Happy Kwanzaa! Black community has a lot to cheer

Now in its 40th year, the African American holiday has been given a boost by the election of Barack Obama.
Click to follow

Christmas may be over, but for millions of African Americans the festive season didn't hit full swing until yesterday, with the start of a very special Kwanzaa, the annual celebration of their community's cultural roots. The election of Barack Obama added a historic air of excitement to the holiday, which was invented 40 years ago and is expected this week to bring more than 20 million participants to the nation's schools, churches, and community centres.

Although the President-elect has so far chosen to sidestep official events, choosing instead to spend Christmas dodging paparazzi on the beaches of Hawaii, his image features on a popular range of T-shirts under the slogan: "I'm dreaming of a white Kwanzaa."

Many of the celebrations – at which guests eat African food, light candles, sing, dance and discuss their heritage and values – also featured lectures about the significance of Mr Obama's arrival in the White House. The holiday was created by the scholar and former black power leader Maulana Ron Karenga and uses Swahili language and Pan-African symbolism to celebrate seven principles that underpin the black community: unity, self-determination, collective work and responsibility, co-operative economics, purpose, creativity and faith.

It has grown from humble beginnings among the civil rights movement in Los Angeles to become a global cultural event, dignified with an annual "Kwanzaa message" by American presidents; according to organisers, it is observed by 40 million people across the world, and prominent black celebrities attend Kwanzaa events each year.

Yet Mr Obama's election has divided opinion about the festival's future. Some say the long-overdue arrival of a black president will cement Kwanzaa's mainstream standing. Others believe it suggests that the event has at last served its purpose. There is debate over whether Mr Obama, who has kept his distance from radical figures in the black community, will want to further a secular tradition that celebrates African-American culture.

"It's difficult to know how he'll deal with it," says the filmmaker M K Asante Jnr, who directed The Black Candle, a new documentary about Kwanzaa. "Trinity Church in Chicago, where Obama went for over 20 years, played a big role in growing Kwanzaa, so it's unlikely that he hasn't celebrated it at some point in the past. "Obviously, there is already a tradition of addressing Kwanzaa in the White House, which was started by Bill Clinton, and has been continued by George Bush. But it will be interesting to see if President Obama takes it up a notch." Asante's film gets a UK premiere at the ICA in London next week.

The political right, however, calls Kwanzaa a pseudo-Marxist phoney holiday which has been adopted by public institutions as part of a politically correct assault on the standing of Christmas. "It's the Scientology of holidays," says Erick Erickson, who writes the influential conservative blog Redstate.com. "It has nothing to do with Africa and nothing to do with history." Critics also frequently highlight the founder of Kwanzaa's chequered past. Maulana Karenga led a militant organisation called United Slave during the civil rights struggle and was jailed during the early 1970s after being found guilty of torturing two black women, although he has always maintained that he is innocent.

"Kwanzaa existed before Obama ran for office, its values have been around for thousands of years, and it will be celebrated long into the future," said Tulivu Jadi, of the Los Angeles African American Cultural Institution. "People did not stop celebrating St Patrick's Day when Kennedy was elected."