What the weeklong Kwanzaa celebrations mean for the African American community
On December 26, millions of people in the African community around the world began Kwanzaa week-long celebrations. There will be daily ceremonies with food, decorations and other cultural items, like the kinara, which contains seven candles. In many Kwanzaa ceremonies there are also African drums and dances.
It’s a time of community assertiveness – when famous black heroes and heroines, as well as deceased family members – are celebrated.
As an academic who has written on racially motivated violence against blacks, run black cultural centers on college campuses, and sponsored many Kwanzaa celebrations, I understand the importance of this holiday.
For the African American community, Kwanzaa is not just any “black party”. It is a recognition that knowledge of black history is worthwhile.
History of Kwanzaa
Maulana Karenga, a renowned black American scholar and activist, created Kwanzaa in 1966. Its name is derived from the expression “matunda ya kwanza” which means “first fruits” in Swahili, the most widely spoken African language. However, Kwanzaa, the party, did not exist in Africa.
Each day of Kwanzaa is dedicated to the celebration of the seven fundamental values of African culture or “Nguzo Saba” which in Swahili means the seven principles. These are translated: unity, self-determination, collective work and responsibility, cooperative economy (creating black businesses), purpose, creativity and faith. A candle is lit each day to celebrate each of these principles. On the last day, a black candle is lit and gifts are shared.
Today, Kwanzaa is very popular. He is widely celebrated on college campuses, the US Postal Service issues Kwanzaa stamps, there is at least one city park named after him, and there are special Kwanzaa greeting cards.
The meaning of Kwanzaa
Kwanzaa was created by Karenga in the turbulent 1960s in Los Angeles, following the Watts Riots in 1965, when a young African American was arrested on suspicion of drunk driving, resulting in a outbreak of violence.
Subsequently, Karenga founded an organization called Us – that is, Blacks – which promoted black culture. The purpose of the organization was to provide a platform that would help rebuild the Watts neighborhood through a strong organization rooted in African culture.
Karenga called his creation an act of cultural discovery, which simply meant that he wanted to bring African Americans to more knowledge of their African heritage and past.
Rooted in the civil rights struggles and conquests and black power movements of the 1950s and 1960s, it was a way of defining a unique black American identity. As Keith A Mayes, an expert on African-American history, notes in his book:
“To black power activists, Kwanzaa was just as important as the Civil Rights Act of 1964. Kwanzaa was their response to what they saw as the pervasive white cultural practices that oppressed them as deeply as the Jim Crow laws.
Reversing the definitions of white
Today, the party now occupies a central role, not only in the United States but also in the global African diaspora.
A 2008 documentary, The black candle who filmed Kwanzaa celebrations in the United States and Europe, shows children not only in the United States, but as far away as in France, reciting the principles of the Nguzo Saba.
He brings the black community together not on the basis of its religious faith, but of a shared cultural heritage. Explaining the importance of the holidays for African Americans today, writer Amiri Baraka said during an interview in the documentary: “We looked at Kwanzaa as part of the struggle to overthrow white definitions of our lives. “
Indeed, from the early years of the holiday, until today, Kwanzaa has provided many black families with the tools to educate their children about their African heritage.
Activism and Kwanzaa
This spirit of activism and pride in African heritage is evident in the Kwanzaa celebrations on the university campus, which I recently attended. (This was done a few days earlier so that the students on break could participate.)
The speaker, a veteran of the Nashville civil rights movement, referred to Kwanzaa as a time of remembrance and celebration. Dressed in an African dashiki, he led those present – Black and White and those of other ethnicities – in Kwanzaa chants and recitations.
On a table decorated with kente cloth, a traditional African cloth, was a kinara, which contains seven holes, to correspond to the seven principles of Kwanzaa. There were three red candles on the left side of the kinara and three green candles on the right side of the kinara. The central candle was black. The colors of the candles represent the red, black and green of the liberation flag of Africa.
The auditorium was packed. Those in attendance, young and old, black and white, held hands and chanted slogans celebrating black heroes and heroines as diverse as civil rights icons Rosa Parks and Martin Luther King Jr and Jamaican musician Bob Marley .
It was a cultural celebration that recognized solidarity with the struggles of the past and with each other. Like black power movements, like the Black Lives Matter movement today, this is an affirmation of the “humanity of black people”, their “contributions to this society” and their “Resilience in the face of murderous oppression”.
Karenga wanted to “reaffirm the links between us” (blacks) and counter the damage caused by “the holocaust of slavery”. Kwanzaa celebrations are a time of this awareness and reflection.
Frank Dobson is Associate Dean of Students at Vanderbilt University.
This article first appeared on The Conversation.