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Dr. After the Watts riots in Los Angeles, Dr. Karenga searched for ways to bring African Americans together as a community. He founded US, a cultural organization, and started to research African “first fruit” (harvest) celebrations. Karenga combined aspects of several different harvest celebrations, such as those of the Ashanti and those of the Zulu, to form the basis of Kwanzaa.

Kwanzaa History

The name Kwanzaa is derived from the phrase “matunda ya kwanza” which means “first fruits” in Swahili. Each family celebrates Kwanzaa in its own way, but celebrations often include songs and dances, African drums, storytelling, poetry reading, and a large traditional meal. On each of the seven nights, the family gathers and a child lights one of the candles on the Kinara (candleholder), then one of the seven principles is discussed. The principles, called the Nguzo Saba (seven principles in Swahili) are values of African culture which contribute to building and reinforcing community among African-Americans. Kwanzaa also has seven basic symbols which represent values and concepts reflective of African culture. An African feast, called a Karamu, is held on December 31.

The candle-lighting ceremony each evening provides the opportunity to gather and discuss the meaning of Kwanzaa. The first night, the black candle in the center is lit (and the principle of umoja/unity is discussed). One candle is lit each evening and the appropriate principle is discussed.

Seven Principles

The seven principles, or Nguzo Saba are a set of ideals created by Dr. Maulana Karenga. Each day of Kwanzaa emphasizes a different principle.

Unity:Umoja (oo–MO–jah)
To strive for and maintain unity in the family, community, nation, and race.

Self-determination: Kujichagulia (koo–gee–cha–goo–LEE–yah)
To define ourselves, name ourselves, create for ourselves, and speak for ourselves.

Collective Work and Responsibility: 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: Ujamaa (oo–JAH–mah)
To build and maintain our own stores, shops, and other businesses and to profit from them together.

Purpose: 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: 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: 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.

Seven Symbols

The seven principles, or Nguzo Saba are a set of ideals created by Dr. Each day of Kwanzaa emphasizes a different principle.

Mazao, the crops (fruits, nuts, and vegetables)
Symbolizes work and the basis of the holiday. It 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. Since the family is the basic social and economic center of every civilization, the celebration bonded family members, reaffirming their commitment and responsibility to each other. In Africa the family may have included several generations of two or more nuclear families, as well as distant relatives. Ancient Africans didn’t care how large the family was, but there was only one leader – the oldest male of the strongest group. For this reason, an entire village may have been composed of one family. The family was a limb of a tribe that shared common customs, cultural traditions, and political unity and were supposedly descended from common ancestors. The tribe lived by traditions that provided continuity and identity. Tribal laws often determined the value system, laws, and customs encompassing birth, adolescence, marriage, parenthood, maturity, and death. Through personal sacrifice and hard work, the farmers sowed seeds that brought forth new plant life to feed the people and other animals of the earth. To demonstrate their mazao, celebrants of Kwanzaa place nuts, fruit, and vegetables, representing work, on the mkeka.

Mkeka: Place Mat
The mkeka, made from straw or cloth, comes directly from Africa and expresses history, culture, and tradition. It symbolizes the historical and traditional foundation for us to stand on and build our lives because today stands on our yesterdays, just as the other symbols stand on the mkeka. In 1965, James Baldwin wrote: “For history is not merely something to be read. And it does not refer merely, or even principally, to the past. On the contrary, the great force of history comes from the facts that we carry it within us, are consciously controlled by it in many ways, and history is literally present in all that we do. It could scarcely be otherwise, since it is to history that we owe our frames of reference, our identities, and our aspirations.” During Kwanzaa, we study, recall, and reflect on our history and the role we are to play as a legacy to the future. Ancient societies made mats from straw, the dried seams of grains, sowed and reaped collectively. The weavers took the stalks and created household baskets and mats. Today, we buy mkeka that are made from Kente cloth, African mud cloth, and other textiles from various areas of the African continent. The mishumaa saba, the vibunzi, the mazao, the zawadi, the kikombe cha umoja, and the kinara are placed directly on the mkeka.

Vibunzi: Ear of Corn
The stalk of corn represents fertility and symbolizes that through the reproduction of children, the future hopes of the family are brought to life. One ear is called vibunzi, and two or more ears are called mihindi. Each ear symbolizes a child in the family, and thus one ear is placed on the mkeka for each child in the family. If there are no children in the home, two ears are still set on the mkeka because each person is responsible for the children of the community. During Kwanzaa, we take the love and nurturance that was heaped on us as children and selflessly return it to all children, especially the helpless, homeless, loveless ones in our community. Thus, 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. Good habits of respect for self and others, discipline, positive thinking, expectations, compassion, empathy, charity, and self-direction are learned in childhood from parents, from peers, and from experiences. Children are essential to Kwanzaa, for they are the future, the seed bearers that will carry cultural values and practices into the next generation. For this reason, children were cared for communally and individually within a tribal village. The biological family was ultimately responsible for raising its own children, but every person in the village was responsible for the safety and welfare of all the children.

