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Celebrating 50 Years Of Kwanzaa


Tonight is the fourth night of Kwanzaa. People who are celebrating the seven-day festival will gather around a candelabra called a kinara and light the black candle.


This year also marks the 50th anniversary of Kwanzaa, the holiday created to honor African heritage.

ELIZABETH PLECK: Most African-Americans do not celebrate Kwanzaa.

SIEGEL: That's Elizabeth Pleck, professor of African-American studies at the University of Illinois. She thinks only 2 percent of black people actually celebrate Kwanzaa these days.

SHAPIRO: It was more popular just a couple of decades ago.

PLECK: It really grew and developed in the 1980s and 1990s.

SHAPIRO: That was thanks to a growing black middle class.

PLECK: Some of them were now living in the suburbs. Their children were living in a more integrated or not entirely black setting, and they wanted to pass along some kind of larger cultural identity.

SIEGEL: Pleck says another reason Kwanzaa caught on back then was it was highly commercialized.


UNIDENTIFIED CHOIR: (Singing) Happy Kwanzaa.

TEDDY PENDERGRASS: (Singing) Happy Kwanza.

SIEGEL: Hallmark produced Kwanzaa greeting cards. General Motors, AT&T and McDonald's had Kwanzaa-themed commercials on TV and radio. Even singer Teddy Pendergrass joined the Kwanzaa craze.


PENDERGRASS: (Singing) Happy Kwanza.

UNIDENTIFIED CHOIR: (Singing) Together there is much we can do.

PENDERGRASS: (Singing) All right.

UNIDENTIFIED CHOIR: (Singing) Happy Kwanzaa.

PENDERGRASS: (Singing) It's a celebration.

SIEGEL: That tune was from 1998.

SHAPIRO: Frank Dobson celebrated Kwanzaa back then, and he loves celebrating it now. He's an associate dean at Vanderbilt University's multicultural center.

FRANK DOBSON: I was trained in terms of the rudiments of Kwanzaa by people who were involved in the civil rights movement and the black power movement. Hearing them talk about Kwanzaa in the context of those movements left its mark on me.

SHAPIRO: Dobson agrees that there are fewer people celebrating Kwanzaa these days, though he says the holiday has become more inclusive.

DOBSON: It's grown larger in the sense of its cultural adoption. I've seen Muslims and Christians coming together to celebrate it because they're celebrating the community.

SIEGEL: Dobson's doing his part to keep the holiday spirit alive. He's going to an event tonight with his family in Ohio.

SHAPIRO: There will be a lighting ceremony around a kinara, African drumming and dancing.


PENDERGRASS: (Singing) It's a celebration that should last throughout the year.

UNIDENTIFIED CHOIR: (Singing) Happy Kwanzaa.

PENDERGRASS: (Singing) Happy Kwanzaa.

UNIDENTIFIED CHOIR: (Singing) Together there is much we can do.

PENDERGRASS: (Singing) All right.

UNIDENTIFIED CHOIR: (Singing) Happy Kwanzaa.

PENDERGRASS: (Singing) Together there is so much we can do. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

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