Kwanzaa is one of those holidays that we all have heard about, but most of us don’t actually know what it celebrates. I thought maybe it was just me, having grown up in a white family and predominantly white city. But I started asking others about it, and they didn’t know much either. I attended Chocolate Sundaes at The Laugh Factory (a black comedy night) last weekend and one of the comedians was outside asking black people in line if they knew the days Kwanzaa is celebrated. Not a single person knew the answer. Well, while I was deciding what to do for my last youtube video before the holidays, I decided what better to do than to research the actual history behind Kwanzaa?
If you want to watch my latest Black History 365 video explaining everything, you can watch it below. Otherwise, I’ll just give you a quick overview.
What Is Is?
Kwanzaa is an African American/Pan-African holiday which celebrates black family, community and culture.
When Is It?
Kwanzaa is celebrated for 7 days, December 26 through January 1.
Who Created It?
Dr. Maulana Karenga, professor and chairman of Black Studies at California State University, Long Beach created the holiday while studying African first fruit rituals during his doctoral studies.
Side note: I also found out Karenga is trash. In 1971, he was sentenced to 1-10 years in prison on counts of felonious assault and imprisonment two women. One of his victims testified in court that she and her friend were kidnapped by Karenga and some of his friends, stripped and beaten with an electrical cord. His wife at the time, also testified that she sat on the stomach of one of the victims while water was forced down her throat with a hose…so needless to say, fuck Kerenga for life.
A Brief History
Karenga, researched African “first fruit” (harvest) celebrations and combined aspects of several different harvest celebrations. The two mentioned the most in his research were of the Ashanti and Zulu tribes. Karenga said his goal was to—
"Give Blacks an alternative to the existing holiday and give Blacks an opportunity to celebrate themselves and their history, rather than simply imitate the practice of the dominant society."
With his research and mixing of different traditions and values, he created the first Pan-African holiday in America, Kwanzaa. The name is derived from the phrase “matunda ya kwanza” which means “first fruits” in Swahili.
What Exactly Does It Celebrate?
The rituals of the holiday are meant to promote African traditions and Nguzo Saba, the seven principles of African Heritage.
Unity:Umoja (oo–MO–jah): To strive for and maintain unity in the family, community, nation, and race.
Self-determination: Kujichagulia (koo–gee–cha–goo–LEE–yah) To define ourselves, name ourselves, create for ourselves, and speak for ourselves.
Collective Work and Responsibility: Ujima (oo–GEE–mah): To build and maintain our community together and make our brother’s and sister’s problems our problems and to solve them together.
Cooperative Economics: Ujamaa (oo–JAH–mah): To build and maintain our own stores, shops, and other businesses and to profit from them together.
Purpose: Nia (nee–YAH): To make our collective vocation the building and developing of our community in order to restore our people to their traditional greatness.
Creativity: Kuumba (koo–OOM–bah): 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.
Faith: Imani (ee–MAH–nee): To believe with all our heart in our people, our parents, our teachers, our leaders, and the righteousness and victory of our struggle.
You are probably familiar with the Kwanzaa candles, which are collectively called “Mishumaa Saba“.
There are 7 candles, each candle is meant to represent one of these principles. Traditionally, the middle candle is always black meant to represent unity, the first principle, and there would be a 3 red candles on one side, and 3 green candles on the other side.
You may have noticed, those are also the colors of the pan african flag.
What would happen is, beginning December 26th, you would gather and discuss the first principle, Unity. After your discussion, you light the black, middle candle. This ritual continues throughout the next 7 days, You discuss the next principle, you light the next candle. The black candle, however is always the first to be lit.
One the 6th day, December 31st, a feast takes place. It is called a Karamu which means (feasts of feasts). It’s basically a big ass black party celebrating the harvest and being black. I tried to find specific traditions for the Karamu but found there aren’t really guidelines for this as it’s different for every family. But some of the basic themes I found were: drumming, musical selections, libations, a reading of the African Pledge and the Principles of Blackness, reflection on the Pan-African colors .
It’s very traditional. People typically wear dashikis or other traditional clothing and just encourage a celebration of black culture however you see fit.
Some Other Fun Things To Note
The candle holder is referred to as “kinara” and you may see it placed on a straw mat called a “mkeka”.
Kwanzaa is very big on honoring and including children, so often times you may see corn placed under the candles. This is referred to as the vibunzi or muhindi and each ear of corn is supposed to represent a child in the family.
It is traditional to also see a fruit basket (mazao) and/or a unity cup (kikombe) be placed under the candles as well. This is a harvest festival after all.
Well, now you know all the basics about Kwanzaa. I’d encourage you to do some more research. I personally had a lot of fun reading about all the different ways it is celebrated.
I like the basic idea behind the holiday. I think one of the elements we are missing most today in the black movement is a conversation with each other. It feels that in the age of social media, everyone is trying to fend for themselves and be the number one voice for the movement, and on some level, I get it. But I think if we normalized sitting down and having a conversation on a familial and local level, about being black in this country, it would help us as a community as a whole. When I do have a family, I will definitely be thinking of ways to integrate at least some aspects of Kwanzaa into our holiday celebrations.
How about you? Do you already celebrate Kwanzaa? If not, is this something you would think about incorporating in the future?
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