Wednesday marked the start of Kwanzaa, the seven day festival celebrating African-American culture. In the 1980s and '90s, many considered Kwanzaa a mainstream holiday like Christmas and Hanukkah. But now there seems to be less fanfare. Host Michel Martin speaks with Duke University's Mark Anthony Neal about whether Kwanzaa is still a thing.
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MICHEL MARTIN, HOST:
Now we'd like to talk about Kwanzaa. Wednesday marked the start of the seven-day celebration of African-American culture and heritage. And if you've been around a while, then you probably remember that in the 1980s and 1990s, Kwanzaa was one of the trifecta of winter holidays - along with Christmas and Hanukkah, of course - that got a lot of attention from the media; from retail establishments, including the big department stores; and artists. Soul singer Teddy Pendergrass released a song "Happy Kwanzaa" on his 1998 album "This Christmas I'd Rather Have Love." Let's listen.
(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "HAPPY KWANZAA")
TEDDY PENDERGRASS: (Singing) That it got no black or white. We all know it's all right. It's a celebration that should last throughout the year. Happy Kwanzaa. Happy Kwanzaa. Together, there's much that we can do. All right. Happy Kwanzaa. Together there is so much we can do. Happy Kwanzaa. Happy Kwanzaa...
MARTIN: OK, so maybe it wasn't his best effort. But have you noticed these days, there just doesn't seem to be as much buzz and fanfare around Kwanzaa? According to a survey by the National Retail Federation, just 2 percent of Americans say they celebrate the holiday - which left us asking, is Kwanzaa still a thing?
Joining us to answer that, we've called Mark Anthony Neal. He is a professor of black popular culture at Duke University. And he's with us now. I guess I'm supposed to ask: Habari Gani.
MARK ANTHONY NEAL: Ujima, I guess, is supposed to be the answer.
MARTIN: OK. And you know the answer, so you are obviously the right person to talk with about this.
MARTIN: You've actually written about this, and you point out that many people might not remember that Kwanzaa actually started as a part of the black nationalist movement.
NEAL: It was something that was started by Maulana Karenga, then Ron Everett, as kind of an extension of his organization United Slaves; just simply known as US. And it really was an attempt to find some sort of ritual celebration that would counteract white supremacy on one hand, but give African-Americans an opportunity to kind of reflect on the past year, and to start thinking and planning for the next year - you know, hence its celebration December 26th to January 1st.
MARTIN: Was his idea, originally, that Kwanzaa would supplant both traditional Christmas festivities and New Year's, and that would be the thing that African-American families celebrated instead of those two?
NEAL: I think in the sense that, you know, if African-Americans, black Americans could begin to establish their own holidays separate and distinct from those from white America - keeping in mind, you know, Kwanzaa's developed at the height of the black nationalist movement; and everything was about creating our own institutions, whether it be schools or holidays. I mean, the second day of Kwanzaa, Kujichagulia, is self-determination. It was very much in that kind of spirit that I think Karenga was hoping that we would establish a holiday that didn't necessarily - would have to supplant Christmas. I think it was very shrewd of him to have it the day after Christmas start, as opposed to seeing something that had to be in competition with Christmas.
MARTIN: And as a number of commentators have pointed out, hating on Kwanzaa has been kind of the thing for some time now; that people every year talk about how it's played out or - you know, do you, or don't you, celebrate it. What's your take on this? Why do you think it is less popular than it used to be? I mean, the fact is, you know, you used to be able to buy some of the items, like a kinara, you know, at the big department stores. And I just checked before I - we started our conversation, and I don't see them on the websites anymore.
MARTIN: Well, why do you think it seems to have waned in popularity. Or do you think that it hasn't?
NEAL: You know, I think there are a couple of factors. You know, as I just mentioned, it was started during the moment of the black freedom struggle, you know. So there was a lot of intensity around finding some way to express our black pride within that context. But it was also started in a time when there were no black studies department; you know, the Internet didn't exist.
So you could imagine, for the millennial generation now - you know, who sit in black studies courses, who have so much more access to black history and black heritage in that regard and can really look up, you know, Kwanzaa on Wikipedia these day - that there's just not that kind of intensity around the holiday that we might have saw in the 1980s, for instance, when I was in college and, you know, that was the only way - and for many of us - to be able to connect to some sort of sense of black heritage.
I think there's also this sense that - of Kwanzaa being a made-up holiday. And, you know, when you compare it to, say, something like Hanukkah, which is clearly a religious holiday - you know, Kwanzaa is not a religious holiday though it does have, you know, spiritual overtones. But, you know, the reality is that so many holidays that we celebrate are, in fact, made-up holidays. I mean, Mother's Day and Father's Day are basically, holidays that were created by greeting card companies.
MARTIN: Well, sure. But so was Thanksgiving. I mean, but it's true...
MARTIN: ...that most cultures have a thanksgiving celebration of some sort, or a harvest celebration, but the Thanksgiving as we know it is certainly made up. But that doesn't diminish our love of it...
MARTIN: ...or how much we appreciate it.
MARTIN: You know, I have to put you on the spot. Did you ever...
MARTIN: You know I'm going to ask. Did you ever celebrate Kwanzaa, and do you still?
NEAL: As a college student, it was so important to us. You know, we knew we wouldn't be together. On a predominantly white campus, there was a small percentage of us that were students there - African-American, black students that were there. It was an opportunity for us to be able to fellowship and celebrate the year, particularly since we wouldn't be together when the actual holiday occurred. And that still occurs on many college campuses.
At the time, back in the 1980s, when I was this imagined black radical, you know, I had every intention of giving up Christmas for the rest of my life, you know, solely to - you know, introduce my family to Kwanzaa. But, you know, the things that brought me back to Christmas, you know, were these ideas - I mean, this was the holiday that my parents raised me with. I mean, all my memories of - great memories of my childhood, circulated around Christmas and the Thanksgiving holiday. And in some ways, those are the kinds of things that keep me very - still interested in Kwanzaa. We don't celebrate Kwanzaa as a family. But when there are local events that are Kwanzaa-related, it's not unusual for me to take my two daughters to those events.
MARTIN: Do you think that Kwanzaa's best days are behind us, or do you think that there's still a possibility for a comeback; that it could have - it could become a big part of the culture again?
NEAL: You know, I think - look, if there's any opportunity for black folks in this country to be able to come together and look backward at what we've just achieved in the past year, and have the opportunity to plan for our future, I think there's always value in that. And I'm sure there would be younger generations of black folks who will see some significance in Kwanzaa, even if it's not practiced with the same intent that it might've been created in 1966.
MARTIN: Mark Anthony Neal is a culture critic, a blogger, and a professor of African and African-American studies at Duke University. He was kind enough to join us from the studios of WRAL in Raleigh, North Carolina. Professor Neal, thank you so much for joining us, and Happy Holidays to you.
NEAL: Thank you, Michel.
(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC) Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.