KWANZAA – WHAT IS IT?
KWANZAA is a week-long celebration held in the United States and in other nations of the Western African diaspora in the Americas. The celebration honors African heritage in African-American culture, and is observed from December 26 to January 1, culminating in a feast and gift-giving. Kwanzaa has seven core principles (Nguzo Saba). It was created by Maulana Karenga, and was first celebrated in 1966–67.
Maulana Karenga created Kwanzaa in 1965 as the first specifically African-American holiday. According to Karenga, the name Kwanzaa derives from the Swahili phrase matunda ya kwanza, meaning “first fruits of the harvest”. The choice of Swahili, an East African language, reflects its status as a symbol of Pan-Africanism, especially in the 1960s, although most of the Atlantic slave trade that brought African people to America originated in West Africa.
There iS NO WAY TO UNDERSTAND and appreciate the meaning and message of Kwanzaa without understanding and appreciating its profound and pervasive concern with values. In fact. Kwanzaa’s reason for existence, its length of seven days, its core focus and its foundation are all rooted in its concern with values. Kwanzaa inherits this value concern and focus from Kawaida, the African philosophical framework in which it was created. Kawaida philosophy is a communitarian African philosophy which is an ongoing synthesis of the best of African thought and practice in constant exchange with the world.
Kwanzaa is a celebration that has its roots in the Black Nationalist movement of the 1960s, and was established as a means to help African Americans reconnect with their African cultural and historical heritage by uniting in meditation and study of African traditions and Nguzo Saba, the “seven principles of African Heritage” which Karenga said “is a communitarian African philosophy”.
During the early years of Kwanzaa, Karenga said that it was meant to be an “oppositional alternative” to Christmas. However, as Kwanzaa gained mainstream adherents, Karenga altered his position so that practicing Christians would not be alienated, then stating in the 1997 Kwanzaa: A Celebration of Family, Community, and Culture, “Kwanzaa was not created to give people an alternative to their own religion or religious holiday.”
Many African Americans who celebrate Kwanzaa do so in addition to observing Christmas.
Principles and symbols
Kwanzaa celebrates what its founder called the seven principles of Kwanzaa, or Nguzo Saba (originally Nguzu Saba—the seven principles of African Heritage), which Karenga said “is a communitarian African philosophy,” consisting of what Karenga called “the best of African thought and practice in constant exchange with the world.” These seven principles comprise *Kawaida, a Swahili term for tradition and reason. Each of the seven days of Kwanzaa is dedicated to one of the following principles, as follows:
- Umoja (Unity): To strive for and to maintain unity in the family, community, nation, and race.
- Kujichagulia (Self-Determination): To define ourselves, name ourselves, create for ourselves, and speak for ourselves.
- Ujima (Collective Work and Responsibility): To build and maintain our community together and make our brothers’ and sisters’ problems our problems, and to solve them together.
- Ujamaa (Cooperative Economics): To build and maintain our own stores, shops, and other businesses and to profit from them together.
- Nia (Purpose): To make our collective vocation the building and developing of our community in order to restore our people to their traditional greatness.
- Kuumba (Creativity): To do always as much as we can, in the way we can, in order to leave our community more beautiful and beneficial than we inherited it.
- Imani (Faith): To believe with all our hearts in our people, our parents, our teachers, our leaders, and the righteousness and victory of our struggle.
Kwanzaa symbols include a decorative mat (Mkeka) on which other symbols are placed: corn (Mahindi) and other crops, a candle holder kinara with seven candles (Mishumaa Saba), a communal cup for pouring libation (Kikombe cha Umoja), gifts (Zawadi), a poster of the seven principles, and a black, red, and green flag. The symbols were designed to convey the seven principles.
Families celebrating Kwanzaa decorate their households with objects of art, colorful African cloth such as kente, especially the wearing of kaftans by women, and fresh fruits that represent African idealism. It is customary to include children in Kwanzaa ceremonies and to give respect and gratitude to ancestors. Libations are shared, generally with a common chalice, Kikombe cha Umoja, passed around to all celebrants. Non-African Americans also celebrate Kwanzaa. The holiday greeting is “Joyous Kwanzaa”.
A Kwanzaa ceremony may include drumming and musical selections, libations, a reading of the African Pledge and the Principles of Blackness, reflection on the Pan-African colors, a discussion of the African principle of the day or a chapter in African history, a candle-lighting ritual, artistic performance, and, finally, a feast (karamu). The greeting for each day of Kwanzaa is Habari Gani? which is Swahili for “How are you?”
At first, observers of Kwanzaa avoided the mixing of the holiday or its symbols, values, and practice with other holidays, as doing so would violate the principle of kujichagulia (self-determination) and thus violate the integrity of the holiday, which is partially intended as a reclamation of important African values. Today, many African American families celebrate Kwanzaa along with Christmas and New Year’s. Frequently, both Christmas trees and kinaras, the traditional candle holder symbolic of African American roots, share space in Kwanzaa-celebrating households. For people who celebrate both holidays, Kwanzaa is an opportunity to incorporate elements of their particular ethnic heritage into holiday observances and celebrations of Christmas.
Cultural exhibitions include the Spirit of Kwanzaa, an annual celebration held at the John F. Kennedy Center for the Performing Arts featuring interpretive dance, African dance, , song and poetry.
