There’s more to this holiday than you may think. To understand how Kwanzaa became so sacred to our community, you must first understand how it came to be. Our grandparents endured the Civil Rights era courageously. Spanning from 1954-1968, but still often felt in today, Kwanzaa was created to in ’66 to bring our community together.
Some of you may have heard of the Watts Riots. If not, allow me to heighten your knowledge. On the night of August 11, 1965 at 7 p.m., stepbrothers Marquette and Ronald Frye were driving their mom’s car on 116th in Watts, a neighborhood in Los Angeles, California. When they were pulled over, Marquette was arrested on suspicion of driving while intoxicated by Lee Minikus, a white California Highway Patrolman. As onlookers gathered, Lee called for backup. During this time, tension between the crowd and police officers on duty erupted in a violent exchange and by 7:45 p.m., the chaos was in full force. This led to a six-day riot in the Watts community, a deeply impoverished African American neighborhood in South Central LA.
More than 14,000 National Guard troops were called in to mobilize the city, and a curfew zone was even created. This resulted in 34 deaths, thousands of injuries, and more than 4,000 arrests. By August 17, 1965, “order” was restored. An investigation led by then Governor Pat Brown stated that the riot was the product of the Watts community’s longstanding grievances and growing discontent with high unemployment rates, substandard housing, and inadequate schools. Despite the reported findings of the gubernatorial commission, following the riot, city leaders and state officials failed to implement measures to improve the social and economic conditions of African Americans living in the Watts neighborhood.
Fast forward to December 26th, 1966, a year after the Watts Riots tore open the wounds of racial division in Los Angeles, Dr. Maulana Karenga launched Kwanzaa in the midst of the Black Power movement. He stated it was, "a necessary minimum set of principles by which Black people must live in order to begin to rescue and reconstruct our history and lives." This cultural holiday is based off of the Swahili phrase, matunda ya kwanza ("first fruits"). It mixes together and adapts several African traditions (such as those of the Ashanti and those of the Zulu) to devise the week-long celebration. Today, Kwanzaa is observed by millions of people of African descent in America, Canada and other countries. By eating certain foods, taking part in collective activities and telling stories, we affirm our commitment to Kwanzaa's values.
What are these values, you ask? Let me break it down for you. There are seven principles of Kwanzaa, and each are celebrated on a different day. While each family may celebrate this holiday in their own special way, for the most part, festivities often include storytelling, African drumming, dance, poetry, and a large traditional meal. During these celebrations, each night, the family gathers around and lights one of the candles on the Kinara (this is the candle-holder). After lighting the candle, you then discuss one of the seven principles represented on that day. This conversation is beautiful because you have the opportunity to talk freely about what it means to YOU. How YOU feel about everything.
The Nguzo Saba (n-GU-zo SAH-bah - seven principles in Swahili):
Unity (December 26th): Umoja (oo–MO–jah) - To strive for and maintain unity in the family, community, nation, and race.
Self-determination (December 27th): Kujichagulia (koo–gee–cha–goo–LEE–yah) - To define ourselves, name ourselves, create for ourselves, and speak for ourselves.
Collective Work and Responsibility (December 28th): Ujima (oo–GEE–mah) - To build and maintain our community together and make our brother’s and sister’s problems our problems and to solve them together.
Cooperative Economics (December 29th): Ujamaa (oo–JAH–mah) - To build and maintain our own stores, shops, and other businesses and to profit from them together.
Purpose (December 30th): Nia (nee–YAH) - To make our collective vocation the building and developing of our community in order to restore our people to their traditional greatness.
Creativity (December 31st): Kuumba (koo–OOM–bah) - 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.
Faith (January 1st): Imani (ee–MAH–nee) - To believe with all our heart in our people, our parents, our teachers, our leaders, and the righteousness and victory of our struggle.
On each day, at the start of every Kwanzaa celebration, participants greet each other in Swahili. "Habari gani?" (Ha-ba-ri ga-ni) means "What is the news?" Celebrants answer with the Nguzo Saba (principle) of the day.
