As a Black gay man, the annual celebration of Kwanzaa takes me on a journey of both spirituality and belonging. It’s a journey that allows me to own my life rather than renting it.
A multi-day celebration from December 26th to January 1st, Kwanzaa is a perennial re-dedication to community and heritage. For me it’s also a re-dedication to self as an African in America — and also to the multi-generational work of liberating and prospering a people surviving more than two centuries of continued oppression, from chattel slavery to the present moment. It grew out of the Afro and dashiki Black Power/Black Consciousness movements of the late 1960s.
Today Kwanzaa is celebrated by more than 2 million African Americans and is growing worldwide as awareness of it trends on social media during the annual seven-day celebration, which traditionally culminates in a communal feast called karamu, usually held on the sixth day. Each day of Kwanzaa represents a specific principle; together they form the nguzo saba, which are symbolized by the seven candles of the kinara.
Kwanzaa was founded in 1966 by Dr. Maulena Karenga, a professor of Africana Studies, C.O.R.E. activist and author, after his involvement in the Watts Rebellion in Los Angeles in the summer of 1965. This event also spurred the Black Panther Party Movement, which originated as a political party at about the same time.
Though Kwanzaa can be a fun holiday that allows room for creativity, the seven principles of the nguzo saba are serious business. The legacy and multi-generational work they symbolize aren’t intended to be commercialized or made light of. Kwanzaa must forever remain a purpose-driven and organic, if not spiritual, celebration provided by the community and by the family.
I was born African-American to Black parents born Negro to Colored parents. I was raised, as was any typical American, in a newly integrated and multicultural society.
It wasn’t until I was an adult that I realized how much of what I received as America’s heritage was not my own heritage but that of the largely English-originated people who enslaved my ancestors at some point. It is why my name and first language are English and why I was christened and baptized into Christianity.
What I had seen in my formative years was only a mimicry of White society. So I then wanted to know what was mine outside of this. Kwanzaa helped me to discover this.
When one lives in a society that has treated one’s people like a guest in their own house, it’s satisfying and affirming to have something to call our own, something that cannot be taken away or subjected to a need to ask the oppressor permission to access. That right there is liberating.
Assimilation is then a choice and not a requirement. The Judy Garland quotation, “Always be a first-rate version of yourself, instead of a second-rate version of someone else,” resonates with me in that we African American and Black people will always be held as second-class so long as we continue to live and attempt to compete as deeply melanated White people instead of as who we actually are. We are not White people, and their heritage is not ours. We have our own heritage, and glorious it is.
Kwanzaa teaches that slavery is not Black history; slavery interrupted Black history. Therefore, Kwanzaa has a pervasive African theme. It is meant to create a spark of inspiration in the hearts of Africans in America leading to the discovery of the grandeur, wealth and advancement of the Mali and Kush Empires, the Gnostic schools of ancient Kemet (renamed Egypt) and the Moors who invaded Western Europe, dominated it and brought it out of the Dark Ages and into the Renaissance.
That is who we came from. There is a specific reason this information has been kept from us. Enlightenment to this makes further oppression unworkable. When an African, no matter where the Diaspora has placed him or her, internalizes this, White society and White approval no longer suffice or validate one in determining one’s worth in the ways that he or she is different from Whites.
This flies directly in the face of how many of us were conditioned to thrive in a society which rewards our ability to talk just like White people, live just like White people, and look just like White people as much as possible — and then punishes our defiance.
Now, given this general significance of the holiday, how has Kwanzaa been a special gift to me? Not only am I Black, I’m also gay. How does that matter?
While conditions within the LGBTQ community are improving, I have come of age in a revolutionary time that began with us still as shameful family secrets swept under the rug, never to be fully recognized for who we are with dignity and for the important roles we play within our families and our community. And Black people have always been in this community and part of its struggle.
Celebrating Black gay heroes
Through my studies and my experience of the world, I have learned about the abolitionist and women’s suffrage activist Sojourner Truth, who attested in her famous speech: “Ain’t I a woman?”
Benjamin Banneker created the world’s first Almanac.
Stem cell research and peanut-based industrial products would be impossible without the discoveries of George Washington Carver.
The 1963 March on Washington would never have been organized without Bayard Rustin.
The pro-Black movement found a feminist voice in the warrior poet, Audre Lorde.
James Baldwin was just as much a revolutionary and provocative intellect and thought leader as his contemporaries the Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. and Malcolm X. One word can describe Baldwin, and that is “poignant” in his social critique of American society 60 years ago but still relevant today.
Langston Hughes gave birth to “Spoken Word” and the marriage between the expressions of rhythmic Black poetry and jazz. Hip-Hop, Rap and Neo-Soul would have never gotten their start without him.
Little Richard gave the world Rock & Roll and Rhythm & Blues.
Marsha P. Johnson threw the brick at the Stonewall Inn that ignited the first LGBTQ uprising in New York City, which in turn gave birth to the modern movement for LGBTQ equality.
