February 19, 2018

The True Meaning of Kwanzaa

This is the keynote address I gave at the 12/27/17 Kwanzaa event held at the Goodman Community Center in Madison, WI. This speech was supplemented with 45 PowerPoint slides

Kwanzaa africa mapKwanzaa Yeh-Noo ee-weh nah her-ree! May your Kwanzaa be happy! Please join me in thanking Sister Edith Hilliard for making the Madison celebration of the 51st anniversary of Kwanzaa possible.

KWANZAA is a celebration of African American’s historical journey. It emerged out of the great social upheaval that was occurring in the U.S. during the 1960s that led to outbursts in many of our urban cities. After the Watts unrest, Dr. Maulana Karenga, an African-American scholar and activist, conceived Kwanzaa in 1966 as a specifically African-American cultural holiday, although like other ethic holidays, everyone is welcome to celebrate it.

Dr. Karenga felt something was needed to reconnect Black Americans with each other and with their African roots. But he also wanted Kwanzaa to be a celebration to honor our history and to remind us that there still must be singing in the dark times. kwanzaa banjo playing And it is precisely when it seems there is little hope that we are to remember our history and the sacrifices that our forebears made to enable us to gather here tonight. Fannie Lou Hamer who said I’m sick and tired of being sick and tired, told us to always praise the bridges that carried us over. Praise the great bridges like Frederick Douglass, Harriet Tubman, and MLK but also to praise the smaller bridges like our parents and grandparents who taught us that when we combine faith with action that great things are still possible. By honoring them, we honor the best in ourselves.

Dr. Karenga implores us to revisit our history during Kwanzaa and integrate it into the celebration so that we understand our connections to that history and our responsibility to unearth the truth about that history. He reminds us that contrary to popular opinion that Black history did not begin with slavery but in Africa. When we celebrate African culture, we’re celebrating the oldest and richest culture on earth. Dr. Karenga says: We are to know our past and to honor it!

African Kings and PharoahsWe are to tell the stories of African Kings, and Pharaohs and their many contributions to humankind. We must share the glory of our African queens and restore the missing pages of history-when Africans led the planet for thousands of years. Marcus Garvey said: If we as a people realized the greatness from which we came we would be less likely to disrespect ourselves.

The word Kwanzaa is derived from the Ki-Swahili phrase “matunda ya kwanza,” which means “first fruits.”  African kings and queens held elaborate festivals at the end of the harvest. Kwanzaa was established as a means to help African Americans reconnect with these African traditions. Based on the ancient African value system, Dr. Karenga introduced a set of 7 principles called the NGUZO SABA that are beneficial not only to Blacks but to all of humankind. Dr. Karenga says all the principles are equally important and form an unbreakable and inseparable whole.

While Kwanzaa is meant to be a joyous occasion, to truly understand the meaning of Kwanzaa you must understand African American history. Unfortunately much of African history in the US has not been joyful. In my final 10-minutes I’m going to give you a brief overview of that history to help you understand why Kwanzaa is so important.

Despite the myth that Columbus discovered America, we know there were millions of people in the Americas, speaking over 300 distinct languages when Columbus arrived. There were kings and prophets, governing councils and communal clans. There were fishermen, farmers, and buffalo hunters; weavers, potters and rock painters, healers, spiritual leaders, builders and teachers. And today nearly all of these great languages and people are gone-that’s Columbus’ legacy!

After Europeans decided to colonize this country, vast numbers of people were needed to work the land, starting with enslaved Indians. The Indentured system, well-known in England, was used to bring poor white laborers to the new world in exchange for their labor for 4 to 7 years. Nearly two-thirds of the white population to the American colonies came via way of the indentured system.

While there is ample evidence that Africans arrived here long before Columbus, when Europeans brought the first Africans to America in 1619, they too were treated as indentured servants because slavery was not legal in colonial law at that time. White and Black indentures got along just fine and even inter-married. For a brief period in our history, class differences were more significant than racial differences. However Bacon’s Rebellion that united black and white colonists against the governor of Virginia ended the indentured system for blacks. After that rebellion, the rich land owners had to find a way to separate poor blacks and whites from uniting and rebelling; so they began passing laws based on race, eventually making blacks slaves for life. As a result the lives of Africans in the U.S. would be forever changed. Dr. Karenga says we must use Kwanzaa to share our history, and learn from it.

Once the colonists legalized slavery, millions of Africans were brought to America on slave ships, shackled in chains, stacked like sardines in the ship’s hull. The slave ships almost always carried more Africans than the cramped space would allow, as it was expected that up to a 1/3 would die or be killed during the voyage over.

Kwanzaa reminds us that despite living under such inhumane conditions that blacks helped build this nation and that there were many black heroes that fought for emancipation. Harriet Tubman led hundreds of Blacks to freedom. She said “if you hear the dogs, keep going. If you see the torches in the woods, keep going. If there’s shouting after you, keep going. Don’t ever stop. Keep going. If you want a taste of freedom, keep going.” This is what Kwanzaa means.

The civil war did not end slavery in this country. The 13th amendment to the constitution abolished slavery. When the war ended Slave-owners acted like they had won the war. The ink from Robert E. Lee’s surrender at Appomattox had barely dried when Southerners returned to their statehouses and immediately enacted Black Codes. These codes restricted black people’s right to own property, conduct business, and buy land. The Black codes for all practical purposes re-instituted slavery all over the south.

