Kwanzaa’s cultural significance

Kwanzaa is an African American cultural celebration that, unlike many of the holidays over the next month, was created by Ron Karenga, an American university professor, political activist and author.

“The timing of it is particularly important historically,” said Carol B. Duncan, associate professor and chair of the religion and culture department.

“This was the height of the civil rights movement, it was also the height of the black power movement in the United States.”

The first Kwanzaa was held from Dec. 26 of 1966 to Jan. 1 of 1967 and continues to be held annually.

The seven-day celebration derives its name from a Swahili phrase that means “first fruits of the harvest.”

Karenga created the celebration as an opportunity to celebrate the communitarian nature of all African societies.

However, Duncan explained that Kwanzaa’s focus on the all-encompassing communal celebration means that those who are not of African descent are often invited to partake in the celebrations.

Kwanzaa celebrations include the decorating of houses with African cloth and artwork and wearing traditional clothing.

Ceremonies may include drumming and music, a candle-lighting ritual and a feast, called Karamu. Many have been known to celebrate both Christmas and Kwanzaa, as individuals and even some churches will commemorate both occasions.

What makes Kwanzaa unique is that it is not a religious holiday, but more of a celebration of culture and community.

It is also, as Duncan described it, one that was “created by someone with specific aims and purposes,” all having to do with the political situation at the time in the U.S.

“What distinguishes Kwanzaa from these other festivals or celebrations at the ending time of the calendar year and in the winter months is how recent it is,” said Duncan, along with the fact that it was an “intentional creation within that context of black liberationist movements of the 1960s and the fact that it was developed actually as an alternative to a religious celebration, an intentional focus on communitarian values that Karenga saw in a pan-Africanist kind of framework.”

7 Principles of blackness

During Kwanzaa, the seven principles of blackness or the Nguzo Saba, developed by Karenga, “were sought to be reinforced and celebrated and also as a point of education as well,” said Duncan. All of the terms are in the East African language of Swahili.

Umoja (unity)
Kujichagulia (self-determination)
Ujima (collective work and responsibility)
Ujamaa (cooperative economics)
Nia (purpose)
Kuumba (creativity)
Imani (faith)