Every year, America is treated to a 50-year tradition of ballet and dance-based storytelling through the creativity, talent and organizing of Alvin Ailey.
While HIV/AIDS has ravaged the Black community regardless of sexuality in the Americas, Europe and Africa, our current advances in treatment and support would be impossible without the countless Black LGBTQ activists and researchers who have taken up the work with purpose and passion, saving innumerable lives.
Among the top organizers of the “Black Lives Matter” movement are lesbians and gay men.
We are not caricatures and jokes to be laughed at while our humanity is overlooked. We are as deserving of dignity and respect as anyone. We are present and always have been.
We are an integral part of our communities, our families and the struggle, regardless of whether or not we take part in the progeneration of our people. We still participate in many ways, helping raise the youth of our community in our roles as volunteers, activists, teachers, older brothers and sisters, uncles and aunties, parents and grandparents.
I liken this to the role of Orishas. Before the influence of a European-based Christianity for mental enslavement purposes, Africans in the Yoruban culture in present-day Nigeria communed with Orishas, recognized as angels or spirit guides over the elemental forces within the universe. One of them, Osumare, is transgender. The governor of direct movement and guardian of babies and the umbilical cord, Osumare spends half of the year as male and the other half as female.
There is also Erinle, a hunter of the land and sea, who dwells in the in-between space where the fresh river water meets the salty sea. He became the archangel of health and medicine and guardian of homosexual and transgender spirits.
Affirmation for a gay man
All of this too is my heritage and what I come from. As a gay man, it affirms to me that I too have an important place among my people, and more are beginning to recognize and appreciate this as we dive deeper into our heritage and decolonize the framework of our thinking.
Homophobia, patriarchy, misogyny and sexism have contributed to a major dysfunctionality within Black culture for generations, making true unity challenging and difficult, just for the hypocrisy of it all, coming from an oppressed people.
We are learning that this thinking too is an adopted feature from European colonialism. It is not natural to many of the cultures we descend from — where, for instance, women were equal if not more powerful than the men, and homosexuals and transgender people were often held as priests and sages. There is something divine about being able to navigate between the energies of both genders and harmonize them in one person, as GOD is the combination of both.
Having this liberated attitude is not always easy, even among many other Black people who are not there yet, so Kwanzaa provides a sort of support system and network one can annually recommit to in order to continue the work of liberating oneself and liberating our people.
All of this cannot be encapsulated within a week, or 28 days, or even a year. Black people have the oldest history in the world, triple that of Asia and quadruple that of Europe. In truth, Europe is a dwarf to Africa in size, natural wealth, and human history.
It is then an injustice for any African to attempt to actualize himself or herself within a European framework. I would not suggest that we should look down our noses upon Europe, just not for any African to look up to it above the expanse of his or her own heritage — or even to compare them. You cannot enslave a mind that knows this and can claim it as its own.
It is then an ongoing, lifelong process. When one has learned enough, the duty then becomes incumbent upon one to teach while still discovering.
Kwanzaa: More than a holiday
In this sense, Kwanzaa is not just a holiday, a festival, a movement or a mindset. It is a lifestyle, and we take the last week of the year to reignite a thirst to carry us through the entirety of the next year. Therefore, filled with meaningful work and study in everything that we do I invite you to journey the seven principles of the nguzu saba with me as I embark on the seven-day journey of Kwanzaa, symbolized by the lighting of the corresponding candles of the seven-branched kinara.
Day 1: Umoja (Unity). The Center Black Candle is lit: To strive for and to maintain unity in the family, community, nation, and race.
Day 2: Kujichagulia (Self-Determination). The First Red Candle to the left of the Center Black Candle is lit: To define and name ourselves, as well as to create and speak for ourselves.
Day 3: Ujima (Collective Work and Responsibility). The First Green Candle to the right of the Center Black Candle is lit: To build and maintain our community together and make our brothers’ and sisters’ problems our problems and to solve them together.
Day 4: Ujamaa (Cooperative Economics). The Second Red Candle to the left of the Center Black Candle is lit: To build and maintain our own stores, shops, and other businesses and to profit from them together.
Day 5: Nia (Purpose). The Second Green Candle to the right of the Center Black Candle is lit: To make our collective vocation the building and developing of our community in order to restore our people to their traditional greatness.
Day 6: Kuumba (Creativity). The Last and Third Red Candle to the left of the Center Black Candle is lit: To do always as much as we can, in the way we can, in order to leave our community more beautiful and beneficial than we inherited it.
Day 7: Imani (Faith). The Last and Third Green Candle to the right of the Center Black Candle is lit: To believe with all our hearts in our people, our parents, our teachers, our leaders, and the righteousness and victory of our struggle.
Avid runner, writer, nature photographer and Baltimore native Branden Mattox is currently at work on a collection of short autobiographical stories and essays titled Love Gently, Live Fiercely, designed to illustrate these two core principles he lives by and was taught by his late mother. A biology major who graduated as an English major, he uses writing to illuminate the philosophical journey he began at age six, balancing art and science. He has lived in Atlanta since 2010.