A friend from high school posted inspirational African words and messages to The Grand Overseer in honor of the 7 days of Kwanzaa (December 26 — January 1). I first heard about the African-American-centric winter holiday about 10 years ago (I think), but I haven’t really thought much about it. When I first heard the name “Kwanzaa,” I assumed it was a a reconstructed holiday — a traditional holiday in Africa that African-Americans were embracing to celebrate their heritage. My friend’s posts prompted me to learn more. It turns out I was partly right. Kwanzaa is a celebration of African-American heritage. And while it is inspired by African harvest traditions, it is not reconstructed.

History.com has a terrific summary of the celebration. It was created in 1966 after the six-day-long Watts riots in Los Angeles. Dr. Maulana Karenga, a professor and chairman of Black Studies at California State University, Long Beach, wanted to develop practices that would bring the African-American community together after the trauma of the riots (which resulted in 34 deaths, over 1,000 injuries, and nearly 3,500 arrests).

In recognition of African diaspora, Dr. Karenga combined several different harvest celebrations, including traditions of the Ashanti in Northwest Africa and the Zulu in South Africa. The name of the holiday, “Kwanzaa,” is taken from “matunda ya kwanza” which is Swahili (east African coast) for “first fruits.” Dr. Karenga was inspired to create the holiday by the Pan-Africanism and American Black Nationalism movements in the 1960s. Early in its development, Dr. Karenga encouraged African-Americans to consider Kwanzaa an African (religious) alternative to Christmas. As time passed and Kwanzaa became popular among Christian African-Americans, Dr. Karenga described the holiday as a celebration for all peoples and all faiths. Many African-Americans who celebrate Kwanzaa do so after they celebrate Christmas.

Kwanzaa is not a religious holiday, but a cultural one with an inherent spiritual quality. Thus, Africans of all faiths can and do celebrate Kwanzaa, i.e. Muslims, Christians, Black Hebrews, Jews, Buddhists, Baha’i and Hindus, as well as those who follow the ancient traditions of Maat, Yoruba, Ashanti, Dogon, etc.” — Fundamental Questions About Kwanzaa: An Interview


Lighting the Kinara

Kwanzaa festivities vary by household, but families often sing, dance, play drums, tell stories, read poetry, share a traditional meal, and exchange gifts (on the seventh day). The observance also includes discussions of the Nguzo Saba, the seven principles of African Heritage as defined by Dr. Karenga. Each night of Kwanzaa, one of the candles in the Kinara (the candle holder) is lit to begin discussion of a principle. These discussions reinforce communal bonds (or what we Heathens call frith). Each day of Kwanzaa, my friend posted one of the seven principles* on Facebook.

Unity: Umoja (oo–MO–jah)
Stresses the importance of togetherness for the family and the community, which is reflected in the African saying, “I am We,” or “I am because We are.”

Self-determination: Kujichagulia (koo–gee–cha–goo–LEE–yah)
Requires we define our common interests and make decisions in the best interest of our family and community.

Collective Work and Responsibility: Ujima (oo–GEE–mah)
Reminds us of our obligation to the past, present and future, and that we have a role to play in the community, society, and world.

Cooperative Economics: Ujamaa (oo–JAH–mah)
Emphasizes our collective economic strength and encourages us to meet common needs through mutual support.

Purpose: Nia (nee–YAH)
Encourages us to look within ourselves and to set personal goals beneficial to the community.

Creativity: Kuumba (koo–OOM–bah)
Makes use of our creative energies to build and maintain a strong and vibrant community.

Faith: Imani (ee–MAH–nee)
Focuses on honoring the best of our traditions, draws upon the best in ourselves, and helps us strive for a higher level of life for humankind. Imani helps us accomplish these things by affirming our self-worth and confidence in our ability to succeed and triumph in struggle.

These are indeed principles to be honored, regardless of faith or ethnicity. This is a very brief introduction to a holiday celebrated by millions and steeped in our nation’s complicated past. If you’d like to learn more, I recommend the official Kwanzaa site.

* The definitions of the seven principles presented here are from K12Connections.org.
+ Featured image, a virtual rendering of a Kinara.