Just what is Kwanzaa? It is a harvest festival with internal contradictions. It is a celebration rooted in African history but was invented in the USA in 1966. While placing a high value on both individual self-determination and community solidarity, does it overcome or perpetuate racial differences?
The Roots of Kwanzaa History
Dr. Maulana Ron Karenga of California State University first celebrated Kwanzaa in 1966. His goal was to provide a new holiday tradition to meet the needs and aspirations of African Americans.
He used Swahili words such as “Kwanzaa” and made symbols with meaning for anyone of African heritage. Dr. Karenga intended to include all Africans, even mentioning Egyptian pharaohs. This festival should strengthen each individual’s sense of self-worth, love for their family and commitment to working for the good of their community.
When is the Kwanzaa Holiday Celebrated?
Kwanzaa is an annual week-long festival, celebrated from Dec. 26 through Jan. 1. As a harvest festival, music and food play important roles.
The Seven Kwanzaa Principles
The seven principles of Kwanzaa are Umoja (Unity), Kujichagulia (Self-determination), Ujima (Collective Work and Responsibility), Ujamaa (Cooperative Economics), Nia (Purpose), Kuumba (Creativity) and Imani (Faith).
- “Unity” refers to people coming together for their family, neighbourhood, nation and world.
- “Self-determination” seeks to “define ourselves” rather than being defined, or controlled, by others.
- “Collective work and responsibility” means to work together as a community for the common good.
- “Cooperative economics” seeks prosperity by creating and supporting business opportunities within the community.
- “Purpose” again refers to community development and aspiring to great achievement.
- “Creativity” establishes beauty and aesthetic worth.
- “Faith” believes that the cause is just and success will come.
The Physical Symbols of Kwanzaa
The Kwanzaa holiday has only a few physical symbols:
- A mat, often made of jute, on which the other objects are placed.
- The unity cup.
- The Kinara candleholder.
- Seven candles: 3 green ones on one side, 3 red ones on the other and a single black candle in the centre.
- A harvest bowl, filled with nuts, fruit or other food.
- Cobs of corn represent children.
The seven candles represent the seven Kwanzaa principles. Some celebrants light the candles in a specific sequence. Kwanzaa flags may add to the decor or be flown outside. The typical flag has three equal horizontal bands of red, black and green and some include a map of Africa. A variant flag shows the Kinara and the words “Happy Kwanzaa”.
The central Kwanzaa celebration involves a nightly family ritual of lighting candles and drinking from the unity cup. The basic steps are:
- Light the candles.
- Partly fill the cup with a non-alcoholic drink.
- Spill one drop in each corner of the room while praising the ancestors.
- From eldest to youngest, each person says “Harambee”, and sips from the cup. (“Harambee” means “Let’s all pull together”).
Is Kwanzaa Unifying or Divisive?
Kwanzaa, like Christmas or Hanukkah, is more like a reflective mirror than paintings on a wall. People can read unity or division into any of these festivals. Each is a reminder of how the past has shaped us. At the same time, celebrating these events helps us become the people we aspire to be.
In the Christmas tradition, for example, the “wise men from the East” called the infant Jesus the “king of the Jews”. But today, Christians are found in every nation, race and ethnic group. Do all who celebrate Christmas intend their joy to be shared by everyone or selfishly hoarded only by those sharing their own beliefs?
Some believe that Kwanzaa was intended to empower African Americans to seize power against oppressive white Christians. Others see it as a wise tool to empower marginalized blacks and to foster both self-respect and a sense of responsibility for family and community.
Just what is Kwanzaa? By celebrating the nightly Kwanzaa holiday ceremony, all the participants are forced to examine their own attitudes. Does the unity cup represent loyalty to family alone; friendship within a “black community” in conflict with other races and cultures or a commitment to peace and harmony in a diverse world?
Time and Date, “Kwanzaa (until Jan 1) in United States“, referenced Dec. 3, 2010.
American Museum of Natural History, “KWANZAA 2010, The Legacy Continues“, referenced Dec. 3, 2010.
Carlotta Morrow, Believers Web, “What is Kwanzaa?“, posted Nov. 29, 2003, referenced Dec. 4, 2010.
Uhuru P. Brown, Qwanza Information Services, “What is Kwanzaa?“, published 2006, referenced Dec. 4, 2010.
Afgen.com, “The Meaning of Kwanzaa“, referenced Dec. 4, 2010.