What is Kwanzaa?
The word "Kwanzaa," derived from Swahili and meaning "first fruits of the harvest," was created in 1966 by Maulana Karenga, a prominent Black Power activist in USA. It was, at first, meant to provide African-Americans with an alternative to Christmas and Christianity, but he later revised this position to make it more inclusive.
It is a celebration of a necessarily invented "African culture," for African-Americans to reimagine their roots (ironically, most of the North American slaves originated from West Africa, not the East African Swahili area). The seven principles of Kwanzaa all revolve around empowerment, including the particularly poignant Kujichagulia - the right "to define and name ourselves" (Wikipedia).
Whatever one may think about "synthetic traditions" (see the work of Stjepan Meštrović on postmodernism), the sentiments of Kwanzaa are important to understand. It seems as though all groups of people who set out to define themselves as "a people" (from racial groups to entire societies - think of the US Declaration of Independence) idealise the same values - that is, equality and freedom of the individual - and however distant such a goal may seem, it's our constant striving for it that challenges us and drives us forward as a species. Nothing defines the human condition quite like cognitive dissonance.
Why, then, do we find freedom so difficult to grant our children? Play is a time of imagination, and should give the child freedom to experiment with all the different aspects of their personalities. The way a child uses their toys is surely a manifestation of their thoughts; the thoughts won't go away just because they don't have the toy to act it out with. It may become buried over time, oppressed, because the child has been denied freedom to define themselves or create for themselves - but who, living in 2017, would argue that to be a healthy thing?
Kwanzaa has a beautiful custom on the seventh day, discussed also by Julie Tarney in her blog, to give an educational or artistic gift. Recognising the power of gift-giving is so important, and Tarney gives great advice here on how to speak with friends and family who consistently give alienating gifts to gender non-conforming children. Yet, I would argue that this advice can be extended to all children. No matter where on the spectrum a child is, however gender-conforming your recipient may be, you can never go wrong with a gender-neutral toy. You can never get it wrong by giving the gift of freedom and creativity, of the right to define one's self. After all, if there is one thing that defines all of us, when given the opportunity to state our goals for our imagined communities, freedom of expression always tops the list.
December 09, 2017 by Catherine Stowell

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