Mishumaa Saba: The Seven Candles
Candles are ceremonial objects with two primary purposes: to re-create symbolically the sun’s power and to provide light. The celebration of fire through candle burning is not limited to one particular group or country; it occurs everywhere. Mishumaa saba are the seven candles: three red, three green, and one black. The back candle symbolizes Umoja (unity), the basis of success, and is lit on December 26. The three green candles, representing Nia, Ujima, and Imani, are placed to the right of the Umoja candle, while the three red candles, representing Kujichagulia, Ujamaa, and Kuumba, are placed to the left of it. During Kwanzaa, on 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 indicate the principle that is being celebrated. 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.

Mishumaa saba’s symbolic colors are from the red, black, and green flag (bendara) created by Marcus Garvey. The colors also represent African gods. Red is the color of Shango, the Yoruba god of fire, thunder, and lightning, who lives in the clouds and sends down his thunderbolt whenever he is angry or offended. It also represents the struggle for self-determination and freedom by people of color. Black is the people, the earth, the source of life, representing hope, creativity, and faith and denoting messages and the opening and closing of doors. Green represents the earth that sustains our lives and provides hope, divination, employment, and the fruits of the harvest.

Kinara: The Candleholder
The kinara is the center of the Kwanzaa setting and represents the original stalk from which we came: our ancestry. The kinara can be shape – straight lines, semicircles, or spirals – as long as the seven candles are separate and distinct, like a candelabra. Kinaras are made from all kinds of materials, and many celebrants create their own from fallen branches, wood, or other natural materials. The kinara symbolizes the ancestors, who were once earth bound; understand the problems of human life; and are willing to protect their progeny from danger, evil, and mistakes. In African festivals the ancestors are remembered and honored. The mishumaa saba are placed in the kinara.

Kikombe Cha Umoja: The Unity Cup
The kikombe cha umoja is a special cup that is used to perform the libation (tambiko) ritual during the Karamu feast on the sixth day of Kwanzaa. In many African societies libation are poured for the living dead whose souls stay with the earth they tilled. The Ibo of Nigeria believe that to drink the last portion of a libation is to invite the wrath of the spirits and the ancestors; consequently, the last part of the libation belongs to the ancestors. During the Karamu feast, the kikombe cha umoja is passed to family member and guests, who drink from it to promote unity. Then, the eldest person present pours the libation (tambiko), usually water, juice, or wine, in the direction of the four winds – north, south, east, and west – to honor the ancestors. The eldest asks the gods and ancestors to share in the festivities and, in return, to bless all the people who are not at the gathering. After asking for this blessing, the elder pours the libation on the ground and the group says “Amen.” Large Kwanzaa gatherings may operate just as communion services in most churches, for which it is common for celebrants to have individual cups and to drink the libation together as a sign of unity. Several families may have a cup that is specifically for the ancestors, and everyone else has his or her own. The last few ounces of the libation are poured into the cup of the host or hostess, who sips it and then hands it to the oldest person in the group, who asks for the blessing.

Zawadi: Gifts
When we celebrate Imani on the seventh day of Kwanzaa, we give meaningful zawadi (gifts) to encourage growth, self-determination, achievement, and success. We exchange the gifts with members of our immediate family, especially the children, to promote or reward accomplishments and commitments kept, as well as with our guests. Handmade gifts are encouraged to promote self-determination, purpose, and creativity and to avoid the chaos of shopping and conspicuous consumption during the December holiday season. A family may spend the year making kinaras or may create cards, dolls, or mkekas to give to their guests. Accepting a gift implies a moral obligation to fulfill the promise of the gift; it obliges the recipient to follow the training of the host. The gift cements social relationships, allowing the receiver to share the duties and the rights of a family member. Accepting a gift makes the receiver part of the family and promotes Umoja.

Excerpted from the book: The Complete Kwanzaa Celebrating Our Cultural Harvest. Copyright 1995 by Dorothy Winbush Riley. Reprinted with permission from HarperPerennial, a division of HarperCollins Publishers, Inc. All rights reserved.

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Kwanzaa, annual holiday affirming African family and social values that is celebrated primarily in the United States from December 26 to January 1. Both the name and the celebration were devised in 1966 by Maulana Karenga, a professor of Africana studies at California State University in Long Beach and an important figure in Afrocentrism. Karenga borrowed the word kwanza, meaning “first,” from the Swahili phrase matunda ya kwanza, adding the seventh letter, an extra a, to make the word long enough to accommodate one letter for each of the seven children present at an early celebration. (The name Kwanzaa is not itself a Swahili word.) The concept of Kwanzaa draws on Southern African first-fruits celebrations.

What is Kwanzaa?

Kwanzaa is an annual holiday celebrated primarily in the United States from December 26 to January 1. It emphasizes the importance of the pan-African family and corresponding social values. Kwanzaa peaked in popularity during the Afrocentrist movement of the 1980s and 1990s.

Who typically observes Kwanzaa?

Kwanzaa was created for and is celebrated by Black Americans. Although it waned in popularity following its peak during the 1980s and 1990s, the holiday is still annually celebrated by millions of Americans. It is also celebrated by Black people in Canada and the Caribbean.

How is Kwanzaa celebrated?

