Saturday, December 27, 2008

Kwanzaa: What it is; what it ain't


written by Mac Daddy and crossposted from DaddyBStrong

Today, the daddy is feeling Kwanzaa. His friends know he celebrates it, so they phone or e-mail every year to ask him a question or two about Kwanzaa. This year, the daddy beat them to the punch. He sent them the basic info in advance. First, I told them that Kwanzaa ain't no religion. Second, I answered questions like "What do I have to get so we're ready to do this Kwanzaa thang?" Or "Hey, daddy, I know it's the first day of Kwanzaa. Is it too late? We didn't tell the kids we were gonna do it."

All the information I gave them comes from two basic sources: The World Encylopedia and Learning Resources and The Official Kwanzaa Web site .

The World Encylopedia says:
Kwanzaa (pronounced KWAHN zuh) is an African-American holiday that begins on December 26 and lasts for seven days. The word Kwanzaa, sometimes spelled Kwanza, comes from the phrase matunda ya kwanza, which means first fruits in Kiswahili, an East African language. The holiday was developed in 1966 in the United States by Maulana Karenga, a professor of Pan-African studies and a black cultural leader. The holiday centers on the Nguzo Saba, seven principles of black culture developed by Karenga. These principles are Umoja (unity), Kujichagulia (self-determination), Ujima (collective work and responsibility), Ujamaa (cooperative economics), Nia (purpose), Kuumba (creativity), and Imani (faith).

There are also seven symbols of Kwanzaa: mazao (the fruits of the harvest), mkeka (a mat on which they are arranged), kinara (a candleholder), mishumaa saba (candles), muhindi (ears of corn, one for each child in the family), and the kikombe cha unoja (the chalice of unity). Finally, families exchange zawadi (gifts), which are often homemade. Each evening, families light one of the seven candles in the kinara and discuss the day's principle.

Near the end of the holiday, the community gathers for a feast called karamu. It features traditional foods, ceremonies honoring the ancestors, assessments of the old year and commitments for the new, performances, music, and dancing.
The official Kwanzaa Web site answers basic questions about Kwanzaa. Here are some questions and answers.

Why was Kwanzaa created?

Kwanzaa was created:

- To reaffirm the communitarian vision and values of African culture and to contribute to its restoration among African peoples in the Diaspora, beginning with Africans in America and expanding to include the world African community.

- To introduce and reinforce the Nguzo Saba, the Seven Principles and through this, introduce and reaffirm communitarian values and practices which strengthen and celebrate family, community and culture. These seven communitarian African values are: Umoja (Unity), Kuji-chagulia (Self-determination), Ujima (Collective Work and Responsibility), Ujamaa (Cooperative Economics), Nia (Purpose), Kuumba (Creativity), and Imani (Faith).

- To serve as a regular communal celebration which reaffirmed and reinforced the bonds between us as a people in the U.S., in the Diaspora and on the African continent, in a word, as a world African community. It was designed to unite and to strengthen African communities. As an act of cultural self-determination, as a self-conscious statement of our own unique cultural truth as an African people. That is to say, it is an important way and expression of being African in a multicultural context.

Where does the word "Kwanzaa" come from?

The word "Kwanzaa" comes from the phrase, "matunda ya kwanza" which means "first-fruits." Kwanzaa's extra "a" evolved as a result of a particular history of the Organization Us. It was clone as an expression of African values in order to inspire the creativity of our children. In the early days of Us, there were seven children who each wanted to represent a letter of Kwanzaa. Since kwanza (first) has only six letters, we added an extra "a" to make it seven, thus creating "Kwanzaa."

Why is Kwanzaa a seven-day holiday?

Kwanzaa is a seven-day holiday for two reasons:

In terms of authenticity, Kwanzaa is modeled on first-fruits celebrations in ancient Africa, especially on Southern African first-fruits celebrations like Umkhost of Zululand which has seven days. The central reason for Kwanzaa's being seven days is to stress the Nguzo Saba and through this introduce and reaffirm communitarian values and practices which strengthen and celebrate family, community, and culture.

Why has Kwanzaa grown among African people?

