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Wednesday, December 26, 2018

Kwanzaa is Cultural Appropriation

By LUDWIG VON KOOPA - Kwanzaa should bother you. Here's some food for thought.

Have you ever heard of Kwanzaa? It is a holiday that starts today. I have a lot of problems with it.

I (and the rest of the KoopaTV staff) recently came back from our quarterly meeting taking place at our Sierra Leone headquarters. If you're geography-challenged, Sierra Leone is a great, small country in West Africa.

Those two paragraphs have a lot to do with one another, so let me explain what Kwanzaa is, what I take issue with, and how my experience having our headquarters in Sierra Leone influences my perspective.

Kwanzaa Basics

Kwanzaa was started by controversial American Black Power activist Maulana Karenga, a guy who is still alive since he was born in 1941. When he was born, his name was Ronald Everett. He invented Kwanzaa as an alternative to Christmas during the Civil Rights era, in 1966. (Then he got arrested for domestic violence/torture five years later and went to prison, but hey, that's off-topic.)

Every year, Kwanzaa begins the day after Christmas on December 26, and lasts for seven days until January 2. Kwanzaa has seven different principles — Unity, Self-Determination, Collective Work and Responsibility, Cooperative Economics, Purpose, Creativity, and Faith.

Kwanzaa days are celebrated by lighting candles on the seven-pronged Kinara. Then families discuss the day's principle in I assume is an unscripted dialogue.

The Swahili Isn't Appropriate

Kwanzaa comes from a Swahili phrase, regarding the first fruits of a harvest. The seven principles of Kwanzaa (the Nguzo Saba) also get their names from Swahili. (They correspond to there being seven days of Kwanzaa.)

Swahili is a language that comes from Africa... but it's spoken in the Eastern part of Africa. Most of the “African-Americans” that are in the United States come from Western Africa, because they came as part of the Atlantic slave trade. If you look at a world map some time, you'll understand how that makes sense.

Kwanzaa was designed to appeal to the entirety of anyone who has come from Africa, but appealing just to Swahili-speaking? Here's a visual for why this doesn't make sense:

Africa most widely spoken languages Arabic French English Swahili
Credit to eLearning Africa, retrieved from Beyond Niamey.

Swahili is third on the list, behind Arabic and English. French has a lot of dominance as well. In terms of geographic diversity, French and English take up large swathes of the continent, thanks to prior colonialisation. Arabic is there because of Arabic conquests much earlier in history.

You could say Swahili is the most spoken African language that started in Africa, but if you're discriminating like that, doesn't that go against Kwanzaa's principles of Unity? And Pan-Africanism in general?

Let's talk about Pan-Africanism...

Criticism of Pan-Africanism

Criticism of Kwanzaa would not be complete without critiquing Pan-Africanism, since Pan-Africanism is the guiding principle behind Kwanzaa's creation. To be succinct, Pan-Africanism is the notion that all the countries of Africa (and their residents, descendants, whatever) should basically all band together and exist as one unit, to unite against everyone else in the world in a cultural sense. My objection to Pan-Africanism is mostly the same argument that I'd give against other continental-identity movements: it's stupid.

Putting your identity based on your continent is the ultimate in collectivist ideology. Not only are you not an individual, but you're not even a local community or a state. You're not even a patriot to your greater nation. No, you're promoting the values of a whole continent, a huge landmass consisting of people who are nothing like you, think nothing like you, don't have the same customs as you, and don't even speak the same language. (See above.) You put someone from South Africa together in a room with someone from Congo and with another guy from Libya; and they have nothing in common. Same with a group of people from Afghanistan, Japan, Israel, and Vietnam. Or Orange Star, Blue Moon, Yellow Comet, Green Earth, and Black Hole.

I know that, talking with people in Sierra Leone. (And sometimes doing humanitarian work.)

Pan-Africanism disregards the distinct uniqueness of each African country and tries to average them all together until you get some meaningless garbage that appeals to no one. That's how you end up with Kwanzaa, a holiday that no one in Africa celebrates, and with no historical roots for anyone of African heritage in the United States.

You only have to look at the European Union right now to see where basing your existence off a continent gets you, and trying to force everyone on that continent to act like you and squash your national culture. That's why Brexit won. That's why a lot of nationalist counter-movements are happening throughout Europe. People don't want to associate with a continent.

Pan-Africanism, in terms of being a Black Power philosophy, is the exact opposite of what black people should want to associate with. You want to know who decided which land masses go into which continents? Or even what the country borders are? White people. White people in Europe.

There's nothing to be proud of there if you're from one of the many places you could be from in Africa.

In the end, Maulana Karenga was asking a predominantly Christian, black audience in the United States to say screw Christmas (and white people), let's celebrate a holiday based on a culture that isn't even our own. Karenga himself culturally appropriated the Swahili language in making the holiday, as well as in making his own name. Then he's asking millions of black people to do the same.

And for some reason, Kwanzaa is still around even today, even though its origins are suspect and its philosophies are counter-intuitive. Which brings me to... 

Why I'm Writing This Article Now

Okay, Ludwig, you might be thinking, I get your arguments about Kwanzaa. I may or may not disagree with them. But isn't it rather disrespectful to the millions of people who are celebrating Kwanzaa right now to be disparaging their holiday? Right as they're celebrating it?

Perhaps, but during Kwanzaa is the only time of year that anyone cares about Kwanzaa, since it doesn't have any mainstream cultural significance other than existing as a timely counter to Christmas. Thus, now is all there is. To prove my point, here is the Google trends chart for Kwanzaa in the United States for the past 365 days. Note the only time of year it gets attention:

Kwanzaa Google Trends 2018 one year December
Interest rises above a flat line of zero only in December, particularly the end.

Yup. Right now is the only time there is search interest in Kwanzaa. KoopaTV is meant to start and continue conversations. I'm not here to write eloquent articles that have continuity between them and a narrative canon all to myself. Strike the iron while it's hot! (Idiom used not meant to evoke memories of slaves striking iron.)

So I wrote when you're interested. In other words...

...Blame yourself.

While you're blaming yourself, continue taking those steps towards individual responsibility and individualism, and stop subscribing to a fake holiday based on collective identity to a continent, represented only by a specific slice of that continent.

Ludwig forced one game reference in this article just so he could check a box saying he did so, and it's not even a good reference and depending on which game you look at it through, it contradicts his point. (The other staffers also thought it was too obscure and made Ludwig hyperlink to a Wiki article to make sure no one missed it.) In any case, Ludwig has been waiting a long time to write this article, because Kwanzaa has been irritating him for a long time. Do you feel the same way? Do you know anyone who celebrates Kwanzaa? ...Do YOU celebrate Kwanzaa? Let Ludwig know your thoughts in the comments section!

There is a fledgling genre of Africa-inspired games called Afrofantasy, and they too want to be careful not to portray Africa as monolithic.


  1. In Dual Strike the Wars World nations banded together to form the Allied Nations to take care of the common threat of the drought and thankfully Rachel had the sense to disband the Allied Nations after the threat was over so all the countries can keep their own identities afterwards.

    1. Glad you noticed the Advance Wars reference (since no one else reading this article would).

      There's theoretical projects like the United States of Africa (which larger countries, and the Arabic guys, don't want) ( ) and then there's the real African Union which has meetings with basically every African country and doesn't accomplish much headline-worthy things ( ).

      At some levels the countries are already cooperating with one another, but not in an identity-sacrificing way. (Or really a meaningful way.)


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