Why Kwanzaa Is So Meaningful to Black Americans

Founded in 1966 by Dr. Maulana Karenga, Kwanzaa incorporates African language, cultural traditions, and family for a week of affirming, enduring celebrations of Black life.

The upcoming holiday season promises to be like no other, as COVID-19 restrictions limit our ability to gather with loved ones. As I strategize to come up with the new ways we will celebrate Thanksgiving and Christmas, I feel like I’m planning the impossible. It’s kind of heartbreaking; but, despite the setbacks of this atypical year, I know the meaning behind all our traditions will endure. Though we might not gather at the local high school field for family football, we can still Zoom together to carve our turkeys, bow our heads, and pray as one, big, far-flung family. We can text heart, laugh, and cry emojis as we snuggle with our children to watch A Charlie Brown Christmas. And, for seven glorious days, my family will honor our ancestors and our African traditions as we celebrate Kwanzaa.

What is Kwanzaa?

My family first started to celebrate this African American holiday that falls in between Christmas and New Year’s Day in the 1980s, when I was still young and living with my parents, but Kwanzaa was actually created over a decade earlier—right here in the USA. It might seem strange that a holiday celebration started just a few decades ago. After all, Eid al Fitr began in 624 C.E., Dia de los Tres Reyes gained momentum around the 5th century, the first Hanukkah was celebrated in 200 B.C.E., and Diwali was celebrated all the way back in 527 B.C.E. Kwanzaa is a new holiday, but that doesn’t mean it’s less significant. Indeed, the symbols and meanings associated with Kwanzaa are as bright as a flame and as ancient as Africa.

The origin of Kwanzaa

This uniquely American holiday originated in 1966, when Dr. Maulana Karenga, professor and chair of Black Studies at California State University, Long Beach sought to create a holiday to affirm and validate African American people. Kwanzaa is a cultural holiday, not a religious one, and so it can be celebrated by Black people who are Christian, Muslim, Jewish, Buddhist, atheist, or agnostic. Drawing on African traditions that predate Islam, Christianity, and even Judaism, Dr. Karenga modeled Kwanzaa on the age-old first fruit celebrations practiced in different parts of the continent, from the Zulu people in what is now South Africa to the ancient Egyptians in northern Africa. The African continent is vast, with culturally rich nations that stretch back to antiquity. Dr. Karenga created Kwanzaa as a unifying celebration of the one thing we all share—our connection to Africa.

What language is used for the terms associated with Kwanzaa?

Swahili is the most spoken language in Africa, and so Dr. Karenga drew on this East African language to name the objects and traditions he used to establish Kwanzaa. Most people in Africa are multi-lingual and speak more than one African language in addition to one or more European languages. If more people of African descent across the continent and throughout the Diaspora learned to speak Swahili, then we would all have one common language to communicate with each other.

Traditional Kwanzaa decorations

When I pull out the containers storing our ornaments, lights, and stockings, I also deck my halls with a kinara, mkeka, and mishumaa saba. As I lay out the Kwanzaa decorations, I know each gesture is being performed by other Black people around the country and across the globe. First, I lay out the mkeka, or mat. My son made the mkeka we use when he was just a toddler. Back then, I was co-president of my local chapter of Mocha Moms, a support and service organization for Black mothers. In our local chapter, we would regularly attend Kwanzaa celebrations at places like the Brooklyn Children’s Museum and the Cumbe Center for African and Diaspora Dance. We would also set up fun and crafty activities related to Kwanzaa for the kiddos to do at our annual family holiday party. The paper mkeka my son made with red and green paper strips woven through black paper is super simple. Yet, each time I place it on the table, I remember all the years I celebrated Kwanzaa with my Mochas, many of whom have become dear friends. More than that, when I hold the mkeka my son made with his Mocha buddies, I remember his tiny hands carefully working, the determined look on his little face, and the bright pride that beamed from his face when he was done.

What about the candlestick holder?

Another Kwanzaa tradition is the kinara, which I place on top of the mkeka. The kinara is made of polished wood and holds the seven candles we light through the seven days of Kwanzaa. I bought it for my family when we celebrated our son’s first holiday season. I was a young mother, excited, and I wanted to get every detail of the holiday season just right. Our kinara holds the memory of that most special year.

What are the other special Kwanzaa objects?

Kwanzaa holiday concept with decorate seven candles red, black and green, gift box, pumpkin,corn and fruit on wooden desk and background.MIND_AND_I/Getty ImagesFinally, into the kinara I place seven candles, or mishumaa saba. There are three red and three green, and one black candle that goes in the middle, like the shamash of the Hannukah menorah or the Christ candle of an advent wreath. And, of course, Diwali is the festival of lights, with candles all around. Though these traditions are all different, they share the use of candles in meaningful ways.

There are other Kwanzaa objects that should be placed on or near the mkeka. They include:

  • Mazao: fruits and vegetables
  • Muhindi: ears of corn
  • Kikombe cha umoja: the unity cup
  • Zawadi: the gifts

Do people give and receive gifts during Kwanzaa?

Yes, but the holiday is not as extravagant as Christmas. Families who celebrate Kwanzaa might also give Christmas presents, Hanukkah gifts, or toys for Three Kings Day. People usually give simple, meaningful Kwanzaa gifts to children. Over the years, my son has received books, art supplies, and simple games and toys.