Kwanzaa grows among African people because:

- It speaks to our need and appreciation for its cultural vision and life- affirming values, values which celebrate and reinforce family, community, and culture.

- It represents an important way Africans speak our own special cultural truth in a multicultural world.

- It reaffirms the most ancient tradition in the world, the African tradition, which lays claim to the first religious, ethical and scientific texts, and the introduction of the basic disciplines of human knowledge in the Nile Valley.

- It reinforces our rootedness in our own culture in a rich and meaningful way.

- It brings us together from all countries, all religious traditions, all classes, all ages and generations, and all political persuasions on the common ground of our Africanness in all its historical and current diversity and unity.

Can people who are not of African descent participate in Kwanzaa activities?

Kwanzaa is clearly an African holiday created for African peoples. But other people can and do celebrate it, just like other people participate in Cinco de Mayo besides Mexicans; Chinese New Year besides Chinese; Native American pow wows besides Native Americans.

The question is, under what circumstances? There are both communal and public celebrations. One can properly hold a communal celebration dedicated essentially to community persons. But in a public context, say public school or college, we can properly have public celebrations which include others. How this is done depends on particular circumstances. But in any case, particular people should always be in control of and conduct their own celebrations. Audience attendance is one thing; conducting a ritual is another.

Any particular message that is good for a particular people, if it is human in its content and ethical in its grounding, speaks not just to that people, it speaks to the world.

The principles of Kwanzaa and the message of Kwanzaa has a universal message for all people of good will. It is rooted in African culture, and we speak as Africans must speak, not just to ourselves, but to the world. This continues our tradition of speaking our own special cultural truth and making our own unique contribution to the forward flow of human history.

How is Kwanzaa related to our struggle to achieve social justice and build a better world?

Kwanzaa organizes people, gives them a chance to gather,and reinforce the bonds between them, and to focus on positive cultural values and practice. And in reinforcing the bonds between us and reaffirming us in the best of our values, we are strengthened in our struggle for a morally grounded and empowered community, a just and good society and a world of peace and freedom.


Kwanzaa helps us to focus on the collective aspect of what we are about as a people with its focus on ingathering of the people, special reverence for the Creator and creation, commemoration of the past, recommitment to our highest values, and celebration of the good in life.

Kwanzaa was created out of the philosophy of Kawaida, which is a cultural nationalist philosophy that argues that the key challenge in Black people's life is the challenge of culture, and that what Africans must do is to discover and bring forth the best of their culture, both ancient and current, and use it as a foundation to bring into being models of human excellence and possibilities to enrich and expand our lives.

It was created in 1966 in the midst of our struggles for liberation and was part of our organization Us' efforts to create, recreate and circulate African culture as an aid to building community, enriching Black consciousness, and reaffirming the value of cultural grounding for life and struggle.

How does Kwanzaa improve self-esteem?

Kwanzaa is not about self-esteem. Kwanzaa is about rootedness in your culture, knowledge of our culture and encouragement to act and create in such a way that self-respect will come of itself.

When you focus just on self-esteem you focus on individual orientation and that is against African values. We must focus on standing worthy before our people and in the world. Because we live in an individualistic society, people put such emphasis on self-gratification and self-indulgence they do not see that there is a collective aspect to what we are about as a people. The need to root oneself in one's culture, extract its models of excellence and possibility and emulate them in our ongoing efforts to be the best of what it means to be African and human.

Is Kwanzaa becoming commercialized?

We must make a distinction here between normal Ujamaa or the cooperative economic practice of artists and vendors to provide Kwanzaa materials and the corporate world's move to penetrate and dominate the community Kwanzaa market.

Operating with the primary purpose of making profits, corporate strategy consists of capitalizing on the African community's expanding practice of Kwanzaa and the accompanying expanding need for symbols and other items essential and related to the practice. To do this, these corporations will offer the standard enticements of convenience, variety, self-focus and self indulgence, ethnic imagery and other stimulants to cultivate and expand the consumer mind-set. Moreover, they will camouflage their purely commercial interest in Kwanzaa by borrowing the language and symbols of the holiday itself to redefine it along commercial lines. Manipulating the language and symbols of Kwanzaa, they will seek not only to sell corporation-generated Kwanzaa items, but also to introduce a full range of corporate products as necessary for the practice of Kwanzaa. Thus, they will attempt not only to penetrate and dominate the Kwanzaa market, taking it from small-scale African American producers and vendors, but also redefine both the meaning and focus of Kwanzaa, making it another holiday of maximum and compelling shopping if we allow it.

