History of Kwanzaa
Professor and chairman of Black Studies at California State University, Long Beach, Dr. Maulana Karenga, created Kwanzaa in 1966 in the midst of the Black Freedom Movement, reflecting concerns for cultural grounding in thought and practice. After the Watts riots in LA, Dr. Karenga looked for ways to strengthen the African-American community. He founded US, a cultural organization, and started to research African “first fruit” (harvest) celebrations. Karenga combined aspects of several different harvest celebrations, such as those of the Ashanti and those of the Zulu, to form the basis of Kwanzaa.
The name Kwanzaa comes from the phrase “matunda ya kwanza” meaning “first fruits” in Swahili. Swahili is considered a pan-African language, and also happens to be the most widely spoken language in Africa. Basing the language of the holiday in Swahili represents unity throughout the African and black communities.
The first fruits celebrations are recorded in African history as far back as ancient Egypt and Nubia and appear in ancient and modern times in other classical African civilizations such as Ashantiland and Yorubaland. Kwanzaa developed as a flourishing branch of the African American life and struggle as a recreated and expanded ancient tradition. It draws from the cultures of various African people, and is celebrated by millions of African and African Americans throughout the nation.
Each family celebrates Kwanzaa in their own way, but celebrations often include song and dance, African drums, storytelling, poetry readings, and a large traditional meal. On each of the seven nights, the family gathers and a child lights one of the candles on the kinara, then one of the seven principles, called Nguzo Saba, is discussed. These principles are values of African culture which contribute to building and reinforcing community among African Americans.
Dr. Maulana Karenga, a professor at California State University, created Kwanzaa as a response to the Watts riots.
The first Kwanzaa Hallmark card was sold.
Karenga declared Kwanzaa as a non-religious celebration of family, community, and culture so that people would be able to celebrate both Christmas and Kwanzaa.
Public Policy Polling found that 12.5 million Americans celebrate Kwanzaa.
What is Kwanzaa and why is it celebrated?
What are the seven principles of Kwanzaa?
What are Kwanzaa traditions?
How to Observe Kwanzaa
Get in the spirit with African decor
No holiday is complete without decorations! To get in the Kwanzaa spirit, decorate your home with African art, cloths such as kente, and fresh fruits that represent African idealism.
Learn some Swahili
Swahili is a language spoken throughout Africa, and therefore unites all who celebrate Kwanzaa. One of the most important Swahili words to know are the names of the seven principles of Kwanzaa: Umoja (unity), Kujichagulia (self-determination), Ujima (collective work and responsibility), Ujamaa (cooperative economics), Nia (purpose), Kuumba (creativity), and Imani (faith).
Pick up a drum
Many families celebrate Kwanzaa by playing music and singing cultural African or African-American songs. Pick up a drum, or any percussive instrument brought out for the celebration, and join in on the musical fun!
Why Kwanzaa is Important
It promotes unity
Kwanzaa was birthed as a response to the Watts riots, which occurred as a reaction to longstanding racial injustice in America. The holiday was made by Dr. Maulana Karenga to bring African Americans together as a community in a celebration of identity.
It's for the culture
Kwanzaa is considered a cultural holiday rather than a religious celebration, meaning that even if you participate in Kwanzaa festivities, you can still celebrate the winter holidays that fall under your religion. Many households will have both a kinara and a Christmas tree in their living room at the same time.
It allows people to experience a connection to their roots
Many people in the African American community, and other nations of the African diaspora in the Americas, find that Kwanzaa makes them feel closer to their roots. Celebrating a holiday based in ancient African tradition allows participants to experience a grounding connection to Africa.