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Associated Press The Rev. William Hamilton plays a drum during a Kwanzaa celebration in Jacksonville, Fla. The event included food, singers, speakers and arts and crafts.

Gazette News Service

For storytellers such as DeCee Cornish who promote African culture, the increasing popularity of Kwanzaa is a double-edge sword.

Kwanzaa’s popularity has risen dramatically over the past 10 years – along with the purchasing power of blacks. Cornish and other Kwanzaa enthusiasts worry that the true meaning of the holiday, which started Wednesday, might be eclipsed by all the commercialization and marketing to the black community.

“That’s my greatest fear, that we’re getting the celebration ahead of what it’s truly about,” said Cornish, who recently taught children about Kwanzaa in an after-school program at S.S. Dillow Elementary School in Fort Worth, Texas. “It’s more than just dressing up in your African gear. … It’s a lifestyle.”

Kwanzaa promotes seven principles: unity, self determination, collective work and responsibility, cooperative economics, purpose, creativity and faith. The seven-day festival was founded in 1966 by Maulana Karenga, chairman of the black studies department at California State University at Long Beach.

The holiday is celebrated by lighting a candle each day to acknowledge one of the seven principles. The week concludes with the exchange of modest gifts that encourage education or creativity. Books or art supplies are common gifts.

Kwanzaa grew slowly for the first two decades, and burst into the mainstream in the 1990s.

Hallmark produced its first Kwanzaa cards in 1992, and the U.S. Postal Service unveiled a Kwanzaa stamp in 1997. Sonia Williams-Babers, owner of The Black Bookworm, an African-American bookstore in Fort Worth, said she started seeing Kwanzaa books from major publishers such as Random House and Simon and Schuster in the mid-1990s.

“I hate to see it mass produced. On the other hand, it’s good to see it spread worldwide,” Williams-Babers said between helping customers buying Kwanzaa cards last week.

The store also sells “Kwanzaa kits,” which have a table mat, unity cup, candles and a candleholder. The kits range from $20 to $100.

Williams-Babers and Vanessa Hicks, manager of the gift shop at the African-American Museum in Dallas, said Kwanzaa items now make up about half of their December sales.

Terry Jones, owner of Afro Awakenings Books Etc. in Arlington, Texas, said because Kwanzaa starts after Christmas, it extends his holiday sales another week.

The holiday taps into the purchasing power of African-Americans who prefer to buy from black-owned businesses, said Chido Nwangwu, publisher of the Houston-based Black Business Journal.

“Kwanzaa fosters a sense of business nationalism” among African-Americans, Nwangwu said.

Blacks’ total purchasing power climbed more than 80 percent in the past decade, to $572 billion, according to a report by the University of Georgia.

Black business experts said the huge growth of African-Americans’ buying power in the 1990s is what caught corporate America’s interest and got it to produce Kwanzaa items.

“They see this as a market that was untapped, and so they started looking for ways to appeal to that market,” said Harry C. Alford, president of the National Black Chamber of Commerce. “People are going after that , and some people think Kwanzaa is one vehicle.”

People buying Kwanzaa items at black-owned stores support one of the holiday’s principles: cooperative economics. But many Kwanzaa enthusiasts worry that big corporations are cashing in on Kwanzaa and diluting the holiday’s meaning.

“There’s always going to be a wall of resistance from the people themselves who are conscientious,” said Tulivu Jadi, assistant director of the African-American Cultural Center in Los Angeles.

The cultural center houses Us, the organization that helped found Kwanzaa.

“What we try to do always is stress the values that make up the holiday,” Jadi said. “At the heart of Kwanzaa is a celebration of family, community and culture.”

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