The holiday has also spread to Canada, and is celebrated by Black Canadians in a similar fashion as in the United States.
Kwanzaa’s Seven Symbols
The Kwanzaa Decoration of the Mazao
To demonstrate their “mazao,” as a Kwanzaa decoration, families place nuts, fruits, and vegetables, which represent their work, on another Kwanzee decoration called “mkeka” or a traditional place mat. The mazao symbolizes the historical gathering of Africans for their harvest festivals in which joy, sharing, unity, and thanksgiving were the fruits of their labors.
The Kwanzaa Decoration of the Mkeka
The Kwanza decoration called the “mkeka” is essentially a traditional African place mat constructed of straw or cloth. The Mkeka represents the firm historical and traditional foundation that Kwanzaa celebrants stand on and build their lives. During Kwanzaa, families remember their traditions, history and contemplate their future.
The Kwanzaa Decoration of the Vibunzi
This Kwanzaa decoration is a simple ear of corn. Whereas a stalk of corn represents children as the hope for the future, the “Vibunzi,” a single ear of corn, represents each individual child and his/her importance. Thus one Vibunzi is placed as a Kwanzaa decoration on the Mkeka for each child in the family. During Kwanzaa, the adults symbolically take the love and nurture that they were given as children and selflessly return it to all children, especially the helpless, homeless, loveless ones in their community. Thus, in the Kwanzaa decoration of Vibunzi we remember the Nigerian proverb, “It takes a whole village to raise a child.” Kwanzaa tradition recalls that the Africa culture called for child rearing to be a community affair.
The Kwanzaa Decoration of Mishumaa Saba. The Seven Candles
The “Mishumaa Saba” are the Kwanzaa decorations of seven candles symbolizing the sun’s power and the sun’s giving us light. This Kwanzaa decoration is made up of one black candle, three red candles, and three green ones. The back candle symbolizes (unity) and is lit on December 26th. The three green candles, representing purpose, collective work and responsibility, and faith are placed to the right of the black candle. The three red candles, representing self-determination, cooperative economics, and creativity are placed to the left.
The Kwanzaa Decoration of the Kinara
This Kwanzaa decoration is the Candleholder-the “Kinara.” It is the center of the Kwanzaa setting and symbolizes the original stalk–our ancestors–from whom we descended. These Kwanzaa decorations can be any shape and made from all kinds of materials. The seven candles are placed in the Kinara. The Kwanzaa decoration of the Kinara symbolizes the celebrants’ ancestors, who during Kwanzaa, are remembered and honored.
The Kwanzaa Decoration of the Kikombe Cha Umoja
The “Kikombe Cha Umoja” is a special Kwanzaa decoration that could be called the “Unity Cup.” During the feast, on the sixth day according to Kwanzaa tradition, the Unity Cup is passed to family members and guests, who drink from it to promote unity. Then Kwanzaa tradition calls for the eldest person at the feast to pour the “tambiko,” usually water, juice or wine, in the direction of the four winds to honor ancestors.
The Kwanzaa Decoration of Zawadi
On the last day come Kwanzee decorations that are similar to other holiday observances-the exchange of gifts. The “Zawadi” or gifts are meant to be meaningful to the symbols of Kwanzee. Handmade gifts are encouraged to promote self-determination, purpose, and creativity and to avoid the distraction of commercialism during the holiday season. Accepting a gift implies a moral obligation to fulfill the promise of the gift, and it binds the recipient to follow the training of the host. The gift is meant to solidify and enhance relationships.
Kwanzaa is a beautiful African-American tradition that celebrates a culture rich in love of family, honor of the past, hope for the future, and principle-centered ideals.
In 2004, BIG Research conducted a marketing survey in the United States for the National Retail Foundation, which found that 1.6% of those surveyed planned to celebrate Kwanzaa. If generalized to the US population as a whole, this would imply that around 4.7 million people planned to celebrate Kwanzaa in that year. In a 2006 speech, Ron Karenga asserted that 28 million people celebrate Kwanzaa. He has always claimed it is celebrated all over the world. Lee D. Baker puts the number at 12 million. The African American Cultural Center claimed 30 million in 2009. In 2011, Keith Mayes said that 2 million people participated in Kwanzaa.
According to University of Minnesota Professor Keith Mayes, the author of Kwanzaa: Black Power and the Making of the African-American Holiday Tradition, the popularity within the US has “leveled off” as the black power movement there has declined, and now between half and two million people celebrate Kwanzaa in the US, or between one and five percent of African Americans. Mayes adds that white institutions now celebrate it.
The holiday has also spread to Canada, and is celebrated by Black Canadians in a similar fashion as in the United States. According to the Language Portal of Canada, “this fairly new tradition has [also] gained in popularity in France, Great Britain, Jamaica and Brazil”, although this information has not been confirmed with authoritative sources from these countries.
In Brazil, in recent years the term Kwanzaa has been applied by a few institutions as a synonym for the festivities of the Black Awareness Day, commemorated on November 20 in honor of Zumbi dos Palmares, having little to do with the celebration as it was originally conceived.
In 2009, Maya Angelou narrated the documentary The Black Candle, a film about Kwanzaa.