History and etymology
An African-American scholar and social activist, Ron Karenga created Kwanzaa in 1966 as the first African-American holiday. Karenga said his goal was to "...give Blacks an alternative to the existing holiday and give Blacks an opportunity to celebrate themselves and history, rather than simply imitate the practice of the dominant society." The name Kwanzaa derives from the Swahili phrase "matunda ya kwanza", meaning "first fruits". The choice of Swahili, an East African language, reflects its status as a symbol of Pan-Africanism, especially in the 1960s.
Kwanzaa is a celebration that has its roots in the black nationalist movement of the 1960s, and was established as a means to help African Americans reconnect with their African cultural and historical heritage by uniting in meditation and study of "African traditions" and "common humanist principles." The first Kwanzaa stamp was issued by the United States Postal Service on October 22, 1997 at the Natural History Museum in Los Angeles, California. In 2004 a second Kwanzaa stamp, created by artist Daniel Minter was issued which has seven figures in colorful robes symbolizing the seven principles.
The origins of Kwanzaa are not secret and are openly acknowledged by those promoting the holiday. Many Christian and Jewish African-Americans who celebrate Kwanzaa do so in addition to observing Christmas and Hanukkah.
Principles of Kwanzaa
Kwanzaa celebrates what its founder called "The Seven Principles of Kwanzaa," or Nguzo Saba (originally Nguzu Saba - "The Seven Principles of Blackness"), which Karenga said "is a communitarian African philosophy" consisting of what Karenga called "the best of African thought and practice in constant exchange with the world." These seven principles comprise Kawaida, a Swahili term for tradition and reason.
Each of the seven days of Kwanzaa is dedicated to one of the following principles, as follows:
* Kujichagulia (Self-Determination) To define ourselves, name ourselves, create for ourselves and speak for ourselves.
* Ujima (Collective Work and Responsibility) To build and maintain our community together and make our brothers' and sisters' problems our problems and to solve them together.
* Ujamaa (Cooperative Economics) To build and maintain our own stores, shops and other businesses and to profit from them together.
* Nia (Purpose) To make our collective vocation the building and developing of our community in order to restore our people to their traditional greatness.
* Kuumba (Creativity) 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.
* Imani (Faith) To believe with all our heart in our people, our parents, our teachers, our leaders and the righteousness and victory of our struggle.
Families celebrating Kwanzaa decorate their households with objects of art, colorful African cloth, especially the wearing of the Uwole by women, and fresh fruits that represent African idealism. It is customary to include children in Kwanzaa ceremonies and to give respect and gratitude to ancestors. Libations are shared, generally with a common chalice, "Kikombe cha Umoja" passed around to all celebrants. Non-African Americans also celebrate Kwanzaa. The holiday greeting is "joyous Kwanzaa."
A Kwanzaa ceremony may include drumming and musical selections, libations, a reading of the "African Pledge" and the Principles of Blackness, reflection on the Pan-African colors, a discussion of the African principle of the day or a chapter in African history, a candle-lighting ritual, artistic performance, and, finally, a feast (Karamu). The greeting for each day of Kwanzaa is "Habari Gani,"which is Swahili for "What's the News?"
At first, observers of Kwanzaa eschewed the mixing of the holiday or its symbols, values and practice with other holidays. They felt that doing so would violate the principle of kujichagulia (self-determination) and thus violate the integrity of the holiday, which is partially intended as a reclamation of important African values. Today, many African-American families celebrate Kwanzaa along with Christmas and New Year's. Frequently, both Christmas trees and kinaras, the traditional candle holder symbolic of African-American roots, share space in kwanzaa celebrating households. To them, Kwanzaa is an opportunity to incorporate elements of their particular ethnic heritage into holiday observances and celebrations of Christmas.
Cultural exhibitions include "The Spirit of Kwanzaa," an annual celebration held at the John F. Kennedy Center for the Performing Arts featuring interpretive dance, African dance, song and poetry.
Evolution in Kwanzaa's observance
In 1977, in Kwanzaa: origin, concepts, practice, Karenga stated, that Kwanzaa "was chosen to give a Black alternative to the existing holiday and give Blacks an opportunity to celebrate themselves and history, rather than simply imitate the practice of the dominant society."
In 1997, Karenga and the community evolved, stating that while Kwanzaa is an African-American holiday, it can be celebrated by people of any race: "other people can and do celebrate it, just like other people participate in Cinco de Mayo besides Mexicans; Chinese New Year besides Chinese; Native American pow wows besides Native Americans."[
Currently, according to the Official Kwanzaa Website authored by Karenga and maintained by Organization US, which Karenga chairs, "Kwanzaa was not created to give people an alternative to their own religion or religious holiday. And it is not an alternative to people's religion or faith but a common ground of African culture...Kwanzaa is not a reaction or substitute for anything. In fact, it offers a clear and self-conscious option, opportunity and chance to make a proactive choice, a self-affirming and positive choice as distinct from a reactive one."
Karenga's most recent interpretation emphasizes that while every people has its own holiday traditions, all people can share in the celebration of our common humanity: "Any particular message that is good for a particular people, if it is human in its content and ethical in its grounding, speaks not just to that people, it speaks to the world."