back to the roots

November 23, 2011

As published in the December issue of City Beat.

Kwanzaa—the creation of a Cal State LB professor and activist—showcases the importance of African culture

Though its history is much younger than the other holidays celebrated during this time of year, Kwanzaa is by no means less significant. Created in 1966 by Dr. Maulana Karenga as a way for African-Americans to honor their shared heritage and culture, the seven-day celebration (Dec. 26 to Jan. 1) has become an important holiday for blacks worldwide.

The word Kwanzaa comes from the Swahili phrase matunda ya kwanza (which translates roughly to “first fruit”), and the holiday’s template is loosely based on traditional pan-African harvest festivals. But that is where any precedent stops. As an internationally celebrated, non-religious, non-heroic, non-political African-American holiday, Kwanzaa is a unique experience that encourages unity among those of African descent and attempts to preserve common African culture.

Dr. Karenga—a leading theorist during the ’60s Black Power Movement who is now a professor of Africana Studies at Cal State Long Beach—organized Kwanzaa around a set of communitarian African values, called the Nguzo Saba. These seven principles include Umoja (unity), Kujicahgulia (self-determination), Ujima (collective work and responsibility), Ujama (cooperative economics), Nia (purpose), Kuumba (creativity) and Imani (faith). Each day of Kwanzaa focuses on one of these driving principles and is expressed through the lighting of colored candles, dancing, reciting poetry and the giving of appropriate gifts.

In addition to the daily celebrations, Kwanzaa calls for a central place in the home to be dedicated to the construction of a Kwanzaa Set—a display of the holiday’s symbolic objects. Central to this is the kinara, a candleholder that carries the seven candles—three red, three green and one black—as well as a Unity Cup, the filling and sharing of which is a central Kwanzaa ritual.

While Kwanzaa was originally directed at a small group of activists, it gained popularity as interest in multiculturalism expanded in the late 1980s and has since coexisted alongside Christmas and Hanukkah celebrations for both black and white families nationwide. Though estimates of the number of people who celebrate the holiday worldwide vary—from 250,000 to 40 million—Los Angeles has multiple Kwanzaa celebrations, several of which take place in Long Beach including one at the Long Beach Senior Center and another annually organized by Village Treasures, an African art store near downtown.

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