Turkey Day has passed, and it is officially the Christmas season. As the Pamplona of Black Friday reminded us, this means an onslaught of fevered consumerism and fetishizaton of commodities and conspicuous consumption and all that other stuff that turns our stomachs. The complement to that consumerism is the hallmark corniness. “Peace on earth and goodwill towards men” can feel so cliche and forced when contrasted with the materialism of the spectacle. It’s easy to get a little contemptuous at Christmas.
It’s all reminiscent of an essay by (self-identified socialist) George Orwell, “Why Socialists Don’t Believe in Fun.” Writing under a pen name, Orwell starts the piece with an anecdote on Lenin reading Dickens’ A Christmas Carol; Lenin was on his death bed, and dismissed the feel-good classic as full of “bourgeois sentimentality.”
Orwell goes on to bemoan the cynicism of the anti-capitalist, how we can’t seem to enjoy anything too steeped in sentimentality, and I’d say he was pretty dead-on. So in the interest of avoiding our fuddy-duddy tendencies, allow me to show you one of my favorite Christmas genres: The Afrocentric Christmas Song.
Now when I say “Afrocentric” I am not talking about something performed by a black artist, or even a Christmas song in a traditionally Afrocentric genre. I’m talking about a song that portrays Christmas as explicitly black. Let’s start with “The Be-Bop Santa Claus,” by Babs Gonzalez.
This update of T’was the Night Before Christmas starts out with the line, “T’was the black before Christmas.” Now Babs was a bebop pioneer and poet, and used to go by the name “Ricardo Gonzalez” in an attempt to get into hotels that discriminated against black people; the line is an incredibly personal artistic comment. What follows is a perfectly painted picture primed for Reaganite propaganda: suede shoes, Cadillacs, applejack—it’s fantastically subversive, unapologetic, and self-aware.
Of course, I can’t resist including what’s essentially the white hipster version of the same artistic statement.
It’s quite the (ahem) “homage.” Paging Norman Mailer…
If “The Be-Bop Santa Claus” alludes to urban poverty, James Brown’s “Santa Claus, Go Straight to the Ghetto” leaves nothing to the imagination.
“Say It Loud—I’m Black and I’m Proud” had already come out by the time this song was released, so James Brown was already a floating signifier for the Black Power Movement. There are two reasons this is such an interesting extension of his career. First, it acknowledges black poverty as a pressing matter of social justice in a seemingly incongruously celebratory song. Second, the song applies Black Power politics to something as traditional as Christmas. (If I could add a third, I’d also say that this is just a sick jam, but I digress.)
This one, though, is my absolute favorite.
Performed by Teddy Vann and his daughter, Akim, “Santa Claus is a Black Man” is arguably the most adorable product of Black Power. I mean Jesus, look at that album cover! Look at her wee little black power fist and listen to her sweet, spastic, bubbly little voice!
Politically, it’s a perfect delivery. You have a black child taking a spin on “I Saw Mommy Kissing Santa Claus,” with hook of, “and he’s handsome, like my Daddy, too.” Aiming something specifically at children to counteract racist depictions of blackness is particularly salient when delivered by a child.
Interestingly, towards the end, Akim says, “I want to wish everybody Happy Kwanzaa.” Kwanzaa had been introduced in 1966, and the song came out in 1973. At first, Kwanzaa founder and activist Maulana Karenga posited Kwanzaa as a way to “give Blacks an alternative to the existing holiday and give Blacks an opportunity to celebrate themselves and history, rather than simply imitate the practice of the dominant society.” After realizing that American black people were rarely willing to give up the holiday of the oppressor, Karenga softened his position to allow Kwanzaa to be celebrated alongside Christmas—no need to be sectarian when it comes to Santa Claus!
Now, none of these songs succeed in making Christmas “cool”- just the opposite, in fact; they’re as rife with schlocky sentimentality as any Christmas song, even though they’re great songs. But what’s so bad about sentimental and schlocky, anyway? Does Wal-Mart win if we enjoy a little syrupy holiday cheer? These songs are still doing something beautiful by using a traditional event as a site of counter-hegemony. They represent the underrepresented and condemn racism and poverty, and they do it all with a little bit of mawkish sincerity and delight.
This Christmas, why not resist our inner-Lenins and wallow in a little sentimentalism? It was good enough for James Brown.