Heri za Kwanzaa (Happy Kwanzaa)! Today marks the first day of Kwanzaa, an African American and pan-African holiday celebrating family and culture. Kwanzaa meaning first in Swahili, was created by Dr. Maulana Karenga in 1966 to bring African Americans together, encouraging community. He chose the name Kwanzaa as it relates to the first fruits of the harvest.
After researching various African first harvest celebrations, Karenga created the Nguza Saba (seven principles in Swahili) of Kwanzaa which promote the foundational ideas of: “ingathering of the people, special reverence for the creator and creation, commemoration of the past; recommitment to the highest cultural values; and celebration of Good (Karenga, www.maulanakarenga.org).”
The Seven Principles
Celebrated between December 26th – January 1st, each day of Kwanzaa focuses on one of the seven principles: Umoja, Kujichagulia, Ujima, Ujamaa, Nia, Kuumba, and Imani. Families and communities gather and celebrate in various ways including: dance, storytelling, poetry, drum circles, song singing, feasts and the lighting of the kinara.
The first principal and according to the founding organization of Kwanzaa, Us, Umoja is the “foundational principle of the Nguzo Saba, for without it, all the other principles suffer.” Today is Umoja and it is the time to reflect on ways to strive for and maintain unity in the family, community, nation and race.
The second day of celebration will have a deeper, greater meaning for many this year. Kujichagulia is the day to understand how to define, name, create and speak for ourselves. Despite what we are challenged by, “we have both the right and responsibility to exist as a people and make our own unique contribution to the forward flow of human history (www.officialkwanzaawebsite.org).” This day we should remind ourselves of our rich history and be emboldened by that power to move us forward.
Ujima (Collective Work & Responsibility)
The third day of Kwanzaa, Ujima, draws my memory to the popular proverb, if you want to go fast, go alone, but if you want to go far go together. Ujima in practice means to build and maintain our community together and make our brother’s and sister’s problems our problems and to solve them together. A common thread in African cultures is the idea of community over individualism, understanding the connectivity of the group. “…What one does to benefit others is at the same time a benefit to him/her (www.officialkwanzaawebsite.org).”
Ujamaa (Cooperative Economics)
The fourth day of Kwanzaa is an opportunity to continue or recommit to supporting black-owned businesses. Ujamaa is a reminder to build and maintain our own stores, shops and other businesses and to profit from them together.
Nia affirms our collective vocation of building and developing our community to restore our people to their traditional greatness. Civil Rights Activist, John JT Johnson, stated in a recent interview with Bevy and Dave that, “it is everyone’s responsibility to make the world a better place.” We all have a role and whatever our gifts are, they are within us to fulfill our life’s purpose.
This year has slowed us all down, allowing us to practice Kuumba not only in our personal spaces, but in our communities as well. Many have used visual art as a means of connecting with others during this time of social distancing. Whether with yard displays or even DJs, artists and musicians hosting virtual performances, everyone has been forced to think creatively and discover ways to connect with one another and move their purpose forward. The principle of Kuumba states that we should do as much as we can, in the way we can, in order to leave our community more beautiful and beneficial than we inherited it.
The importance of Imani can never be overstated. As a principle it focuses on believing with all our heart in our people, our parents, our teachers, our leaders and the righteousness and victory of our struggle. We should not be discouraged by what we see, but focus on and be encouraged by what we know can be achieved by our collective unity and efforts.
The Candle Lighting Ceremony
Typically, an elder will begin the ceremony acknowledging ancestors by pouring juice or wine from the unity cup (kikombe cha umoja) onto the ground or a container filled with soil while speaking about the ancestors. Next, the elders will drink from the unity cup and then pass it around for all to share. After drinking from the unity cup an elder will initiate a call and repeat of Harambee (let’s pull together) seven times and then following up with the lighting of the candles on the kinara.
The kinara (candle holder) holds a special place in the Kwanzaa celebration, as the lighting of the candles gathers everyone together and reinforces the principle of unity and creates another opportunity to reflect on the principle of the day. The kinara has become a universal symbol for the holiday itself.
In practice, each day a candle is lit on the kinara. Beginning with the black center candle, which represents the color of African people. On the following days the red candles (representing the blood of ancestors) which are placed on the left and the green candles (representing earth, life and future) which are placed on the right, are lit alternately.
Kwanzaa for Children
Children are an integral part of Kwanzaa, for it is in practicing this holiday that history, tradition and legacy are passed down to the next generation. Children are fortified by Kwanzaa; families can take this time to remind them of their family’s values and accomplishments and that of their extended family, African people everywhere.
To learn ways in which you can help your child participate in Kwanzaa, please visit the Kwanzaa website.