Each day of Kwanzaa is tied to one of the holiday’s seven principles: unity (umoja), self-determination (kujichagulia), collective responsibility (ujima), cooperative economics (ujamaa), purpose (nia), creativity (kuumba), and faith (imani). Each day, families bring out corresponding symbols and light a new candle on the kinara (candleholder). On the final day a feast is held, called the karamu.

How was Kwanzaa popularized?

Kwanzaa was created in 1966 by Maulana Karenga, a professor of Africana studies. Kwanzaa grew in popularity with the rise of the Afrocentrist movement, which focused on Black self-sufficiency in rejection of white imperialist narratives and histories. While observed by many Black Americans in the 1980s and 1990s, the holiday’s popularity has suffered in recent generations.

Is Kwanzaa a religious holiday?

Kwanzaa is a strictly secular holiday. Although its seven-pronged kinara bears a resemblance to the eight-pronged Jewish menorah, it has no connection to Judaism. And although Kwanzaa is celebrated immediately after Christmas, it is neither related to nor intended to supplant the Christian holiday.

Although Kwanzaa is primarily an African American holiday, it has also come to be celebrated outside the United States, particularly in Caribbean and other countries where there are large numbers of descendants of Africans. It was conceived as a nonpolitical and nonreligious holiday, and it is not considered to be a substitute for Christmas.

Each of the days of the celebration is dedicated to one of the seven principles of Kwanzaa: unity (umoja), self-determination (kujichagulia), collective responsibility (ujima), cooperative economics (ujamaa), purpose (nia), creativity (kuumba), and faith (imani). There also are seven symbols of the holiday: fruits, vegetables, and nuts a straw mat a candleholder ears of corn (maize) gifts a communal cup signifying unity and seven candles in the African colours of red, green, and black, symbolizing the seven principles. On each day the family comes together to light one of the candles in the kinara, or candleholder, and to discuss the principle for the day. On December 31, families join in a community feast called the karamu. Some participants wear traditional African clothing during the celebration.

The Editors of Encyclopaedia Britannica This article was most recently revised and updated by Adam Augustyn, Managing Editor, Reference Content.


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Other African-American Holidays

The year 2016 will see the 50th annualKwanzaa, the African American holiday celebrated from December 26 to January 1. It is estimated that some 18 million African Americans take part in Kwanzaa.

Kwanzaa is not a religious holiday, nor is it meant to replace Christmas. It was created by Dr.Maulana Karengain Los Angeles in 1966. He is now a professor of Africana Studies at California State University. At this time of great social change for African Americans, Karenga sought to design a celebration that would honor African heritage and the values of African cultures, and inspire African Americans who were working for progress.

Kwanzaa is based on the year-end harvest festivals that have taken place in many differentAfrican cultures for thousands of years. The name comes from theSwahiliphrase "matunda ya kwanza," which means "first fruits of the harvest." Karenga chose a phrase from Swahili because the language is used by various peoples throughout Africa.

The Seven Principles of Kwanzaa (Nguzo Saba)

Each of the seven days of Kwanzaa honors a different principle. These principles are believed to have been key to building strong, productive families and communities in Africa. During Kwanzaa, celebrants greet each other with "Habari gani," or "What's the news?" The principles of Kwanzaa form the answers.

The Principles of Kwanzaa

Meaning: unity
Action: building a community that holds together

Meaning: self-determination
Action: speaking for yourself and making choices that benefit the community

Meaning: collective work and responsibility
Action: helping others within the community

Meaning: cooperative economics
Action: supporting businesses that care about the community

Meaning: a sense of purpose
Action: setting goals that benefit the community

Meaning: creativity
Action: making the community better and more beautiful

Meaning: faith
Action: believing that a better world can be created for communities now and in the future

Colorful Celebrations

Families gather for the great feast of karamu on December 31. Karamu may be held at a home, community center, or church. Celebrants enjoy traditional African dishes as well as those featuring ingredients Africans brought to the United States, such as sesame seeds (benne), peanuts (groundnuts), sweet potatoes, collard greens, and spicy sauces.

Especially at karamu, Kwanzaa is celebrated with red, black, and green. These three colors were important symbols in ancient Africa that gained new recognition through the efforts of Marcus Garvey's Black Nationalist movement. Green is for the fertile land of Africa black is for the color of the people and red is the for the blood that is shed in the struggle for freedom.

The Seven Symbols

Celebrants decorate with red, black, and green as well as African-style textiles and art. At the heart of Kwanzaa imagery, however, are the seven symbols.

The Seven Symbols of Kwanzaa

kikombe cha umoja
Meaning: the unity cup
Action: Celebrants drink from this cup in honor of their African ancestors. Before drinking, each person says "harambee," or "let's pull together."

Meaning: the candleholder, which holds seven candles
Action: It said to symbolize stalks of corn that branch off to form new stalks, much as the human family is created.

Meaning: fruits, nuts, and vegetables
Action: These remind celebrants of the harvest fruits that nourished the people of Africa.

mishumaa saba
Meaning: the seven candles that represent the seven principles
Action: A different candle is lit each day. Three green candles on the left three red candles on the right and in the middle is a black candle.

