During this time of year, most Americans are hurriedly buying or making gifts for family and friends, waiting impatiently to give and receive them — and anticipating returning or exchanging them in the days following Christmas. I won’t claim that I am somehow above such madness. However, as a devout Christian, I am focused on the true “reason for the (Christmas) season.”
Further, as a proud African American, I also recognize another celebration that occurs during this time. That celebration is Kwanzaa. It is likely that most African Americans have at least heard of Kwanzaa. However, it’s safe to say that few of us know its history or the specific traditions and values that it espouses. Sadly, our educational system continues to fail in its responsibility to teach the contributions, history and culture of people of color — beyond a few token examples (e.g., Dr. King’s birthday and Black History Month). Even worse, Black people are complicit in this failure. Given that we have access to more information than at any point in world history, there is no excuse for us to be accomplices in said failure.
Dr. Maulana Ndabezitha Karenga has always sought to change that narrative. (Karenga was born Ronald McKinley Everett; he previously went by the name Ron Karenga.) The nearly 80-year-old scholar and activist became a towering figure in the Black Power movement of the late 1960s and early 1970s. Karenga created Kwanzaa in 1966 in the wake of the Watts Riots and has spent decades teaching African and African American history and culture. In 1965, he co-founded US Organization with Hakim Jamal. (Jamal is a cousin of Malcolm X.) US Organization is dedicated to embracing Pan-African and African American culture and history.
In the 1960s, Karenga began promoting what he referred to as “the seven principles of African heritage.” Those principles are: Unity (Umoja), Self-Determination (Kujichagulia), Collective Work and Responsibility (Ujima), Cooperative Economics (Ujamaa), Purpose (Nia), Creativity (Kuumba) and Faith (Imani). Karenga refers to these principles as a “communitarian philosophy.” Today, these principles — known as the Nguzo Saba — are the basis for Kwanzaa’s seven-day celebration.
Kwanzaa is the first holiday that that was created specifically to celebrate African American culture, heritage, history and traditions. The holiday is designed to bridge Christmas and New Year’s Day, as it is celebrated from Dec. 26 to Jan. 1 each year. Karenga intended Kwanzaa to be a part of a larger cultural revolution that he believed would instill pride and self-determination among Black people in America. Notably, Kwanzaa has spread beyond the United States, which is rare for American-born celebrations.
Karenga derived the spelling of Kwanzaa from the Swahili phrase “matunda ya kwanza,” which is translated “first fruits.” He decided to add an additional “a” so that the holiday would have a symbolic seven letters. First fruits festivals have long existed in Southern Africa and are celebrated in December and January. (Karenga was partly inspired to create Kwanzaa after reading about a Zulu festival.)
I would be intellectually dishonest if I failed to share that Dr. Karenga initially intended Kwanzaa to rival Christmas. Indeed, Karenga was openly hostile to Christianity, which he (erroneously) believed to be a “white” religion. However, for nearly 25 years he has strongly supported the celebration of Kwanzaa alongside Christmas. This is in large measure due to the fact that African Americans overwhelmingly identify as Christian and do not feel the need to shun one celebration in favor of the other.
As Black people continue to navigate the turbulent racial currents in America, we constantly strive to find islands of self-love and affirmation. Kwanzaa is a result of that ongoing search. We are ever aware of what W.E.B. DuBois referred to as our “double consciousness” or “twoness” (i.e., being both Black and American concurrently). Kwanzaa offers an opportunity simply to reflect on and to celebrate a people who have long been degraded, disrespected and dismissed. Habari Gani!
Larry Smith is a community leader. Contact him at firstname.lastname@example.org.