The History Of Kwanzaa: An African-American Holiday

By: Staff

Kwanzaa, a relatively new holiday that not many people know much about, is deeply rooted in African-American culture and history. The holiday was formed post Watts riots that took place in Los Angeles. The Watts riots stemmed from police brutality against the Black community. This interaction wasn’t something new then, and is still much too common in today’s society. After these riots broke out Dr. Maulana Karenga formed the holiday Kwanzaa in 1966 as a way to unite the Black community. Dr. Karenga worked at California State Long Beach, and was involved in Black studies.

Kwanzaa is tied heavily into African culture, and those who celebrate may do so through singing and dancing to African music. The term Kwanzaa is derived from the Swahili term “matunda ya kwanza”, which translates to “first fruits”. There are seven days apart of the holiday Kwanzaa and each day takes time to focus on a different set of principles. These principles, which were curated by Dr. Karenga are represented by lighting a candle each night. Along with the seven principles are a set of seven symbols that go along with each night.

The seven principles are as follows:

  1. Unity: Umoja
  2. Self-determination: Kujichagulia
  3. Collective work and responsibility: Ujima
  4. Cooperative economics: Ujamaa
  5. Purpose: Nia
  6. Creativity: Kuumba
  7. Faith: Imani

The seven symbols are as follows:

  1. Mazao: The crops
  2. Mkeka: Place mat
  3. Vibunzi: Ear of corn
  4. Mishumaa Saba: The seven candles
  5. Kinara: The candleholder
  6. Kikombe Cha Umoja: The unity cup
  7. Zawadi: Gifts

Each principle and symbol holds meaning that families take time to delve into, each one on a different night of Kwanzaa. It’s important to note that a common misconception is that Kwanzaa is a religious holiday. This is not true, instead it is a cultural holiday. In fact, you’ll find many families who celebrate holidays like Christmas, along with celebrating Kwanzaa.

The main items of Kwanzaa are the candles that get lit. There are seven candles, three red, three green, and one black; each color represents something different. The red candles represent the struggle, the green ones represent land and hope for the future, while the final black candle, placed in the center, represents people of African descent.

Many believe that this holiday is exclusive to the Black community but Dr. Karenga claims that non-Black people are welcome to celebrate the holiday as well. Similar to how non-Mexicans celebrate Cinco de Mayo. Kwanzaa has only been around for 55 years. Only a small number of about 6 million people in the US celebrate it, but it is still important to understand the origins of where this holiday came from.

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