Meaning: mat
Action: The symbols of Kwanzaa are arranged on the mkeka, which may be made of straw or African cloth. It symbolizes the foundation upon which communities are built.

vibunzi(plural, muhindi)
Meaning: ear of corn
Action: Traditionally, one ear of corn is placed on the mkeka for each child present.

Meaning: gifts
Action: Traditionally, educational and cultural gifts are given to children on January 1, the last day of Kwanzaa.

Where did the name come from?

According to the book, Kwanzaa: Black Power and the Making of the African-American Holiday Tradition by Keith A. Mayes, Karenga was inspired by the cultural traditions of African harvest celebrations. He chose the word "kwanza" from the Swahili phrase "matunda ya kwanza." Matunda means "fruits" and ya kwanza means "first." He also capitalized the "K" in Kwanzaa, then added another "a," which made it into "Kwanzaa."

The additional "a" at the end of the word was added because there were seven children involved in US Organization, and each one of them wanted to represent a letter in the name, according to the official Kwanzaa website.

Op-Ed: The dark side of Kwanzaa’s founder can’t extinguish the holiday’s beacon

I discovered Kwanzaa while attending Pomona College. Separated for the first time from my family and the black Pentecostal church I had attended at least three times a week, I craved black culture. There were fewer than 10 African American students in my cohort and I felt culturally isolated. Soul food lunches offered through the Office of Black Student Affairs were a weekly source of comfort.

Then I was introduced to the year-end celebration that had been created for black people by a black man. Maulana Karenga unveiled Kwanzaa in 1966 to fill the gaps where the U.S. had failed African Americans. Set against the backdrop of the civil rights movement, the seven-day celebration urged the African American community to define and uplift itself.

Karenga designed seven principles, or Nguzo Saba: unity, self-determination, collective work and responsibility, cooperative economics, purpose, creativity and faith. Each principle correlated to a specific day and symbol, to be celebrated Dec. 26 to Jan. 1.

Kwanzaa beckons us to the heights of our humanity, petitioning us to imagine ourselves and our communities in ways white American culture cannot and will not.

As the candles were lit each evening, we students were reminded to care for the collective. Celebrating Kwanzaa with my classmates assured me that I belonged.

Kwanzaa was attractive partly because it was FUBU — For Us, By Us, a cultural celebration that was distinctly ours, untainted by white supremacy. It was an annual reminder that #BlackLivesMatter before the hashtag emerged. It felt pristine, until it suddenly was sullied for me.

Two years ago, more than a decade after college, I was commissioned to write about the history of Kwanzaa. That’s when I learned that Karenga had been convicted of heinous felonies. Though he denied the allegations, in 1970 he and three other members of the US Organization, a black nationalist group based in Los Angeles, imprisoned and assaulted two female members. Trial testimony revealed that the women had been whipped with cords, beaten with batons, and seared with irons — while naked — in an effort to elicit confessions that they were conspiring against him. Those confessions never materialized. Karenga served a few years in prison and later went on to get his doctorate and teach.

My stomach lurched as I read about the trial and his conviction. Karenga was found guilty of violence against black women. How could Kwanzaa’s inventor be that person? What did it mean about the celebration I had embraced? Why did no one talk about his history? And I couldn’t help but wonder if Karenga’s history was elided because Kwanzaa’s viability was deemed more important than black women’s safety.

The discovery felt like a personal loss and a loss for black culture. And it left me with a dilemma — to embrace Kwanzaa or not. In ways, it’s similar to the dilemma faced by those who admire the work of artists who have been accused of sexual assault or harassment in the #MeToo era: Should we continue to admire the work of a person who has done unconscionable things?

Last year, I didn’t celebrate Kwanzaa.

But this year, I will again light the candles every night starting Dec. 26. Kwanzaa’s originator may have a dark side, but the holiday itself is a beacon. My yearning for it is a sign that it fulfills its goals it reminds African Americans of their crucial connections to each other.

Recent events call for that reminder. In the two years since I discovered Karenga’s history, the United States has been subjected to Charlottesville the unjust killing of Botham Shem Jean, the black man in Dallas shot to death simply because he had opened his apartment door to an off-duty police officer, and so many other crimes against African Americans. There is unending evidence that black lives don’t matter enough to the larger society. That makes Kwanzaa’s message of connection and support within the black community more urgent.

I decided that hating Karenga’s crimes didn’t mean abandoning the good he accomplished. The US Organization’s 1960s petition for Black Studies courses in U.S. colleges and universities is one reason those classes existed for me to take in college. His emphasis on Ujamaa, cooperative economics (the fourth principle of Kwanzaa), is why I “buy black” whenever possible.

Kwanzaa calls on African Americans to see one another and uplift one another, something we particularly need right now. It beckons us to the heights of our humanity, petitioning us to imagine ourselves and our communities in ways white American culture cannot and will not. We need to acknowledge Karenga’s full story, but it shouldn’t tarnish the value and beauty of the holiday that promotes collective action for the collective good.

Chanté Griffin is a Los Angeles-based writer. Twitter: @yougochante

Follow the Opinion section on Twitter @latimesopinion and Facebook.

Do You Know the Real History of Kwanzaa? Here's What It's All About

If you were watching TheBlaze TV last week, you likely saw Glenn Beck's satirical "Kwanzaa Edition" of "Jeopardy." The general premise of the game show was to drive home the point that most people know little to nothing about the African holiday. While Christmas and Hanukkah are more mainstream, the celebration, which is only decades-old, is widely unknown by most Americans.

