Oh, dear. It's that time of year again, when black folks have to be careful with one another. A simple invitation to your tree-trimming party can find you denounced for "capitulating to the master's culture" by the most button-down, suit-and-tie brother on the block. Asking the fellow preschool parent in kente clothing to make a Kwanzaa presentation can find you stammering your apologies when he thrusts his St. Christopher medal at you like Buffy the Vampire Slayer fending off the undead.
Being black in December is almost as exhausting as being so in February, when it's taken for granted that you'll spearhead the office Black History Month extravaganza. What's worse are those things considered a barometer of your blackness — things like hair straightening, Clarence Thomas and, of course, Kwanzaa.
There's no doubt that Kwanzaa, created by Dr. Maulana Karenga in 1966, is growing in both popularity and acceptance. Once you've got both a commemorative postage stamp and a section of the Hallmark aisle, you are official Americana. But should it be? Until two years ago, the mere mention of Kwanzaa would have me cracking wise about kente cloth boxer shorts and artificially lengthened dreadlocks — and cultural pride as mere show and consumerism.
Then, a family I respect invited mine to join them for one of the seven nights. (Kwanzaa, observed Dec. 26 to Jan. 1, is a celebration of "family, community and culture" derived from African harvest celebrations; it means "first fruits" in Swahili.) Just as the Christianity of my mother and the ghetto priests who stood guard over this Southern Baptist's adolescence keep me respectful of my discarded religion, my friends' quiet, "unperformed" celebration of Kwanzaa keeps me likewise tolerant. Kwanzaa, like Christianity, does nothing for me but I have to respect that it does for others.
Still, it pains me that we need to look outside our American experience for spiritual and cultural sustenance. With all due respect to those who celebrate it, Kwanzaa feels like a cop-out. Just as drugs are for those who can't handle reality, isn't Kwanzaa for those who can't handle knowing that our ancestors fueled themselves with Western ideals, Christianity uppermost among them?
My objection is not that Kwanzaa is "made up." What observance isn't? My problem is its rejectionist nature. Certainly, some celebrate both Kwanzaa and Christian holidays. Also, some celebrate Kwanzaa affirmatively, as a way of honoring the African ancestors who were taken from us and of mourning the lives we were prevented from living. Too often, though, Kwanzaa feels as if it is more about thumbing black noses at white America than at embracing the lost cause of resuming our Africanness.
Perusing Dr. Karenga's Kwanzaa Web site, I was struck by the many references to "African" rather than to "African-Americans." Africa is a continent, not a nation. Though most of our ancestors came from its west coast, that is a large region encompassing languages, tribes and contradictory traditions too numerous to reconcile coherently.
More important, insofar as Kwanzaa negates the quintessential Americanness of the slave-descended, it is an affront to the heroism and enunciated goals of our oppressed ancestors. They demanded to be considered, and treated, as Americans, not as Africans.
Indeed, their goals — self-determination, individual rights, social mobility, the franchise, majority rule, religious freedom — had little counterpart in the African tradition. They demanded their American birthright. They panned for gold. They pioneered the West. They educated their children in Europe. Few returned to Africa.
Certainly, Christianity was not a choice for slaves — they had to convert or die. But their new religion was immediately reforged as both palliative and weapon. In rejecting Christmas and Christianity, blacks reject the primary force for black American sustenance and resistance. Spirituals made the work a little easier and were also fashioned into codes the slaves used to outfox whites.
Many black uprisings (like Denmark Vesey's) were planned in church; secret literacy campaigns and self-help programs were as well. The black church itself came into being as a direct act of rebellion when St. Thomas African Episcopal Church was formed in Philadelphia in 1794 in response to religious segregation and abuses visited upon black Christians even as they worshipped. Absalom Jones, leader of the group, became the first black Episcopal pastor in the United States. Can it be that we no longer recognize the bravery required for these acts?
Whites were livid and terrified as more black denominations were established but no amount of violence, executions and jailings would sway our ancestors determined to fulfill their American, Christian destiny. Sojourner Truth, whose Christianity was so fervent she was jealous of others' belief in God, was motivated by her religion much more than by abolitionism.
Doesn't Kwanzaa render Jones's and Truth's sacrifice and courage meaningless? It wasn't nostalgia for "the Motherland" that kept the marchers marching in the 1960's. It was Mama's old-time 'ligion, the force whites thought would keep us in our place.
The ultimate cop-out of Kwanzaa, and other Afrocentric artificialities, is that they devalue and even negate the lives blacks actually live. The romance of our lost heritage reclaimed seeks to situate the black self in a time, and a tradition, before whites came along to make us hate ourselves — a time when we lived at the center of the world's knowledge, art and commerce. It rejects our slave and Jim Crow ancestors because it's a focus on who we were rather than who we are. I am not ashamed of who we are. Is Dr. Karenga?
I'm trying hard to show Kwanzaa some love, but it's a struggle. Then I think of my friends and make a note to pick up a Kwanzaa card for them. I'll mail it with a Kwanzaa stamp. Then African- American history will magically rewrite itself with all the bad parts gone and we'll find ourselves back where we rightfully belong — at the center of the world's knowledge, art and commerce.
Call me old-fashioned, but I'll settle for happy Yank and well-adjusted Westerner who cannot turn away from the birthright her slave and Jim Crow ancestors paid for with their blood.
Debra J. Dickerson is author of "An American Story" and the forthcoming "The End of Blackness."