What is Kwanzaa?
Kwanzaa is a relatively modern holiday celebration, founded in 1966, whilst the black nationalist movement was at its peak in the United States, by African-American activist and professor Dr. Maulana Karenga. Dr Karenga describes Kwanzaa as “a pan-African and African-American holiday that is a celebration of family, community and culture” with seven core principles.
Kwanzaa, is a Swahili word taken from “matunda ya kwanza,” meaning first fruits and, running from late December to the January 1st, in many ways Kwanzaa is about looking forwards and working on both personal and community improvement. In this respect, Kwanzaa is not dissimilar to the various traditional New Year celebrations that take place globally, where people consider how to make the next year a better one.
Celebrated across seven days, during each day of Kwanzaa a different principle of African culture is celebrated. These 7 principles are the following:
Umoja (unity): To strive and maintain unity in the family, community, nation and race.
Kujichagulia (self-determination): To define oneself, create for oneself and speak for oneself.
Ujima (collective work and responsibility): To build and maintain our community together and make our brother’s and sister’s problems our problems and to solve them together.
Ujamaa (cooperative economics): To build and sustain business owned by ourselves from which the community as a whole profits.
Nia (purpose): To collectively strive towards cultural unity and development to restore our people to their traditional greatness.
Kuumba (creativity): To use our creativity to improve our community and leave it in a better way than we found it.
Imani (faith): To believe in each other, our leaders, and the righteousness of our struggle.
The seven principles of Kwanzaa
What activities or rituals take place during Kwanzaa?
During Kwanzaa children receive gifts, but not any gifts. These gifts given to children must include books and a heritage symbol, serving to remind the child of their ancestry and the value of learning.
The colours of Kwanzaa are green, red and black; ‘black for the people, red for their struggle, and green for the future and hope that comes from their struggle.’
A further part of the celebrations involves a mat (mkeka) being spread across a table. On that table lies a kinara, a seven-branched candelabra, holding seven candles (red, green and black). One of the candles is lit each night, each representing one of the principles. Also on the table will be corn and a unity cup (kikombe cha umoja), used to pour libations in honour of ancestors, as well as the finest African art and sculptures and books.
The final day of Kwanzaa is a peaceful day of meditation (Siku ya Taamuli) where those taking part try to answer three questions:
Who am I?
Am I really who I say I am?
Am I all I ought to be?
How many people celebrate Kwanzaa?
In recent years it has been suggested that fewer people are celebrating Kwanzaa than in previous decades and that there has been a significant lessening of Kwanzaa’s cultural significance to many African-Americans in the contemporary time.
Whilst it is difficult to estimate how many people celebrate Kwanzaa, particularly outside of the U.S., in 2012 a survey conducted by the National Retail Federation found that only 2% of Americans celebrated the holiday.
Mark Anthony Neal, a professor of African and African-American studies at Duke University and cultural critic, has offered some reasons why Kwanzaa is perhaps not celebrated as widely as it once was.
Professor Neal points to the fact that Kwanzaa “started during the moment of the black freedom struggle.” “There was a lot of intensity around finding some way to express our black pride within that context. But it was also started in a time when there were no black studies department; the Internet didn't exist. […] So you could imagine, for the millennial generation now - who sit in black studies courses, who have so much more access to black history and black heritage in that regard - that there's just not that kind of intensity around the holiday that we might have saw in the 1980s, for instance.”
Neal also cites the idea “of Kwanzaa being a made-up holiday” as another possible reason why some choose not to celebrate it. “When you compare it to, say, something like Hanukkah, which is clearly a religious holiday - you know, Kwanzaa is not a religious holiday though it does have, you know, spiritual overtones. But, you know, the reality is that so many holidays that we celebrate are, in fact, made-up holidays.”
How African is Kwanzaa given its creation in the United States?
Created in the United States, is seems fair to ask: to what extent is Kwanzaa an African celebration?
Matt Randolph, a Black Students Union columnist for The Amherst Student newspaper, explored this matter in an article written in August this year. Randolph wrote:
“As an African-American of slave descent, I can personally identify with Kwanzaa as a cultural holiday, but this is not necessarily true for many other Afro-descendant people in the United States whose families do not personally identify with this country’s legacy of African slavery. Instead, they hold specific cultural identities from other nations of the African Diaspora beyond the U.S. border.
Furthermore, I’ve talked with international students from Africa and black Americans of more immediate African heritage who struggle to comprehend a holiday with a generalized interpretation of the African continent. Unlike many African-Americans celebrating Kwanzaa, they understand their African heritage according to specific ethnicities or nations rather than the entire continent.
Clearly, Kwanzaa can be both liberating and problematic as a holiday that was founded to connect Black America with its African roots. However, I firmly believe that there are ways that Kwanzaa can be reimagined for those beyond the traditional African-American community for which it was founded. […]
It is important to note that the majority of African-Americans are most likely descendants of slaves coming from Western Africa, rather than Swahili-speaking people. The use of Swahili names for many of Kwanzaa’s artifacts is not meant to overgeneralize African culture or ignore the linguistic and cultural diversity of the continent. Nonetheless, while we should be both conscious and critical of cultural inaccuracies in the creation of Kwanzaa as a community celebration in a constructive way, we should acknowledge the greater message and intentions for cultural unity that Dr. Karenga strived for.
Kwanzaa is empowering because of its capacity to connect black Americans to Africa as well as the larger African Diaspora in the Caribbean and Latin America. Let this be a moment when all people of African ancestry and their allies can come together to acknowledge the many intersections of experience, identity and culture that unify Afro-descendant people across the world."
So should more black British people embrace Kwanzaa?
Kwanzaa is a positive holiday which aims to better the African diaspora at both an individual and collective level and promotes peace, reflection and African heritage and culture. A non-religious but spiritual celebration, it seems that Kwanzaa has much to offer and is certainly worth learning more about before being dismissed as something just for African-Americans.
What Kwanzaa celebrations are taking place in the UK this year?
There are a number of community-based Kwanzaa celebrations taking place across the UK this year including an event in Luton organised by the African Heritage Network of Luton and another in Leicester.