How do people resist the commercialization of Kwanzaa?

The challenge, for the African American community as well as African communities everywhere is to resist the corporate commercialization of Kwanzaa; to reaffirm and to the essential meaning of Kwanzaa and refuse to cooperate with the corporate drive to dominate and redefine it and make it simply another holiday to maximize sales.

By upholding the philosophy and principles of Kwanzaa, Black people can and do pose a strong wall against the waves of commercialization which affect all holidays in this market culture which is essentially a culture of sales and consumption. For Kwanzaa is above all a cultural practice not a commercial one and external or internal attempts to redefine Kwanzaa in commercial terms are not defining Kwanzaa, but rather their commercial interest in it.

The wall of resistance to commercialization, then, is the people themselves and their conscientious and consistent focus on the vision of Kwanzaa and the practice of its values. Certainly, the central values of Kwanzaa are the Nguzo Saba, the Seven Principles: Umoja (Unity); Kujichagulia (Self-Determination); Ujima (Collective Work and Responsibility); Ujamaa (Cooperative Economics); Nia (Purpose); Kuumba (Creativity); and Tmani (Faith). And the conscientious and consistent practice of these values provide an effective defense against the waves of commercialism which are defining features of a market culture.

The principles and practice of Umoja and Ujima require that celebrants stand in unity and assume collective responsibility for resistance to the commercialization and thus adulteration of Kwanzaa.

Nia, the central purpose of community building as a collective vocation, requires the defense of African culture and its highest values as expressed in Kwanzaa.

Kujichagulia demands a practice of self-determination in both the cultural and economic sense. It stresses the moral obligation of Africans to define themselves, speak for themselves, build for themselves, and make their own unique contribution to the forward flow of human history. Thus this principle prohibits collaboration in one's own oppression, the allowance of others to define African people or culture and turning to others for Kwanzaa items which the community itself has conceived of and has historically and rightfully made.

Kuumba insists on community creativity, specifically during Kwanzaa and especially providing its own symbols.

Ujamaa (cooperative economics) specifically requires control, not only of the economics of Kwanzaa, but also the very economy of the Black community in a mutually-beneficial process of shared work and shared wealth. No serious celebrants of Kwanzaa can support a corporate control of the economy of the Black community or the economics of Kwanzaa. Nor can they in good conscience drive small-scale community artists, producers, and vendors out of business by buying corporate products and aiding their penetration and domination of the Kwanzaa market.

Imani (faith) stresses the spiritual and ethical resistance to market values which undermine and distort the sacred and significant. It is an ancient African teaching of Egypt which says that through our culture and its spirituality and ethics, we are given that which endures in the midst of that which is overthrown, that which is permanent in the midst of that which passes away. Thus, the vision and values of Kwanzaa are in opposition to the commercialism of a market culture, upholds the sacred and significant and poses principles of African family, community and culture which enrich and expand human life rather than reduce it to a market calculation of the opportunity and promise of sales. In this way, Kwanzaa stands as an excellent representative of that which endures in the midst of that which is overthrown and that which is permanent in the midst of that which passes away.

Can people celebrate Kwanzaa and Christmas?Is Kwanzaa an alternative to Christmas?

Kwanzaa was not created to give people an alternative to their own religion or religious holiday. And it is not an alternative to people's religion or faith but a common ground of African culture. One of the most important and meaningful ways to see and approach Kwanzaa is as a self-conscious cultural choice. Some celebrants see Kwanzaa as an alternative to the sentiments and practices of other holidays which stress the commercial or faddish or lack an African character or aspect. But they realize this is not Kwanzaa's true function or meaning. For Kwanzaa is not a reaction or substitute for anything. In fact, it offers a clear and self-conscious option, opportunity and chance to make a proactive choice, a self-affirming and positive choice as distinct from a reactive one.

