t seeded college funds?

African-American scholars, from Carter G. Woodson to Cornel West, argue these tendencies amount to, in part, a culture and values problem where crass consumerism and conspicuous consumption supplanted healthy values.

California State University-Long Beach professor Maulana Karenga’s idea for Kwanzaa originated here, not from an empty yearning for Africa, as Washington Post columnist Jonathan Capehart wrote last month. Capehart’s regrettable screed ironically reflects a real need for Kwanzaa.

Capehart views Kwanzaa as a misguided effort by African-Americans to forge a shallow connection with an ancestral home.

“Do we really need to light a candle each day and recite a word in a language we’ve never spoken or know anything about to reaffirm a sense of community and resilience?” Capehart asked in the column titled, “I can’t stand Kwanzaa.”

The candles are symbolic. The cultural vacuum in black communities is real.

As far back as the 1930s, says Wichita State University professor Robert Weems, advertisers understood black consumers’ vulnerability to the promise of status in advertisements. Rent-to-own stores, check-cashing centers and pawnshops remain ubiquitous in black communities. Each preys on desires for humanity through status – humanity denied them by law and by custom.

This emptiness glares in profane music, crumbling families and crime rates.

Twenty years ago, I met Georgia State University Egyptologist Asa Hilliard. His presentation, “Free Your Mind, Return to the Source,” urged a return to traditional values.

Kwanzaa’s “Nguzo Saba,” or seven principles, lift traditional values: Umoja, meaning unity; Kujichagulia, meaning self-determination; Ujima, meaning collective work and responsibility; Ujamaa, cooperative economics; Nia, meaning purpose; Kuumba, creativity; Imani, meaning faith.

After job stability, these values offer relief for what ails us.

Hilliard said it was impossible to continue to oppress a consciously historical people. Cultural grounding makes us stronger people.

That’s what makes Capehart’s attack so mystifying.

“Kwanzaa-themed holiday cards elicited hard eye rolls from me...,” Capehart wrote. “When a well-meaning white friend sent me a Kwanzaa card a few years back, I was enraged for hours.”

I’d be enraged if this weren’t so pitiful.

Author James Baldwin once famously said, “We judge racial progress in this country by how quickly I become white.”

Capehart’s argument smacks of this. He can’t see himself in an expression of the culture from which he hails.

He needs this holiday more than anyone actually observing it.

Mark McCormick is executive director of the Kansas African American Museum in Wichita.