Unlike the Christian and Jewish observances, Kwanzaa is not religious in nature, although many incorrectly assume that it is. An official web site for the celebration describes it as "an African American and Pan-African holiday celebrated by millions throughout the world African community."

Photo Credit: AP

Thus, Kwanzaa (which is a word that comes from the Swahili phrase "matunda ya Kwanza," which means "first fruits") is a holiday that is predicated upon ethnicity, pointing to a vastly different lens through which the newly-minted tradition can be viewed.

Whereas Christmas focuses upon Jesus, the central figure of the Christian religion, Hanukkah commemorates the re-dedication of the Second Temple in Jerusalem during the second century B.C. But Kwanzaa, in contrast, celebrates a people. As a holiday that is ethnically and not religiously based, it's possible for Christians and people of other faith traditions to still partake in the celebration of culture.

Photo Credit: Getty Images

Each year, from December 26 through January 1, a small portion of African Americans, descendants of Africa who reside outside of the continent and Africans observe the holiday. The general focus, as Patheos notes, is on "community, family, and culture." Considering its root in the "first fruits" phase, Kwanzaa is set around the harvest festivals that were common in ancient Africa.

As Patheos notes, the festivities focus upon "Seven Principles. These include: "unity, self-determination, collective work and responsibility, cooperative economics, purpose, creativity, and faith" -- all elements intended to unite individuals in the African heritage. The outlet also explains some of the traditions that are undertaken to commemorate Kwanzaa:

As part of the celebration, family members decorate a table with special symbols. They usually begin with an African tablecloth, which they cover with a woven mat and a candleholder with seven candles. These candles represent the Seven Principles and are black, red, and green. The one black candle symbolizes the African people, the three red candles their struggle, and the three green candles their hopes for the future. On each day of Kwanzaa, one candle is lit.

Besides these objects, observers also decorate the table with ears of corn, a cup (for pouring a libation in honor of ancestors), books on African life, as well as African objects of art. Many families have striven to keep Kwanzaa simple and focused on internal values, apart from the commercialism and hectic activities often accompanying Christmas.

Like the ancient celebrations it is modeled after, the modern-day holiday, lasts for seven days (observing one principle each day). While reflective of past traditions, Kwanzaa is a modern-day phenomenon. Founded by Dr. Maulana Karenga, a professor and the head of the Department of Africana Studies at California State University Long Beach, it originated in 1966, during the Civil Rights movement in America.

Watch Karenga explain Kwanzaa and its central tenets in detail:

Despite the holiday's relative newness, Karenga has noted that it is rooted in traditions that pre-cede Christmas and Hanukkah. Citing the fact that the aforementioned ancient festivals were and are often celebrated at the end of December and in January, the professor defends his choice to set Kwanzaa in its current time frame.

"Kwanzaa's model is older than Christmas and Hanukkah and thus does not borrow from them or seek to imitate them in the or manner," he told Beliefnet in a past interview surrounding this subject. "And it makes little sense to attribute Kwanzaa's date of celebration to misconceptions about its replacing Christmas or Hanukkah when it is simply following a pre-established season for African first-fruit celebrations which precede both Hanukkah and Christmas."

In the same interview, Karenga stressed unity and described Kwanzaa's founding in a 1960s context, while also connecting its meaning to the importance of ancient and African culture:

"Of all the good which came out of the Black Freedom Movement, both its Civil Rights and Black Power phases, Kwanzaa stands as a unique heritage and cultural institution. It is this institution as a definitive and enduring carrier of culture which has kept the 60's struggles and achievements as a living tradition.

But it also brings forth the whole of African history and culture as a valuable, ancient and enduring model of human excellence and achievement and uses this culture as a rich resource for addressing modern moral and social issues. It is in celebrating Kwanzaa and practicing its Nguzo Saba, the Seven Principles, that our families and community are reaffirmed and reinforced and our lives enriched and expanded."

While Karenga claims that 28 million people celebrate Kwanzaa across the globe, there are no definitive estimates, especially considering that those who partake are spread throughout the world. In 2010, researcher and professor Keith Mayes, author of the book "Kwanzaa: Black Power and the Making of the African-American Holiday Tradition," said that the holiday has leveled off in its support, as the black power movement has simmered.

"It just no longer shows up in some of the places that it did 30 to 40 years ago. You still have people who actually celebrate it," Mayes said in an interview with "You have third generations of Kwanzaa celebrants. but Kwanzaa no longer has its movement which brought it forth, which is the black power movement. That movement has waned."

Watch Mayes describe the holiday, below:

Mayes' added that conservative estimates claim that only one to two million Americans celebrate the holiday. If Karenga's own assessment is true -- that 28 million people observe Kwanzaa -- then that means that the vast majority of people taking part reside outside of the U.S., with only a small proportion of African Americans observing the cultural holiday.

TheBlaze reached out to Karenga's office and e-mailed questions surrounding the founder's faith and his response to critics who have a negative view of the holiday's founding. Despite being told by a secretary that answers would be sent back, we have not yet received responses.

