For many people throughout the world, the month of December is focused around the celebration of Christmas. Others celebrate Hanukkah. Another observance also takes place during the seven days from December 26 to January 1. Established in 1966 by Dr. Maulana Karenga, Kwanzaa is an African American celebration that focuses on culture, community, and family.
Karenga's Idea: Sprung from the Ashes
Karenga, currently a Black studies professor at California State University, Long Beach, founded Kwanzaa to be a nonreligious observance to encourage African Americans to connect with their African heritage and its traditions and to strengthen and deepen the bonds of family and community.
A defining moment in Karenga's founding of the Kwanzaa holiday was the Watts riots on August 11, 1965. The riot that broke out in an African American ghetto of South Central Los Angeles shocked the country; for many, it marked the first time the depth of African American anger toward social injustice became palpable. Further, its extent and ferocity swept across the country into other riots like the Chicago Race Riot of 1966. It was those events that convinced Karenga that a malaise had taken hold of black culture and that the rootlessness could be solved only by reconnecting African Americans with the African traditions lost since the transatlantic slave trade. He formed a movement called US (in opposition to "them") to promote black pride, and a year later, he established the cultural holiday that became Kwanzaa.
The word kwanza means "first" in the Pan-African language of Swahili and is a reference to the traditional African harvest ("first fruits") celebrations that date as far back as ancient Egypt. Because seven children wanted to represent the celebration in its earliest days, Karenga added the final "a" so the name would have seven letters. Seven also became an important number in the holiday's ideals: during the seven-day celebration, seven principles, known by the Swahili phrase Nguzo Saba, are emphasized. Those principles include umoja (unity), kujichagulia (self-determination), ujima (collective work and responsibility), ujamaa (cooperative economics), nia (purpose), kuumba (creativity), and imani (faith).
"I created Kwanzaa in the context of the black freedom movement," Karenga said later in an Ebony magazine interview. "We wanted to speak our own cultural truth to the world." Kwanzaa, he explained, reaffirms "our rootedness in Africa. It's stepping back to black! That was a strong push in the 1960s, getting back to roots."
In the more than four decades it has been celebrated, Kwanzaa has been the source of some great controversy, which primarily revolves around its meaning and its participants. While Kwanzaa was established to refocus thought on community and cultural values (rather than material gift giving), concerns about its overcommercialization have long been a topic of debate among those who celebrate Kwanzaa.
Especially since the 1990s, when Kwanzaa's popularity soared within the African American community, books about Kwanzaa have abounded, as have Web sites that feature Kwanzaa items for sale. Many retail stores throughout the United States prepare Kwanzaa displays for the holidays in an attempt to "mine" the Kwanzaa market. Since one of the seven principles of Kwanzaa is cooperative economics—meaning, in part, support within the African American community for African American businesses and products—the apparent "co-opting" of Kwanzaa by white-owned businesses has been particularly criticized.
The Spread of Kwanzaa
In the years after the holiday was established, Karenga traveled around the United States to promote the celebration of the holiday to African Americans. He was joined by Amiri Baraka, who promoted Kwanzaa at meetings of the Congress of African Peoples. Over the years, Kwanzaa has spread to various Caribbean nations and other countries by individuals of African descent as well as to millions of Africans throughout the diaspora. People in such diverse nation-states as Canada, the United Kingdom, India, and Turkey now observe Kwanzaa, and by the end of the 20th century, an estimated 15-20 million people in various countries celebrated the holiday.
Though it has expanded and changed throughout the years, Kwanzaa has remained focused on the remembrance of black heritage and civil rights.
"Kwanzaa: From Civil Rights to Spiritual Rites: Background." The American Mosaic: The African American Experience. ABC-CLIO, 2010. Web. 15 Dec. 2010.
For more information on Kwanzaa check out the African American Experience database.