Each month, the editors of the Oxford African American Studies Center provide insights into black history and culture, showing ways in which the past and present interact by offering socially and historically relevant short articles, picture essays, and links that will guide the reader interested in knowing more. This month the feature highlights the holiday Kwanzaa. The following article is by Jason Philip Miller of Nashville, Tennessee.
It seems especially fitting at this time of year—as another holiday season draws close—to take a moment to examine the history, practice, and cultural significance of an annual observance of particular importance to people of African descent the world over. Cosseted in their own history, imbued with their love of family and community, Kwanzaa reaches into the African American past and, indeed, black history throughout the world to celebrate the very meaning of blackness. Though of relatively modern vintage, the holiday embraces principles that are rooted in the deep history of Africa, and through its observance black people join together in spirit to tell and retell the story of their history, family, and communities. They join together, too, in their hope for the future.
The celebration called Kwanzaa was created in 1966, at the height of the Black Power and black nationalist movements, by Maulana Ron Karenga, then leader of the California-based Black Slaves Organization. Karenga believed that black people in the United States wanted and deserved an alternative to the season’s dominant-culture traditions, observances that Karenga at one time believed had little to do with people of African origin or their history. To find it, he looked deep into the story of African peoples. He cemented the holiday’s self-consciously Pan-Africanist character by choosing for its name a Swahili word, Kwanzaa, which is derived from the phrase matunda ya kwanza, meaning “first fruits.” First fruits celebrations are indeed ancient, harking back to the Egypt of the pharaohs and earlier, observances Karenga clearly saw as a model for his creation’s highly communitarian nature. In a numerological flourish, Karenga added an “a” to kwanza in order to symbolize the importance of the number seven: the seven days of the holiday, each of which is dedicated to one of what Karenga described as the seven principles of Kwanzaa.
The first Kwanzaa was observed from 26 December 1966 to 1 January 1967. Since that time the holiday has become a regular and much-anticipated fixture on the calendar for millions of African Americans and for people of African descent in countries everywhere. Families and communities celebrate the holiday through a series of observances that correspond to the Nguzo Saba, the communitarian principles Karenga choose as those most important to the values of black people: on the first day observers celebrate Umoja, or unity; on the second Kujichagulia, or self determination; following is Ujima, or collective work and responsibility; while the fourth principle is Ujamaa, or cooperative economics; the fifth principle is Nia, or purpose; and the sixth is Kuumba, or creativity; finally comes perhaps the most important, Imani, which is to say faith.
Over the decades Kwanzaa celebrations have evolved, becoming increasingly stylish, stylized, and elaborate. At first a purely secular expression of black nationalism—and a conscious alternative to the mainstream winter holidays—Kwanzaa has since become for most practitioners not a repudiation of the season’s more familiar fare but rather an addition to it. And so it is that the Kinara’s light blends with that of the Christmas lights, and the Zawadi are wrapped and kept with the Christmas presents. Women wear the multihued Uwole, and houses are decorated with the colorful Bendera. The Mishumaa Saba are lit. Libations are poured, the Kuumba is reverently uttered, and “Habari Gani” greetings happily exchanged. On 31 December, the next to last day, a feast is held, preferably with the entire community. Lastly comes a day of reflection and anticipation. Far from being (as is sometimes supposed by Kwanzaa’s detractors) a rejection of cultural values, Kwanzaa has become instead a means through which to enhance, personalize, and embrace those values. Karenga himself (disavowing some of his more ill-considered early opinions and utterances) has said that Kwanzaa is not a “substitute for anything,” and that people of all ethnicities, backgrounds, and religious persuasions can and should observe Kwanzaa as a commemoration of the contributions black people have made throughout history to our shared human civilization.
Though sometimes still seen as controversial—both because of its founder and due to a misunderstanding of its nature—Kwanzaa has now become a familiar part of the holiday season. In 1997 the U.S. Postal Service issued a stamp in celebration of Kwanzaa, and as of 2005 President George W. Bush had continued the presidential tradition of extending best wishes to those celebrating Kwanzaa, reminding Americans that “Kwanzaa strengthens the ties that bind communities across America and around the world and reflects the great promise and diversity of America.”
How many Americans celebrate Kwanzaa is the subject of some dispute and of wildly divergent estimates. Several million is the best guess; though some tens of millions has also been supposed. Whatever the truth, suffice it to say that Kwanzaa has, is, and shall be an important and much-cherished part of the holiday season for African Americans and even for blacks around the world, a celebration during which the past becomes a lens through which to magnify their anticipation and hope for the future.