If you're interested in learning more information about the celebration, which is related to an ethnic "struggle to achieve social justice and build a better world," you can go to the official Kwanzaa web site. In a special FAQ section, Karenga answers a plethora of questions and criticisms, clarifying the meaning behind the festivities.

As has been noted in the comments, Karenga was convicted of felony assault charges in 1971 after he was accused of torturing two women. He did serve time behind bars, but reports differ on whether he spent four or five years in prison.

Kwanzaa (1966- )

Kwanzaa is an annual African American celebration of history, pride, and culture. It is observed between December 26 and January 1 of each year. The celebration was created in 1966 by Maulana Karenga, in the wake of the 1965 Watts Rebellion and based on African harvest festival traditions and the Swahili language. Karenga was a major figure in the Black Power Movement of the 1960s, and his goal in creating celebration was to give black people an alternative to the highly commercialized Christmas holiday and provide an opportunity to instill pride, create a sense of identity, purpose, and direction for people of African ancestry. In his 1997 book Kwanzaa: A Celebration of Family, Community, and Culture, he clarified earlier misconceptions stating that “Kwanzaa was not created to give people an alternative to their own religion or religious holidays, but in addition to them.” The clarification was felt necessary so as to not offend or alienate practicing Christians or people of other religious faiths.

Kwanzaa derives from the Swahili phrase “Matunda ya kwanza,” which means “first fruits.” He also borrowed from the first fruit festivals held in Southern Africa in December and January, in conjunction with the southern solstice. The celebration based on seven principles called Nguzo Saba, with one celebrated each of the seven days:

  1. Umoja (Unity) – To strive for and to maintain unity in the family community, nation, and race.
  2. Kujichagulia (Self Determination) – To define and name ourselves as well as to create and speak for ourselves.
  3. Ujima (Collective Work and Responsibility) – To build and maintain our community together, and make our brothers and sisters problems our own and to solve them together.
  4. Ujamaa (Cooperative Economics) – To build and maintain our own stores, shops, and other businesses and to profit from them together.
  5. Nia (Purpose) – To make our collective vocation the building and developing of our community in order to preserve our culture and restore our people to their traditional greatness.
  6. Kuumba (Creativity) – To always do as much as we can, in the way we can, in order to leave our community more beautiful and beneficial than we inherited it.
  7. Imani (Faith) – To believe with all our hearts in our people, our parents, our teachers, our leaders, and the righteousness and victory of our struggle.

Families who celebrate Kwanzaa normally decorate their homes with objects of African art, and colorful kente cloth and display fresh fruits. During Kwanzaa celebrations, libations may be shared through a community cup and also poured in remembrance of ancestors. Often a drum circle is formed, there is a reading of the African pledge and the Principles of Blackness, a candle lighting ritual and finally, a feast of faith. The greeting for each day is Habari Gani, the Swahili for “How are you?”. A communal feast called Karamu is usually held on the 6th day of Kwanzaa.

The Founder's Welcome

As an African American and Pan-African holiday celebrated by millions throughout the world African community, Kwanzaa brings a cultural message which speaks to the best of what it means to be African and human in the fullest sense. Given the profound significance Kwanzaa has for African Americans and indeed, the world African community, it is imperative that an authoritative source and site be made available to give an accurate and expansive account of its origins, concepts, values, symbols and practice.

The Founder's Welcome

As an African American and Pan-African holiday celebrated by millions throughout the world African community, Kwanzaa brings a cultural message which speaks to the best of what it means to be African and human in the fullest sense. Given the profound significance Kwanzaa has for African Americans and indeed, the world African community, it is imperative that an authoritative source and site be made available to give an accurate and expansive account of its origins, concepts, values, symbols and practice.

Moreover, given the continued rapid growth of Kwanzaa and the parallel expanded discussion of it and related issues, an authoritative source which aids in both framing and informing the discussion is likewise of the greatest importance. Therefore, the central interest of this website is to provide information which reveals and reaffirms the integrity, beauty and expansive meaning of the holiday and thus aids in our approaching it with the depth of thought, dignity, and sense of specialness it deserves.

The holiday, then will of necessity, be engaged as an ancient and living cultural tradition which reflects the best of African thought and practice in its reaffirmation of the dignity of the human person in community and culture, the well-being of family and community, the integrity of the environment and our kinship with it, and the rich resource and meaning of a people's culture. It is within this understanding, then, that the Organization Us, the founding organization of Kwanzaa and the authoritative keeper of the tradition, has established and maintains this website.

During the holiday, families and communities organize activities around the Nguzo Saba (The Seven Principles): Umoja (Unity), Kujichagulia (Self-Determination), Ujima (Collective Work and Responsibility), Ujamaa (Cooperative Economics), Nia (Purpose), Kuumba (Creativity) and lmani (Faith). Participants also celebrate with feasts (karamu), music, dance, poetry, narratives and end the holiday with a day dedicated to reflection and recommitment to The Seven Principles and other central cultural values.

