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Kwanzaa (16742 hits)


Background and Summary

Kwanzaa, or Kwaanza, is a week-long festival and holiday celebrated primarily in the United States that honors Black people’s African heritage. It is observed from December 26 to January 1 each year.

Kwanzaa consists of seven days of celebration, featuring activities such as candle-lighting and pouring of libations, and culminating in a feast and gift giving. The holiday was created by a man named Ron Karenga, and was first celebrated from December 26, 1966, to January 1, 1967.

A Black scholar and social activist, Karenga created Kwanzaa in 1966 as the only original Black-American holiday. Karenga said his goal was to "...give a Black 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." The name Kwanzaa derives from the Swahili phrase "matunda ya kwanza," meaning "first fruits." The choice of Swahili, an East African language, reflects its status as a symbol of Pan-Africanism, a movement that was especially popular in the 1960s.

The official stance on the spelling of the holiday is that an additional "a" was added to "Kwanza" so that the word would have seven letters. The name was meant to have a letter for each of what Karenga called "the seven principles." Another explanation for adding an extra “a” is that Karenga wanted to distinguish the “Black” meaning of Kwanzaa from the “African” meaning. Sometimes, Kwanzaa is also incorrectly spelled "kwaanza."

The Official Black-American Holiday

Kwanzaa is a festivity that has its roots in the Black Nationalist Movement of the 1960s, and was established as a means to help Black-Americans reconnect with their African cultural and historical heritage by uniting in meditation and study of "African traditions" and "common humanist principles."

During the early years of Kwanzaa, its creator, Karenga, said that it was meant to be an alternative to Christmas, that "Jesus was psychotic," and that Christianity was a “White” religion that Blacks should shun. However, as Kwanzaa gained mainstream adherents, Karenga altered his position so as not to alienate practicing Christians, 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."

Also in 1997, the first Kwanzaa stamp was issued by the U.S. Postal Service in October at the Natural History Museum in Los Angeles. In 2004, a second Kwanzaa stamp, created by artist Daniel Minter, was issued that has seven figures in colorful robes symbolizing the seven principles.

The Principles

Kwanzaa celebrates what its founder calls the “Seven Principles of Kwanzaa," or Nguzo Saba, meaning the “Seven Principles of Blackness," which Karenga said "is a communitarian African philosophy" consisting of "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 heart in our people, our parents, our teachers, our leaders and the righteousness and victory of our struggle.

In President George W. Bush's 2004 presidential Kwanzaa message, he said, "During Kwanzaa, millions of African-Americans and people of African descent gather to celebrate their heritage and ancestry. Kwanzaa celebrations provide an opportunity to focus on the importance of family, community, and history, and to reflect on the Nguzo Saba, or seven principles of African culture. These principles emphasize unity, self-determination, collective work and responsibility, cooperative economics, purpose, creativity, and faith."

According to a marketing survey conducted by the National Retail Foundation in 2004, Kwanzaa is celebrated by 1.6 percent of all Americans; that includes about 13 percent or about 4.7 million of all Black people. In a 2006 speech, Karenga asserted that 28 million people celebrated Kwanzaa, and he maintains that it is celebrated the world over.

Preparation and Celebration

Families celebrate Kwanzaa by decorating their households with objects of art, colorful African cloth, especially the Uwole kind, and fresh fruits, which represent African idealism. It is customary to include children in Kwanzaa ceremonies, and to give respect and gratitude to one’s ancestors. Libations are shared, generally with a common chalice cup called the "kikombe cha umoja," passed around to all celebrants. Non-Africans also celebrate Kwanzaa. The standard 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.” It may include 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/or a feast called the “karamu.” The daily greeting during Kwanzaa is "Habari Gani,” the Swahili words for "what's the news?" Cultural exhibitions during the holiday 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.

At first, observers of Kwanzaa eschewed the mixing of the holiday or its symbols, values and practice with other holidays. They felt that doing so would violate the principle of “kujichagulia,” or self-determination, and would thus violate the integrity of the holiday that is intended as reclamation of important African values. Today, many Black families celebrate Kwanzaa along with Christmas and New Years. Frequently, both Christmas trees and “kinaras,” the traditional candelabra that is symbolic of Black-American roots, share space in Kwanzaa-celebrating households. For those who celebrate it, Kwanzaa is viewed as an opportunity to incorporate elements of ones particular ethnic heritage with observances and celebrations of Christian or other religion’s holy days.

The Holiday Evolves

In 1977, in the book, Kwanzaa: origin, concepts, practice, Karenga stated that Kwanzaa "was chosen to give a Black 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."  In 1997, however, Karenga changed his stance, stating that while Kwanzaa is a “Black” holiday, it can be celebrated by people of any race: "other people can and do celebrate it, just like other people participate in Cinco de Mayo besides Mexicans; Chinese New Year besides Chinese; Native American pow wows besides Native Americans."

According to the official Kwanzaa website, which is authored by Karenga and maintained by Organization U.S. that Karenga chairs, says, "Kwanzaa was not created to give people an alternative to their own religion or religious holiday. And it is not an alternative to people's religion or faith but a common ground of African culture...Kwanzaa is not a reaction or substitute for anything. In fact, it offers a clear and self-conscious option, opportunity and chance to make a proactive choice, a self-affirming and positive choice as distinct from a reactive one." Karenga's most recent interpretation emphasizes that while every person has his or her various holiday traditions, all people can share in the celebration of their common humanity: "Any particular message that is good for a particular people, if it is human in its content and ethical in its grounding, speaks not just to that people, it speaks to the world."

Some conservatives, people of other religions and Christians have criticized the authenticity of Kwanzaa as a tradition and have characterized it as racist, anti-Semitic or anti-Christian. Some claim Kwanzaa is not based upon any past African traditions, but was invented in its entirety in 1966 by Karenga, a convicted felon who was sentenced to prison in 1971 for kidnapping and torturing two women. In 1999, syndicated columnist and later White House Press Secretary, Tony Snow, wrote, "There is no part of Kwanzaa that is not fraudulent." Other conservative writers have remarked on the Marxist leanings of Karenga, and on some of the seven principles, questioning whether Kwanzaa should even be taught in American schools. Some Christians also see Kwanzaa as an organized attempt to overshadow Christmas. 

Sources:;  "The Evening Hours, " The New York Times, December 30, 1983; Karenga, Ron. "Religion," The Quotable Karenga. Los Angeles: University of Sankore Press, 1967, p. 25; Gale, Elaine. "Appeal of Kwanzaa continues to grow; holidays: today marks start of the seven-day celebration of African culture, which began in Watts 32 years ago and is now observed by millions," Los Angeles Times, December 26, 1998;;; "The Story of Kwaanza," The Dartmouth Review, January 15, 2001.

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Tuesday, February 26th 2008 at 11:54AM
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Thursday, February 19th 2009 at 5:44PM
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