Kwanzaa - A Unique Celebration of a Unique Community
In 1992, the world watched in shock when members of the Los Angeles Police Force were acquitted after violently attacking a black man on camera. The subsequent riots rocked the city and the United States as a whole, resulting in 63 deaths, thousands of injuries, and property damage estimated in excess of over a billion dollars. Sadly, this was not the first time Los Angeles saw such violence and tragedy. In 1965, the Watts riots erupted when simmering issues of police brutality, racial segregation and discrimination burst forth after a traffic stop turned ugly. To at least one person, the riots were a stark reminder of the condition of the African American community in the United States.
It is hard to find a single historical parallel to the many millions of Africans who were shipped to the Americas as part of the Atlantic slave trade. Much has been written about how uniquely cruel an institution it was, but less so about the cultural repercussions of it. Africa, even just the West coast where most slaves were captured, was among the most ethnically, culturally and linguistically diverse places on the planet. And while the white slavers saw most black people as being fundamentally the same, very little connected two slaves to each other. Except, of course, for the common plight that they found themselves in. In the centuries that followed, violently uprooted individuals from a very different part of the world learned to live with each other, face one obstacle after another, began to integrate into the culture that they were thrown into. But to Dr. Maulana Karenga, a scholar in California, the riots placed in stark perspective the fact that African Americans had no occasion to celebrate their own past and history, merely following the dominant practices in society. And thus was born the festival of Kwanzaa, a unique celebration of a unique identity.
The scope of the task before Dr. Karenga was nothing short of Gargantuan. He had to create a celebration that would acknowledge the incredibly diverse cultural origins of the African American community, and that would be relevant in their contemporary lives. Dr. Karenga researched African harvest celebrations and combined celebrations from various cultures, as geographically and culturally divergent as the Ashanti of Northwest Africa and the Zulu of Southeast Africa, to form the foundation of Kwanzaa. The name itself was adopted from the phrase "matunda ya kwanza" a reference to the harvest in Swahili.
Kwanzaa celebrations are guided by seven principles to correspond with the seven days of the festival, celebrated from the 26th of December through the 1st of January. Each day a different principle is explored, and a candle is lit on the kinara, a seven-armed candleholder, to commemorate it. On the first night, a black candle is lit in the center to observe the principle of umoja, or unity. This is the first of the seven principles of Kwanzaa, enumerated below:
- Umoja: To strive for unity of the family and community
- Kujichagulia: To uphold the right to self-determination and independence.
- Ujima: To take collective responsibility for problems faced by the community and undertake to resolve them.
- Ujamaa: To build community businesses and support them towards economic self-sufficiency.
- Nia: To strive towards a collective purpose.
- Kuumba: To inculcate creativity to ensure each member of the community leaves it more enriched than they found it.
- Imani: To have faith in the community, its righteousness and its success.
It is customary when celebrating Kwanzaa to decorate the household with African imagery, including cloths and fruits. Although celebration is, of course, an upbeat affair, Kwanzaa festivities include paying respects and showing gratitude to one's ancestors. of Kwanzaa, families enjoy an African feast, called karamu. Celebrations often include singing and dancing, storytelling, poetry reading, African drumming, and feasting. Today, nearly six million Americans celebrate the festival of Kwanzaa. Although there have been concerns that it may erode the core ideological principles behind its creation, to many Americans celebrations of Kwanzaa often take place alongside more established holidays such as Christmas and New Year's celebrations. The festival has also seen increasing commercial recognition since the start of the 21st century even as America's black population continues to make good on its pledge to uplift its own communities. Although this year has been one of the most difficult in recent times to all peoples of the world, on the final day of Kwanzaa, millions will still gather together to profess faith in themselves and their community, and to celebrate a joyous Kwanzaa.