Kwanzaa: History and Traditions

For the last post in our series about holiday histories and traditions—take a peek at our previous posts on Hanukkah and Christmas —we bring you Kwanzaa. Fairly new to the lineup of December holidays, it wasn’t until 1966 that Dr. Maulana Karenga, an African Studies professor, activist, and author established Kwanzaa. Dr. Karenga created Kwanzaa to bring African-Americans back together as a community, and “give [them] an opportunity to celebrate themselves and history.” (more)

Every year, Kwanzaa is celebrated from December 26 th to January 1 st .

So, let’s chat and chew about Kwanzaa’s history, main principles, and symbols.


The name Kwanzaa comes from the phrase matunda ya kwanza, or “first fruits” in Swahili. (more) Most Kwanzaa celebrations include songs and dances, African drums, stories and poetry, and a large traditional meal. Similar to the lighting of the Jewish menorah, during Kwanzaa, one of the seven candles is placed in the Kinara (candleholder) every day, and then that day’s principle is discussed.

The candles range is color—there is one black, three green, and three red candles. The first candle lit is the black one, which is followed by alternating green and red candles depending on the day’s principle.


Kwanzaa focuses on seven core principles, which are referred to in Swahili as the Nguzo Saba. Listed in order of observance, The History Channel explains the principles and their meanings as:

  • Unity/ Umoja – To strive for and maintain unity in the family, community, nation, and race.
  • Self-determination/ Kujichagulia – To define, name, create for, and speak for ourselves.
  • Collective work and responsibility / Ujima– 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/ Ujamma – To build and maintain our own stores, shops, and other businesses and to profit from them together.
  • Purpose/ Nia – To make our collective vocation the building and developing of our community in order to restore our people to their traditional greatness.
  • Creativity / Kuumba – 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/ Imani – To believe with all our heart in our people, our parents, our teachers, our leaders, and the righteousness and victory of our struggle.


In addition to a main principle, each day of Kwanzaa is also represented by a symbol. See below for a look at each symbol. Click here for a more in-depth explanation of each symbol’s meaning.

Although Hanukkah, Christmas and Kwanzaa are different, each holiday has the power to bring friends, family, and tradition together under one roof. As this year’s Chrismahanukwanzaka season officially wraps up, on behalf of everyone at Compass Rose Benefits Group, we wish you a very Happy and Healthy New Year!

History of Kwanzaa

Kwanzaa, is an African-American celebration of cultural reaffirmation, is one of the fastest-growing holidays in the history of the world. It took root 30 years ago, when graduate student Maulana Karenga, disturbed by the 1965 riots in Los Angeles' Watts area, decided that African-Americans needed an annual event to celebrate their differences rather than the melting pot.
Not a religious holiday, Kwanzaa is, rather, a seven-day celebration that begins on Dec. 26 and continues through Jan. 1.

Kwanzaa is a spiritual, festive and joyous celebration of the oneness and goodness of life, which claims no ties with any religion. It has definite principles, practices and symbols which are geared to the social and spiritual needs of African-Americans. The reinforcing gestures are designed to strengthen our collective self-concept as a people, honor our past, critically evaluate our present and commit ourselves to a fuller, more productive future.

Kwanzaa, which means "first fruits of the harvest" in the African language Kiswahili, has gained tremendous acceptance. Since its founding in 1966 by Dr. Maulana Karenga, Kwanzaa has come to be observed by more than15 million people worldwide, as reported by the New York Times. Celebrated from December 26th to January 1st, it is based on Nguzo Saba (seven guiding principles), one for each day of the observance:

Umoja (OO-MO-JAH) Unity stresses the importance of togetherness for the family and the community, which is reflected in the African saying, "I am We," or "I am because We are."

Kujichagulia (KOO-GEE-CHA-GOO-LEE-YAH) Self-Determination requires that we define our common interests and make decisions that are in the best interest of our family and community.

Ujima (OO-GEE-MAH) Collective Work and Responsibility reminds us of our obligation to the past, present and future, and that we have a role to play in the community, society, and world.

Ujamaa (OO-JAH-MAH) Cooperative economics emphasizes our collective economic strength and encourages us to meet common needs through mutual support.

Nia (NEE-YAH) Purpose encourages us to look within ourselves and to set personal goals that are beneficial to the community.

Kuumba (KOO-OOM-BAH) Creativity makes use of our creative energies to build and maintain a strong and vibrant community.

Imani (EE-MAH-NEE) Faith focuses on honoring the best of our traditions, draws upon the best in ourselves, and helps us strive for a higher level of life for humankind, by affirming our self-worth and confidence in our ability to succeed and triumph in righteous struggle.

Publius Forum

Each year, with the onset of Christmas, we are treated to another gauzy, fluff piece about how great Kwanzaa is by yet another PC spewing columnist. This year, among many others, we find aggrandizement such as that in The Record from New Jersey with, “Kwanzaa sheds light on pride, heritage Celebration of African-American culture spreads,” and the Huffintgon Post with its titled, “Kwanzaa Detroit 2011: Events Celebrate Holiday’s 7 Values .” We even find such helpful sites as’s, “Kwanzaa Resources for Teachers.” Yes, the world is filled with celebratory lionization of Kwanzaa.

