What the Working Class Can Learn From Kwanzaa

Sean Posey I Society & Culture I Commentary I December 28th, 2013

Commentaries on the state of Christmas are as regular as the annual celebration of the birth of the Christ Child. These Christmas 'calls to arms' encompass everyone from Fox News and their warnings about a "war on Christmas," to atheists and their calls for a more secular holiday with room for non-religious observations.

More commonly accepted, however, is the ever-increasingly capitalistic and materialistic nature of the "holiday season." Five years after the beginning of the Great Recession, which in reality has not ended for many families, most Americans continue to do their best to flood stores in an effort to keep our consumer-oriented economy afloat. While many media outlets focus on debates over nativity scenes and religious caroling in public spaces, others praise the central role of consumption in the Christmas season. Forbes exclaims, "For capitalists…'tis the season to be jolly and to herald the winter solstice, but also to be proud of their riches as they share them guiltlessly with loved ones."[1] While The Spectator writes "In Praise of Consumerism at Christmas."[2] The working class meanwhile faces another season of declining wages and living standards. Amidst this sterile debate over Christmas, there's another holiday that can expand our thinking on where we want to see our communities headed in the New Year-and beyond.

The holiday is Kwanzaa. Based on African values/traditions and utilizing the East African language Swahili, Kwanzaa emerged in the raucous and contested cultural atmosphere of the nineteen-sixties. Kwanzaa is the brainchild of black cultural nationalist, Maulana Karenga, and it was born as a decidedly Black Power holiday. According to Karenga, Kwanzaa was meant to "give Blacks an alternative to the existing holiday and give Blacks an opportunity to celebrate themselves and their history, rather than simply imitate the practice of the dominant society."[3]

Yet, by the end of the twentieth century, according to Professor Keith Mayes, Kwanzaa had been "transformed by corporate America to sell mass-produced consumer goods and services in its name."[4] Unlike Christmas, however, Kwanzaa's core tenets and values are not well known in the larger culture.

Kwanzaa runs seven days from the twenty-sixth of December to the first of the year. As part of Kwanzaa's "Nguzo Saba," seven community principles are laid down for guiding the black community.

The Seven Principles

Umoja (Unity) - To strive for and maintain unity in the family, community, nation, and race.

Kujichagulia (Self-Determination) - To define ourselves, name ourselves, create for ourselves and speak for ourselves instead of being defined, named, created and spoken for by others.

Ujima (Collective Work and Responsibility) - To build and maintain our community together, and make our sisters' and brothers' problems and to solve them together.

Ujamma (Cooperative Economics) - To build and maintain our own shops, stores and other businesses and to profit from them together.

Nia (Purpose) - To make our collective vocation the building and development of our community in order to restore our people to their traditional greatness.

Kuumba (Creativity) - To always do as much as we can, in the way that we can, in order to leave our community more beautiful and beneficial than we inherited it.

Imani (Faith) - To believe with all of our hearts, in our people, our parents,

our teachers, our leaders, and the righteousness and victory of our struggle.[5]

Seven Principles for the Working Class

It's clear these principles are applicable to working class communities of all colors and stripes. What can we learn from them?

For the working class and progressives, Umoja (Unity) is clearly needed in the face of concerted corporate attacks on families, communities, working people of all races, and on our nation itself.

Kujichagulia (Self Determination) is vanishing in our working communities. Pundits, analysts, and corporate-backed politicians claim to speak for us, but we must define, create, name, and speak for ourselves.

Ujima (Collective Work and Responsibility) is our future. As cities and towns across America decline in the wake of disinvestment, we must take responsibility for working communities that have been left behind. The problems of our sisters and brothers, be they unemployed auto workers in Detroit or undocumented workers struggling in California's Central Valley, are our problems. Neoliberalism and corporatism know no geographic boundaries. We must fight for change collectively at the local and national level.

In a system such as ours, Ujamma (Cooperative Economics) is sorely lacking. The Walmartization of the economy keeps us from investing in and starting our own small businesses and collectively owned worker enterprises. Workers must build, run, and profit from their own businesses.

What is our Nia (Purpose)? Is it to work long hours for declining wages? Is it to serve corporate interests? Do we dare to find a purpose for ourselves outside of the narrow meanings afforded to us by the market economy?

Kuumba (Creativity) is difficult in a society where often alienating wage labor takes up so much of our lives, while technology distracts us from beautifying our neglected communities-be it through art, service, or communal infrastructure improvements.

In a season where Imani (Faith) supposedly plays such a central role, we are surprisingly bereft of any real faith in our teachers or leaders. Our teachers are under attack at all levels, and our supposed leaders enjoy alarmingly low approval ratings. Where will we place our faith going forward? Will it be in the stewards of our own communities, or in the corporate ruling class with its cabal of bought-off politicians and "intellectuals"?

Unlike "multicultural" efforts to co-opt Kwanzaa for profit, a working-class effort to embrace the central tenets of Kwanzaa would move all of us forward. A set of seven principles for the working class could be an example of actual multiculturalism at work and not simply window dressing. So as you watch another corporatist Christmas go by, think about the seven principles and the lessons that could be imparted from one oppressed people to another.


[1] Richard M. Salsman, "A Well-Earned Capitalist Christmas" Forbes, December 23, 2010.

[2] Ed West, "In Praise of Consumerism at Christmas" Spectator, December 17, 2013.

[3] Ernest H. Johnson, The Secrets for Motivating, Educating, and Lifting the Spirit of African American Males (Bloomington: iUniverse, 2011), 287.

[4] Keith A. Mayes, Kwaanza: Black Power and the Making of the African American Black Holiday (New York: Routledge, 2009), xx.