Graphic by Pepperdine BSA
Meal points have come and gone, the winds have rolled through, and sleep schedules have been reset. This all can only mean one thing: Winter break is here! The holidays are a joy-filled time for many because it can be a time for rest and enjoying the company of loved ones. Amidst the religious holidays that are celebrated, there’s one cultural holiday that often goes unmentioned: Kwanzaa.
Kwanzaa is a week long African American Holiday that takes place December 26th through January 1st. It is celebrated in the United States to promote and celebrate seven different principles that are imperative to the Black community. It was created in 1966 after the Watt’s Rebellion, a six-day rebellion that ensued due to racial tensions between the African American community and law enforcement. Maulana Karenga, a professor of Africana Studies at Cal State Long Beach, started this holiday in order to bring the African American community together during such divisive times.
On Kwanzaa’s official website, they state the reason for the holiday is “to introduce and reinforce the seven principles and through this, introduce and reaffirm communitarian values and practices which strengthen and celebrate family, community and culture.”
Karenga combined different aspects of other African harvest celebrations to create Kwanzaa. The Swahili named seven principles that were created: “Umoja” — Unity (To strive for and maintain unity in the family, community, nation, and race), “Kujichagulia” — Self Determination (To define ourselves, name ourselves, create for ourselves, and speak for ourselves), “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), “Ujamma” — Cooperative Economics (To build and maintain our own stores, shops, and other businesses and to profit from them together), “Nia — Purpose (To make our collective vocation the building and developing of our community in order to restore our people to their traditional greatness), “Kuumba” — Creativity (To do always as much as we can, in the way we can, in order to leave our community more beautiful and beneficial than we inherited it), and “Imani” — Faith (To believe with all our heart in our people, our parents, our teachers, our leaders, and the righteousness and victory of our struggle).
Each day these principles are celebrated, and a candle (Mishumaa Saba) is lit on the kinara (candleholder) that sits on a straw mat (mkeka) which symbolizes the woven history of our people. This is all surrounded by fruits and vegetables (Mazao), which represent the harvest from community collaboration, as well as the Unity Cup (kikombe cha umoja). Each of these principles were strategically created to unify the African American community through working together and growing in the self.
When Kwanzaa was first created, it was a very popular holiday. There was retail for it in stores, media attention and even songs written about it. However, today we barely, if at all, see it anywhere.
In an interview with NPR, Duke University’s Mark Anthony Neal talked a bit about why Kwanzaa was so popular when it was. He shared, “…black Americans could begin to establish their own holidays separate and distinct from those from white America — keeping in mind, you know, Kwanzaa developed at the height of the Black nationalist movement; and everything was about creating our own institutions, whether it be schools or holidays.”
When Neal was asked about why he thought the holiday had dwindled in popularity, he responded by acknowledging the intensity of the holiday during that time. It was during the time of the “Black freedom struggle” as he stated, and Black people were looking for ways to express their Black pride during a time when they were constantly being put down for who they were. He also noted that the advancements in education and technology also contributed to it. Because of the access to Black studies classes and the internet, there’s no sense of urgency or intensity when learning about Black history and heritage, as is meant for the holiday. However, he seemed hopeful that the African American community would soon again see the importance in the holiday as a time for the community to come together and reflect on how far we’ve come and plan for the future.
People from all cultures are welcome to celebrate this holiday alongside the African American community to celebrate and appreciate the culture. However, it is important to remember that this is a Black cultural holiday meant for the unification of the Black community, so cultural sensitivity should be considered.
I think that it is important for Black people to begin celebrating this holiday again. Growing up, my family celebrated it every year, and we still do. Where I’m from in Houston, each day they host it at different locations where we gather and share in celebrating our ancestors, dance and listen to the strong sounds of African drums, and support small Black-owned businesses and markets. In Los Angeles, they have a Kwanzaa Heritage Festival and Parade for all to come and celebrate this joyous holiday. My parents believed it was necessary that we celebrated Kwanzaa so that we would understand the importance and beauty of our community.
Black people have endured so much struggle and in a time where there are odds still against us, we need one another to lift each other up. We encourage you this winter break to expand your cultural horizon and learn more about this holiday, which will begin on Tuesday, December 26th, 2017 and go through Monday, January 1st, 2018. With that, we wish you a Happy Holidays and a Joyous Kwanzaa!
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