Umoja Karamu
Date Celebrated: Fourth Sunday in November
Locations: African-American Communities

Umoja Karamu (oo-MOH-jah kah-RAH-moo) is a celebration of unity within the African-American family, community, and nation. Umoja Karamu is a Swahili term meaning "unity feast." Many African Americans celebrate this day as an alternative to the national Thanksgiving Day holiday. The unity feast may also be observed during Kwanzaa celebrations in late December.

Historical Background

The concept of African and African-American unity is centuries old. But during the 1960s and 1970s, it was a major focus of black nationalists. During the 1980s and 1990s, Afrocentric scholars such as Ishakamusa Barashango, lecturer, author, and founder of Philadelphia's Temple of the Black Messiah, drew further attention to the theme. Barashango, who died in 2004, argued that African Americans and black people of the diaspora should reject such European-American holidays as Thanksgiving and concentrate instead on understanding Africa's culture and values that are the distinctive heritage of black people.

Creation of the Holiday

In 1971 Brother Edward Simms Jr. of the Temple of the Black Messiah in Philadelphia developed Umoja Karamu to celebrate the African-American family and home. According to Barashango, Simms defined the purpose of Umoja Karamu as "an effort to inject new meaning and solidarity into the Black Family through ceremony and symbol." The date for the holiday, the fourth Sunday of November, was established by the Temple of the Black Messiah in Washington, D.C. African Americans in other cities, including Philadelphia, Baltimore, and Chicago, soon followed the example.


The feast itself is centered on five symbolic colors: black, white, red, green, and gold/orange, which represent five historical periods in African-American history. Black represents African-American family strength before slavery; white symbolizes the effects of slavery on black families; red stands for liberation from slavery; green signifies the struggle for civil rights and equality; and gold or orange signals the African-American family's hope for the future.

Each symbolic color also corresponds with certain foods, such as:

Black - black-eyed peas, black olives, black beans White - rice, potatoes, yucca Red - cranberry juice, red peppers, tomatoes Green - greens, celery, lettuce Gold/Orange - cornbread, cheese, squash

The meal begins with a prayer and libation - that is, pouring a drink to honor ancestors, an African tradition. As foods are passed and shared, an appointed person reads historical narratives appropriate for each represented period in the African-American family.

Many African-American churches hold services before individual families celebrate Umoja Karamu. The feast and ceremony are also part of multicultural programs on university campuses. Many black student unions sponsor such events in November or as part of annual Kwanzaa celebrations.


Temple of the Black Messiah 1856 N. 21st St. Philadelphia, PA 19121 215-684-3476

Further Reading

Anyike, James C. African American Holidays: A Historical Research and Resource Guide to Cultural Celebrations . Chicago: Popular Truth, 1991. Barashango, Ishakamusa. African People and European Holidays: A Mental Genocide, Book 1 . Washington, DC: IVth Dynasty Publishing Company, 1979. Eklof, Barbara. For Every Season: The Complete Guide to African American Celebrations, Traditional to Contemporary . New York: HarperCollins, 1997.
African-American Holidays, Festivals, and Celebrations, 1st ed. © Omnigraphics, Inc. 2007

Umoja Karamu
Fourth Sunday in November

The African-American holiday of Umoja Karamu, which means "unity feast" in Kiswahili, celebrates family members ' commitment to one another. Established in 1971 by Brother Edward Sims, Jr., the feast was observed on the fourth Sunday in November, a date set by the Temple of the Black Messiah in Washington, D.C. African-American churches and families in several states continue to celebrate the festival, although it is not as widely observed as Kwanzaa.
Five periods of African-American life, each symbolized by a particular color, provide the framework for the Umoja Karamu ceremony: 1) the family in Africa, before slavery in America (black); 2) the enslaved family in America (white); 3) the family freed from slavery (red); 4) the family struggling for true liberation (green); 5) the family anticipating the future (orange or gold). Narratives, music, and foods relating to each period are part of the ceremony.
AfrAmerHol-1991, p. 63
AAH-2007, p. 411
Holidays, Festivals, and Celebrations of the World Dictionary, Fourth Edition. © 2010 by Omnigraphics, Inc


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