The period after the civil war ended, is known as reconstruction because the south had to be rebuilt and the country had to be reunited. During the early years of reconstruction V.P. Andrew Johnson a former slave owner who is considered to be America’s worst president, became president after Lincoln was assassinated. Johnson allowed the Black codes to take effect in the south and permitted many of the confederate leaders to return to their old positions of power. However Congressional Republicans in the north were having none of that. When I say Republicans-it was not like the Republican party of today. Back then Republicans were genuine white allies who refused to seat legislators from those ex-confederate states and they passed legislation to overturn the black codes. Even though President Johnson vetoed their bills, Congressional Republicans overrode him, and introduced their version of reconstruction.

Because of the shocking death toll of ex-slaves being killed by returning confederates who blamed blacks for the loss of the war, the Republicans divided the south into 5 military districts and sent federal troops to protect the rights of newly freed blacks. Republicans passed the 13th, 14th and 15th “Reconstruction Amendments” that abolished slavery, granted citizenship and gave blacks the right to vote. They also created the Freedman’s Bureau to provide relief services for former slaves.

During reconstruction, nearly 2,000 black politicians were elected all over the South including senators and governors. Instead of envisioning a world where black men and women could live as equals and in dignity with the majority population, the rise of black political power triggered a violent southern white backlash that eventually destroyed Reconstruction. Ex-confederates founded the Ku Klux Klan and vowed to never accept blacks as social equals. They pledged to take their country back; to redeem the south and make it great again. Does that sound familiar?

Because of this violent resistance, most of the gains that blacks made during reconstruction vanished. Through the Compromise of 1877, federal troops were withdrawn from the south and reconstruction ended. The southern democrats now called the “Redeemer” Party took control of most Southern statehouses. They defunded public schools, closed public hospitals, and eliminated the safety net that was set up during reconstruction.

They passed numerous voting suppression laws, and the KKK and other white militia groups murdered and terrorized blacks from office, returning local, state and federal offices to all-white institutions. At the same time a reactionary supreme court ended black civil rights protection. In Plessy vs Ferguson the court legalized both institutional racism and segregation through the separate-but-equal doctrine, leading to the era of Jim Crow, sharecropping, and the convict lease system that rewarded southern states for arresting black men, and hiring them out indefinitely without a trial and without pay to former slave owners. In 1898 nearly 75% of Alabama’s entire annual state revenue came from convict leasing.

While Jim Crow laws kept Blacks segregated in the US, Africa was facing European colonization. In 1884 at The Berlin Conference, European countries literally divided the continent among themselves. There are estimates that the slave trade robbed Africa of over 30 million of its best and brightest men, women and children –Now Africa would lose its mineral resources as well.

Too often when Africa is depicted in the news you see pictures of starving children or endless wars without ever questioning how Africa got into that dilemma in the first place. The trillions of dollars of mineral wealth-gold, diamonds, oil, etc., that have been taken from the African people would require reparations if Africa is ever to recover from that great of a loss.

Back in America- Jim Crow laws essentially forced African Americans to the margins and helped create the segregated society and the racial disparities in education, housing, and employment that we are still struggling with today.

It wasn’t until World War II—nearly 100 years after the Civil War—that a major positive change occurred for many southern Blacks. There was a huge demand for workers in the northern defense plants because WW II cut off the flow of immigrant labor from Europe.  Thus began a great migration from the south to the north.

Despite the commonly held perception that most northern citizens embraced racial equality, when Blacks arrived in our northern cities it wasn’t like a welcome mat was extended to these new arrivals. Instead Black people were prevented, either by restrictive deeds, government policy, or straight-out violence from buying homes in white neighborhoods. They were literally forced into overcrowded ghettos that sprang up in every major urban city. There were restrictive covenants right here in Madison and Dane County prohibiting the sale of homes to Blacks. When MLK led the modern civil rights movement and the Supreme Court overturned Plessy vs Ferguson in Brown vs Board of Education, many blacks thought that surely racial justice would become a reality.

Unfortunately, the promise of equality was once again deferred—as it had been after the indentured servant period and after Reconstruction. Amidst the discontent, our cities exploded. It is out of this history that Kwanzaa was born. Kwanzaa candlesDr. Karenga wanted to give Blacks a positive holiday to celebrate a long and difficult journey in America. While this history may be painful, this does not have to be a time of despair. Instead it’s an opportunity for bold leadership, an opportunity to work for justice.

Although we have made considerable progress since the 60s, according to Bill Clinton, the challenge of our past remains the challenge of our future. Despite the election of our first black president, we are still a nation shaped by segregation and inequality that has its roots in slavery. That’s why we must study history to learn its lessons. Marcus Garvey said what humans have done-humans can do.

Dr. Karenga says Kwanzaa is a time for remembrance, for reflection and recommitment. It is meant to call us home. He created Kwanzaa so that we could renew our bond with each other and our allies and celebrate for a whole week.

As we celebrate tonight, let us remember that the true meaning of Kwanzaa lies in knowing our history and in following the Kwanzaa principles. If we strive to live these principles daily we will have learned valuable lessons from our African roots, and will have assumed responsibility for our children’s future. And perhaps someday we can heal the wounds of our troubled past. Repeat after me: Harambee! Meaning let’s pull together May your Kwanzaa be meaningful-Thank you!

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