in 1966, always begins on Dec. 26 and lasts for seven days until Jan. 1
of the New Year. For those who are unfamiliar, the name of the week-long
celebration is derived from the phrase “matunda ya kwanza,” which means
“first fruits” in Swahili—the most widely spoken African language.
Each of the seven days of Kwanzaa is associated with a
different African principle. The first of these principles, celebrated
on the first day of Kwanzaa, is Umoja, the Swahili word
for “unity.” To celebrate, participants typically gather together to
light one of the red, black or green candles on the Kinara,
the official candleholder associated with the celebration, and talk
about the application of unity in everyday life. Similarly, for each new
day, a different principle is discussed. In order of their celebration,
the remaining principles of Kwanzaa’s Nguzo Saba (Swahili for “seven
principles”) are Kujichagulia (“Self-Determination”); Ujima (“Collective Work and Responsibility”); Ujamaa (“Cooperative Economics”); Nia (“Purpose”); Kuumba (“Creativity”) and Imani (“Faith”).
Often, the ceremony includes an offering of libations to the ancestors who have gone before.
While I was growing up in Roxbury, a predominately
Black area of Boston, Massachusetts, my parents and I celebrated Kwanzaa
at the exception of Christmas and, over the years, I developed a rich
relationship with the holiday. At home, I remember eagerly looking
forward to getting seven gifts, one for each day of the holiday, before
my parents finally got wise and started giving me a single gift. Of
course, that made it easier on me too—giving seven gifts to each of my
parents was challenging, too. The mandate for all of us was to make a
gift ourselves or to purchase a gift that was Afro-centric in nature,
usually from a Black-owned business. As a result of those childhood
habits, I still gravitate toward Black-owned businesses and I pay
attention to where I spend my money and with whom.
At the households of my parent’s similarly minded
friends, we’d often gather on the first day of Kwanzaa to fellowship and
share a communal meal. The children, myself included, were encouraged
to stand in front of everyone and talk about our interpretations of the
various principles and how they affected our youthful lives. Being kids,
we would always hide in order to get out of having to give a speech in
front of everyone but it never worked. Looking back, I appreciate that
it encouraged us, even as children, to interpret the world from our
perspective—to value our point of view. My favorite principle was always
Kuumba (creativity), perhaps for obvious reasons. Early in life, I took to creative
pursuits like ballet and painting, before I settled into a creative
career as a writer.
|Dr. Karenga creator of Kwanzaa|
When I got older, I noticed that Kwanzaa was always
being criticized. I saw that Dr. Karenga making
pubic appearances for the 50th anniversary of his holiday and, in
response, I saw several Facebook posts decrying him as a criminal and
the holiday itself as fake. To be sure, Kwanzaa was invented but all of
the major holidays, including Christmas, were also invented, which begs
the question what makes one fake and not the others?
Born Ronald Everett, Dr. Karenga studied at UCLA
where his education in African-related subjects inspired him to change
his name to Karenga (Swahili for “keeper of tradition”) along with the
title Maulana (Swahili for “master teacher”). After earning a bachelor’s
and master’s degree from UCLA, Dr. Karenga was spurred to action after
an incident of police brutality against a Black man resulted in the
Watts Riots of 1965. In addition to creating a community organization
called US (for “us black people”) Dr. Karenga also created Kwanzaa to,
“give Blacks an alternative to the existing holiday and an opportunity
to celebrate themselves and their history, rather than simply imitate
the practice of the dominant society.” Soon afterwards, Dr. Karenga was
placed on a watch list by the FBI’s notorious COINTELPRO program, which
had been tasked with disrupting the power of “dangerous revolutionaries”
like Martin Luther King, Jr. and the Black Panther Party. In 1971, Dr.
Karenga was arrested and sent to prison for assaulting a member of his
US organization, a charge that he has denied, instead implying that it
was manufactured to derail his prominence as a political figure.
After being released from prison Karenga earned two
Ph.D. degrees and, today, Dr. Karenga is a professor and chair of
Africana Studies at California State University, Long Beach.
“We reflect on the expansive meaning of being African
in the world, on the context and issues of our times, and on our way
forward in struggle to forge a future responsive to our needs and
interests as well as those of the world,” Dr, Karenga said in a recent
statement acknowledging the milestone 50th anniversary of Kwanzaa last year. Even
President Obama has been quoted as saying that, Kwanzaa is a time to,
“reflect on the rich African-American culture,” that we bring to
In today’s climate of burgeoning intolerance and
hatred, I think it’s critical for us to support any traditions that
resonate with our collective history and have the potential to propel us
forward as a people. Happy Kwanzaa!
Do you celebrate Kwanzaa?