Likewise, Kwanzaa is a cultural choice as distinct from a religious one. This point is important because when the question arises as to the relation between choosing Kwanzaa or/and Christmas, this distinction is not always made. This failure to make this distinction causes confusion, for it appears to suggest one must give up one's religion to practice one's culture. Whereas this might be true in other cases, it is not so in this case. For here, one can and should make a distinction between one's specific religion and one's general culture in which that religion is practiced. On one hand, Christmas is a religious holiday for Christians, but it is also a cultural holiday for
Europeans. Thus, one can accept and revere the religious message and meaning but
reject its European cultural accretions of Santa Claus, reindeer, mistletoe, frantic shopping, alienated gift-giving, etc.

This point can be made by citing two of the most frequent reasons Christian celebrants of Kwanzaa give for turning to Kwanzaa. The first reason is that it provides them with cultural grounding and reaffirmation as African Americans. The other reason is that it gives them a spiritual alternative to the commercialization of Christmas and the resultant move away from its original spiritual values and message.Here it is of value to note that there is a real and important difference between spirituality as a general appreciation for and commitment to the transcendent, and religion which suggests formal structures and doctrines. Kwanzaa is not a religious holiday, but a cultural one with an inherent spiritual quality as with all major African celebrations. This inherent spiritual quality is respect for the Transcendent, the Sacred, the Good, the Right. Thus, Africans of all faiths can and do celebrate Kwanzaa, i.e., Muslims, Christians, Black Hebrews, Jews, Buddhists, Bahai and Hindus as well as those who follow the ancient traditions of Maat, Yoruba, Ashanti, Dogon, etc. For what Kwanzaa offers is not an alternative to their religion or faith but a common ground of African culture which they all share and cherish. it is this common ground of culture on which they all meet, find ancient and enduring meaning and by which they are thus reaffirmed and reinforced.

In some cases people have added things to their celebration of Kwanzaa which seem to differ from its original vision and value. How should those who want to maintain the original vision and values and at the same time allow for diversity within the holiday respond to this?

The original vision and values of Kwanzaa must be maintained and nothing should be advocated or practiced which violates the original spirit, basic purpose and essential concepts which informed the creation and practice of Kwanzaa. However, two principles of Kwanzaa encourage creativity, diversity and flexibility within this general rule. These are Kuumba (creativity) and Kujichagulia (self-determination). So not only do we expect diversity of approaches as is true in any other holiday, but again as in other holidays, this diversity must be within a framework that strengthens the holiday, not undermines it. The need is for established practices and standards which constitute the identity and essence of the holiday. Otherwise, the holiday does not exist and is no more than individual approaches with no meaning except to the persons doing them. Creativity calls for new and beautiful ways of
celebrating the holiday, not producing things and engaging in practices which destroy or diminish its value and meaning to us as a people. Self-determination calls for personal and collective expression which celebrate the holiday in unique ways, not in self-indulgent ways which undermine the common ground of views and values which give the holiday its identity, meaning anti value.

Kwanzaa stresses value orientation.Why is this so important?

Values and value orientation are important, as Kawaicla philosophy teaches, because values are categories of commitment, priorities and excellence which indicate and enhance human possibilities. Kwanzaa puts forth seven key values, the Nguzo Saba (The Seven Principles) which offer standards of excellence and models of possibilities and which aid in building and reinforcing family, community and culture: Umoja, Kujichagulia, Ujima, Ujamaa, Nia, Kuumba, Imani.


At the same time Kwanzaa reinforces associated values of truth, justice, propriety, harmony, balance, reciprocity and order embodied in the concept of Maat. In a word, it reminds us to hold to our ancient traditions as a people who are spiritually grounded, who respect our ancestors and elders, cherish and challenge our children, care for the vulnerable, relate rightfully to the environment and always seek and embrace the Good.

These questions and answers should help you explain Kwanzaa to others...So what are you waiting for?

Happy Kwanzaa!

Image courtesy of Bisse on Flickr

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