What do you do at a Kwanzaa party?

When I host a few friends and family during Kwanzaa, I cook dinner, and the children play while the adults relax. At nightfall, usually, after we eat, when everyone is full and content, we light the appropriate candles. If it is the first day of Kwanzaa, then we light one candle. If it is the third day, then we light three candles. We usually let the children work together to light the candles. The glow of each flame reflects in their wide eyes. As they gaze into the light, we talk about the principle of the day. There are seven principles of Kwanzaa, which are called the Nguzo Saba. Somehow, when friends and family who celebrate Kwanzaa are gathered together, these conversations stretch for a long time. Amazingly, the children sit still and listen. Maybe this is because we often talk to them, and ask them questions, as we go around in a circle, giving each person, even little ones just learning to talk, a chance to speak. It is a special time, with no television, no hustle or rush.

Do you have to be African American to celebrate Kwanzaa?

We are blessed to have a truly diverse group of friends. Over the years, my son has leaped over candles for Persian New Year, fed money envelopes to a dancing dragon for Chinese New Year, spun dreidels and lit Hannukah candles with the shamash, carefully eaten cake in hopes of finding a baby Jesus in his slice of the Three Kings Day rosca de reyes, chanted Buddhist prayers at a cremation, and more. He has hosted friends of all kinds of religious and ethnic backgrounds for Easter, Christmas, and his own First Holy Communion. Like any other time of year, we are always pleased and happy when friends come over during Kwanzaa time, no matter what they might celebrate in their own homes.

When is Kwanzaa?

The calm that we all feel as we light candles and talk about the Nguzo Saba might also be due to the particular week when we celebrate Kwanzaa. The holiday starts the day after Christmas and lasts through New Year’s Day. With most people off of work, children off of school, and the pre-holiday hustle a memory, many generations can gather and relax together. For my family, Kwanzaa is a lovely way to extend the festivities and fun through the new year. We might meet cousins to go ice skating in our local park and then gather to eat and celebrate Kwanzaa after. There are usually plenty of leftovers to take the pressure off of cooking. Everything slows down when it’s Kwanzaa time, and so we can enjoy the simple traditions of the holiday together.

What are the principles of Kwanzaa?

The Nguzo Saba are meaningful. Thinking and talking about them with loved ones helps my family reflect on the year we’re leaving behind and build intentionality and focus for the new year ahead. The Nguzo Saba are:

  • December 26: Umoja (unity)
  • December 27: Kujichagulia (self-determination)
  • December 28: Ujima (collective work and responsibility)
  • December 29: Ujamaa (cooperative economics)
  • December 30: Nia (purpose)
  • December 31: Kuumba (creativity)
  • January 1st: Imani (faith)

Why the red, black, and green colors?

These colors have a specific and resonant value for African American people. They are the colors of the African Nationalist Flag, which is a cultural symbol of African unity. Although many countries with majority Black populations have flags with the colors red, black, green, and gold in them, the African Nationalist Flag does not belong to any one landmass or discrete group of people; rather it belongs to all people, everywhere, of African descent. The red stands for the blood of all African people, the black is a symbol of our Black identity and celebrates the inherent beauty of black skin, and the green stands for the land of Africa. The colors and the flag itself were popularized by Marcus Garvey in the 1920s and were a direct response to White racism and the minstrelsy that denigrated Black people.

Does Kwanzaa 2020 have a particularly special meaning?

The global protests that followed the murder of George Floyd remind us all why Black people need to be intentional and deliberate in our affirmation of Black life. I think many people’s consciousness was animated because so many of the frontline workers who died because of COVID-19 through the spring lockdown were BIPOC. This year has been relentless. So, yes. Kwanzaa will have a special meaning. I will likely Zoom with my friends, light a candle, and say a prayer of blessing and grace to cover all my beautiful Black people, we gorgeous daughters and sons of Africa. Each flame on the Kwanzaa candles will be special, a spark of magic to honor those we’ve lost—and also to remember that the light of resistance burns steady, bright, and forever.

Sources:

  • Beliefnet: “In His Own Words: An Interview with Maulana Karenga”
  • NPR: “On Flag Day, Remembering The Red, Black, And Green”
Bastiaan Slabbers/Getty Images

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Eisa Nefertari Ulen
Eisa Nefertari Ulen is the author of Crystelle Mourning (Atria), a novel described by The Washington Post as “a call for healing in the African-American community from generations of hurt and neglect.” She is the recipient of a Frederick Douglass Creative Arts Center Fellowship for Young African-American Fiction Writers, a Provincetown Fine Arts Work Center Fellowship, and a National Association of Black Journalists Award. Her essays on African-American culture have been widely anthologized, most recently in Who Do You Serve? Who Do You Protect? (Haymarket), which won a Social Justice/Advocacy Award in 2017. She has taught literature at Hunter College and The Pratt Institute and is a founding member of ringShout: A Place for Black Literature. She has written for The Washington Post, Essence, Ebony, Ms., Health, Parents, Los Angeles Review of Books,TheHollywoodReporter.com, The Huffington Post, Pen.org, The Root, Truthout, The Defenders Online, The Grio, and CreativeNonfiction.org. She lives in Brooklyn with her husband and son.