Several years ago, the Houston Chronicle got in the act with a piece by Leslie Casimir titled “Learning about Kwanzaa from the holiday’s creator.” This one, though, was a bit off the usual track of the how-great-is-Kwanzaa theme because this particular piece celebrated the inventor of the faux holiday, Maulana Karenga, himself. So, instead of merely celebrating this manufactured holiday Casimir amazingly made a hero of the rapist, race monger and violent thug who created it! To Casimir, Kwanzaa creator “Maulana Karenga” was a hero.

Casimir waxed all a’glow about how wonderful Karenga was and her column found a gullible parent who, with kid in tow, went to see the man at a local community center.

Thomasine Johnson needed to get the record straight about Kwanzaa, a cultural holiday steeped in African traditions that celebrates family, ethnic pride and community.

With her 11-year-old grandson in tow, the Missouri City interior designer on Saturday brought her video camera to S.H.A.P.E. community center to hear from Father Kwanzaa ” Maulana Karenga ” in the flesh.”

But just like the manufactured holiday he invented out of whole cloth, this “Maulana Karenga” is also a false front created out of fluff and nonsense. As it happens this supposedly great man’s real name is not really “Maulana Karenga,” but is instead Ronald McKinley Everett, AKA Maulana Ron Karenga. We’ll soon see that subterfuge, reinvention and smoke-and-mirrors are “Karenga’s” stock in trade.

Casimir gave us her version of the history of this “holiday.” It has only a short history, at that.

Created in 1966 by Karenga, a professor of black studies at California State University at Long Beach, Kwanzaa was born out of the black freedom movement of the 1960s, when the Watts riots rocked Los Angeles. It starts the day after Christmas and ends on the first day of the new year.

I love how Casimir employed the euphemism “black freedom movement” for the group that Ronald McKinley Everett “Karenga” belonged to when he created Kwanzaa. In the 60s, “Karenga” was in an organization called US (as in “us” — blacks — against “them” — whites), a black power militant group that he founded, one that frequently clashed in violence with police and even other black power groups. Members of his group even killed two Black Panthers in 1969.

Sounds like they really cared about “freedom,” eh? And what a role model for the kiddies. Yes, kindly professor Maulana Karenga. What a great guy.

Casimir seemed not to understand why people would doubt this man, though.

Still, many people don’t know much about Kwanzaa or the elusive Karenga, who shuns giving interviews to the mainstream press.

Well, it’s not surprising that he doesn’t want to give too many interviews what with his disgusting record as a violent felon and sexual criminal and all. You see, Karenga has a long criminal record. A look at his real history finds that in 1971 Everett served time in jail for assault. By then Everett had changed his name to Maulana Ron Karenga and began to affect a pseudo African costume and act the part of a native African — even though he had been born in the USA.

It wasn’t mere assault Karenga was convicted of, either. It was the sexual assault and torture that he perpetrated against some of his own female followers. The L.A. Times then reported that he placed a hot soldering iron in one woman’s mouth and used a vise to crush another’s toe, of all things.

As writer Lynn Woolley wrote of Professor “Karenga”:

And so this is Kwanzaa. The militant past of the creator is now ignored in favor of the so-called seven principles of Nguza Saba ” principles such as unity, family and self-determination that could have come from Bill Bennett’s “Book of Virtues.” The word “Kwanzaa” is Swahili, meaning something like “fresh fruits of harvest.”

No one remembers the part about “re-Africanization” or the sevenfold path of blackness that Dr. Karenga once espoused. Hardly anyone remembers the shootings, the beatings, the tortures and the prison terms that were once the center of his life. It’s just not PC to bring that sort of stuff up now that Kwanzaa is commercialized and making big bucks.

But, Casimir offers us Karenga’s prattle anyway, treating it as the advice of a sage:

“As part of the black freedom movement, we were using this to return to our history and culture,” Karenga said.

He spoke to a crowd of about 100 people ” young and old ” at the Third Ward community center, headed by Deloyd Parker, an avid promoter of Kwanzaa’s Afrocentric traditions and beliefs.

“We have to wake up that history, we have to remember ourselves in a more expansive way,” Karenga said. “To liberate ourselves as ghetto dwellers.”

In a day when the black middle class numbers in the millions and when more whites than blacks voted for a black man for president, for “Karenga” to claim that blacks are still relegated to the “ghettos” smacks of race baiting and trying to “keep hope alive” so that he can continue to cause hatred between whites and blacks.

Sadly each year the Old Media is all too happy to assist him in that “holiday” endeavor.

But maybe not everyone if fooled by the faux holiday created by a criminal? This year, for instance, Kalamazoo, Michigan decided to dispense with its public Kwanzaa celebration. In fact, few cities worry over much about this so-called holiday.

Even some African Americans are not fooled into accepting Kwanzaa. As Jenice Armstrong from Philadelphia wrote in 2010, the “truth is that Kwanzaa has never caught on with the majority of black Americans.”

Of course if it weren’t for an Old Media establishment that had given this Karenga’s criminality a wholesale whitewashing, this faux holiday could never have gained the little traction it got in the first place. Put it this way, imagine if famed Ku Klux Klan member David Duke had created a holiday. Do you think the Old Media would have happily sold his creation to a misinformed public without mentioning Duke’s personal history? Not a change, and rightfully so.