Kwanzaa: A history of the celebration

KELOLAND.com Original

SIOUX FALLS, S.D. (KELO) — Monday, Dec. 27, marks the second day of the festival Kwanzaa, an African American celebration of culture and life.

According to the National Museum of African American History & Culture (NMAAH), Kwanzaa was created in 1966 by Maulana Ron Karenga, an American author and professor of Africana studies.

Kwanzaa is not a religious holiday in the vein of other winter celebrations such as Hanukkah or Christmas, but rather a Pan-African holiday which celebrates history, values, family, community and culture.

Karenga, according to the NMAAH, created Kwanzaa to:

  • Reaffirm and restore African heritage and culture.
  • Introduce and reinforce the Nguzo Saba or Seven Principles.
  • Serve as a nationally celebrated communal and non-heroic holiday.
  • Serve as an act of cultural self-determination.

The seven principles listed above, written in Swahili, are Umoja (Unity), Kujichagulia (Self-Determination), Ujima (Collective Work and Responsibility), Ujamaa (Cooperative Economics), Nia (Purpose), Kuumba (Creativity), and Imani (Faith).

The NMAAH notes that these principles are taken from values found throughout the African continent, and that Kwanzaa itself gets its name from the Swahili phrase “matunda ya kwanza (first fruits)”, taken from the celebrations which are found in cultures throughout Africa. Swahili is one of the most widely spoken languages in Africa.

Karenga created Kwanzaa in the immediate aftermath of the 1965 Watts Riots.

On August 11,1965, Marquette Frye, an African-American motorist on parole for shoplifting, was pulled over for alleged reckless driving. A minor roadside argument broke out, which escalated into a fight with police. Community members witnessed police hurt a pregnant woman, and six days of civil unrest followed. Nearly 14,000 members of the California National Guard helped suppress the uprising, which resulted in 34 deaths and over $40 million in property damage.

NMAAH

Kwanzaa itself is a seven-day long festival, spanning from Dec. 26 – Jan.1, with each day dedicated to one of the Nguzo Saba. The order of the days is Umoja, Kujichagulia, Ujima, Ujamaa, Nia, Kuumba, and Imani.

On Dec. 31, the sixth day of Kwanzaa, a large feast called Karamu is held. The Karamu Ya Imani (Feast of Faith) was first held on Jan. 1, 1973.

The Karamu feast was developed in Chicago during the a 1971 citywide movement of Pan-African organizations. It was proposed by Hannibal Afrik of Shule ya Watoto as a community-wide promotional and educational campaign.

NMAAH

In addition to seven principles, there are also seven symbols which represent Kwanzaa.

According to Nicole Dudenhoefer, writing for the University of Central Florida, these are the Mazao (crops), the Mkeka (a straw mat), Mundhindi (ears of corn), Mishumaa Saba (the seven candles), the Kinara (the candle holder), the Kikombe Cha Umoja (the unity cup) and the Zawadi (gifts).

Each of these symbols has meaning, as described by Dudenhoefer:

  • Mazao – The crops represent the historical foundation of Kwanzaa and the gathering of the people.
  • Mkeka – Mkeke, or the straw mat, symbolizes the foundation upon which all else rests.
  • Mishumaa Saba – Perhaps the most recognizable of the symbols are the seven candles, each of which represents one of the seven principles. One candle is lit each day as the principle is discussed. There are three red candles, three green and one black. (The colors red black and green are generally seen as representing Pan-Africanism.) The black candle is known as the unity candle, and is lit on the first day of Kwanzaa. After this the candles are lit from left to right, with the red candles lit on the 2nd, 3rd and 4th nights, and the green candles lit on the 5th, 6th and 7th nights. While the black candle represents unity, the red candles embody the blood of the African peoples and the struggles of the past, with the green candles representing Earth and the foretelling of the abundance of the future to come.
  • Kirana – The candle holder is the center of the Kwanzaa setting, and represents the ancestors of those who today celebrate the festival.
  • Kikombe Cha Umoja – The unity cup is a part of a libation ritual, preformed on the 6th day of Kwanzaa during the Kamaru.
  • Zawadi – Gifts, presented on the final day of Kwanzaa, are meant to encourage growth, self-determination, achievement and success.

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