Wondering why the candles that are on the Kinara are red, black and green? The colors of Kwanzaa are a reflection of the Pan-African movement. They represent unity for peoples of African descent worldwide:
Red for the noble blood that unites all people of African ancestry
Black for the people
Green for the rich land of Africa
There aren't just seven principles, but seven symbols as well. Just as the seven principles, these seven symbols have a very distinct meaning.
The Seven Symbols:
Mazao: The crops (fruits, nuts, and vegetables) - represents the historical foundation for Kwanzaa, the gathering of the people that is patterned after African harvest festivals in which joy, sharing, unity, and thanksgiving are the fruits of collective planning and work. To demonstrate their mazao, celebrants of Kwanzaa place nuts, fruit, and vegetables, representing work, on the mkeka.
Mkeka: Place Mat - symbolizing traditional foundation for us to stand on and build our lives, it reminds us that today stands on our yesterdays, just as the other symbols stand on the mkeka.
Muhindi: Ear of Corn - represents our children and our future. You are to still set two ears on the mkeka if there are no kids in the home. This is because we are all in some way responsible for the youth of the community.
The Nigerian proverb, “It takes a whole village to raise a child” is realized in this symbol (vibunzi), since raising a child in Africa was a community affair, involving the tribal village, as well as the family.
Mishumaa Saba: The Seven Candles - the group of seven candles which represents the Kwanzaa seven principles (Nguzo Saba). The three green candles, representing Nia, Ujima, and Imani, are placed to the right of the Umoja candle (the black candle), while the three red candles, representing Kujichagulia, Ujamaa, and Kuumba, are placed to the left of it. During Kwanzaa, one candle, representing one principle, is lit each day. Then the other candles are relit to give off more light and vision. The number of candles burning also indicates the principle that we are celebrating. The illuminating fire of the candles is a basic element of the universe, and every celebration and festival includes fire in some form. Fire’s mystique, like the sun, is irresistible and can destroy or create with its mesmerizing, frightening, mystifying power.
Kinara: The Candleholder - symbolizes the ancestors, who once walked the earth with us; understand the problems of human life; and are willing to protect their progeny from danger, evil, and mistakes.
Kikombe Cha Umoja: The Unity Cup - represents the principle of unity as the basis of all Kwanzaa principles.
Zawadi: Gifts - represent the commitments made and kept. Handmade gifts are encouraged to promote self-determination, purpose, and creativity. Accepting a gift makes the receiver part of the family and promotes Umoja.
Bendera: is the flag created by Marcus Garvey, which is a supplemental symbol that represents the people (black color), the struggle (red color) and the future and hope (green color). They also represent the African gods. Red is the color of Shango, the Yoruba god of fire, thunder, and lightning. He lives in the clouds and sends down his thunderbolt whenever he is angry or offended.
Nguzo Saba Poster: the printed display of The Seven Principles. Its seen as a supplemental symbol.
No matter who you are or your views on Karenga (he ain't SHIT), you can't deny that Kwanzaa's principles are nothing short of worthy values to truly put to use. Its history is rooted in the Black Liberation struggles of the 20th century – a time when many African-Americans were fighting for political, economic, social and cultural freedom.
Looking for a place to purchase items for your celebration? Shop these incredible black owned shops at We Buy Black: Kwanzaa on We Buy Black
The Black Candle: Maya Angelou was a phenomenal woman, and her narration of the African American experience through the eyes of Kwanzaa was beautifully done. You can watch the documentary on The Black Candle's Youtube Channel.
Sesame Street: The childhood show came through for the win with a simple, yet educational episode of the holiday. You can watch the short clip on Sesame Street's YouTube Channel. This would be a great way to get kids interested in the festivities!
The Proud Family: There can be A LOT to be learned from this show. Enjoy this 30 minute Kwanzaa episode at The Daily Motion.