Kwanzaa: A History

Diya D'souza, Staffer

While many Americans spend the morning of December 25th sitting around a tree opening gifts, those who celebrate the holiday of Kwanzaa don’t celebrate until the next day. An estimated 18 million African Americans take part in Kwanzaa
Kwanzaa is a week-long celebration, from December 26th to January 1st, that honors African culture and heritage. Established in 1966 by Dr. Maulana Karenga, Kwanzaa is a ritual to welcome the first harvests.
The holiday originates from the 1965 Watts riots in Los Angeles. Looking for a way to bring the African-American community together, Karenga created Kwanzaa, a combination of several African harvest celebrations. Kwanzaa is culturally significant because it was created to restore African-Americans’ roots in African culture. The purpose was to bring together the African-American community amid the violence and divides within the community. It was started to instill pride in the African-American race and to reunify the community. Kwanzaa is not technically an African holiday, but it was created by Karenga for the African-American community.
The name Kwanzaa is derived from the Swahili phrase “matunda ya kwanza” which translates to “first fruits” in English. Although the celebration of Kwanzaa can vary from family to family, it often includes song, dance, music, storytelling, and a large meal where one of seven different principles are discussed each day.
Kwanzaa is based on seven core principles or Nguzo Saba, and each day a different principle is emphasized. Umoja, which translates to unity, is discussed to emphasize the importance of maintaining unity with a family and community. The second principle, Kujichagulia, or self-determination, emphasizes self-definition and self-empowerment. Ujima, collective work, and responsibility highlight cooperation within a community. The fourth principle, Ujamaa, which translates to cooperative economics, underscores the importance of helping others professionally in businesses. Nia, the fifth principle, which means purpose, emphasizes helping the community to restore others to greatness. The sixth principle Kuumba, or creativity, highlights improving the community and making it a more beautiful place. The seventh and final principle is Imani, which is translated as faith, to believe in others and the victory of struggle.
In addition to seven principles, the holiday has seven core symbols, one for each day. The seven symbols include: Mazoa (crops), Mkeka (placemat), Muhindi (ear of corn), Mishumaa Saba (the seven candles), Kinara (the candle holder), Kikombe Cha Umoja (the unity cup), and Zawadi (gifts), which are exchanged on December 31st.
The holiday has several colors associated with it as well. The color black is representative of the people. Red represents the blood uniting those of African ancestry and the bloodshed during the civil rights era. The third color green is representative of the fertile land of Africa. Black, red, and green are also colors connected to the Pan-African movement. The colors represent the people of Africa, their struggle, and their future.
One important tradition of Kwanzaa is lighting the kinara. The kinara is similar to the menorah used to celebrate Hanuka but consists of seven candles instead of eight. The kinara holds one black candle, three red candles, and three green candles.
The main event of Kwanzaa, Karamu, occurs on December 31st. Karamu is a feast that has several steps such as a welcome, drumming and musical selections, a reading of the African Pledge and the Principles of Blackness, a discussion on the African principle of the day, a candle-lighting ritual, and then a feast.
Kwanzaa is not a religious holiday, and many who celebrate it also celebrate Christmas. Although the holiday is relatively new, it is based on the end of year harvests that have taken place in Africa for centuries. Although the holiday hasn’t been celebrated for long, the holiday has helped unify the African-American community and bring them together.