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Summary Article: KWANZAA
From Encyclopedia of Race, Ethnicity, and Society

Kwanzaa is a 7-day African American and pan-African holiday that celebrates family, community, and culture. It begins on December 26 and continues through January 1. Based on ancient African first-fruits harvest celebrations, its name is derived from the Swahili phrase matunda ya kwanza, which literally means “first fruits.” This entry recalls the history and describes current celebration.

Historical Background

The celebrations of first-fruits harvests are recorded from the earliest African history and have various names depending upon the language of the society in which they are observed. Examples of such festivals are Pert-en-Min in ancient Egypt, Umkhozi in Zululand, Incwala in Swaziland, Odwira in Ashantiland, and Odu Ijesu in Yorubaland.

Dr. Maulana Karenga, an activist scholar and now professor of Black Studies at California State University, Long Beach, created the U.S. Kwanzaa celebration in 1966 in the midst of the Black Freedom Movement. Kwanzaa was created to reaffirm African Americans’ rootedness in African culture, to bring Africans together to reinforce the bonds between them, to meditate on the expansive meaning of being African in the world, and to introduce and reaffirm the importance of communitarian African values, especially the Nguzo Saba (The Seven Principles).

Kwanzaa was first celebrated in the context of the cultural and social change organization Us (us, African people), which Karenga chairs, and then in the country as a whole. However, Kwanzaa soon developed into an international pan-African holiday, now involving over 30 million celebrants throughout the world African community.

Meaning and Celebration

The meaning and activities of Kwanzaa are rooted in and organized around the Nguzo Saba (The Seven Principles), also developed by Maulana Karenga. These principles are directed toward cultivating practices that reaffirm and strengthen family, community, and culture. They are Umoja (Unity), Kujichagulia (Self-Determination), Ujima (Collective Work and Responsibility), Ujamaa (Cooperative Economics), Nia (Purpose), Kuumba (Creativity), and Imani (Faith). In fact, one of the reasons Kwanzaa is 7 days is to dedicate a day to the discussion and modeling of each principle by those who celebrate Kwanzaa.

In addition, Kwanzaa is organized around five fundamental kinds of activities rooted in the practices of ancient African harvest celebrations: (1) the ingathering of the people to reinforce the bonds between them, especially those of family, community, and culture; (2) special reverence for the Creator and creation in gratitude for the bountifulness and goodness of the earth and with a self-conscious commitment to preserve and protect it; (3) commemoration of the past, in fulfillment of the obligation to remember and honor the ancestors and to reaffirm the fundamental mission and meaning of African history (i.e., to constantly bring good into the world); (4) recommitment to the highest African cultural, ethical, and spiritual values that bring forth the best of what it means to be African and human; and (5) celebration of the Good—the good of family, community, and culture; of work, struggle, and life; and of the wonder of the world and all in it.

Kwanzaa has seven basic symbols and two supplementary ones. Each symbol represents views and values rooted in African culture and contributive to the reaffirmation and strengthening of family, community, and culture. The seven basic symbols are the mazao (crops), symbolizing African harvest celebrations and the rewards of productive and collective labor; mkeka (mat), symbolizing tradition and history and therefore the foundation on which to build; kinara (candleholder), symbolizing ancestral roots, the parent people, Continental Africans; mishumaa saba (the seven candles), symbolizing the Nguzo Saba, the Seven Principles; muhindi (corn), symbolizing children and the future of African people they embody; kikombe cha umoja (unity cup), symbolizing the foundational principle and practice of unity, which makes all else possible; and zawadi (gifts), symbolizing the labor and love of parents and the commitments made and kept by the children. The two supplemental symbols are a representation of the Nguzo Saba and the bendera (flag), containing three colors: black, red, and green. These colors, respectively, symbolize African people, their social struggle, and the promise and future that come from the struggle.

Kwanzaa activities are numerous and varied, directed toward reaffirmation and strengthening of family, community, and culture. Moreover, daily activities are organized around discussion, dramatization, and modeling of the principles through conduct, recitation, reading, narrative, performance, libation, sharing meals, and candlelighting. Most often at the evening meal, family members light one of the seven candles each night to focus on the principles. This ritual is called “lifting up the light that lasts” and symbolizes lifting up and upholding the Nguzo Saba and all the other life-affirming and enduring principles that reaffirm the good of life, enrich human relations, and support human flourishing. As each candle is lit, the person lighting the candle explains the meaning of the particular principle of the day to her or him. Also, a narrative from Black history or a poem might be told or recited to illustrate the principle.

A central and culminating event is the gathering of the community on December 31 for an African karamu (feast), featuring libation to the ancestors and ceremonies honoring elders, narratives, poetry, music, dance, and other performances to celebrate the goodness of life, relationships, and cultural grounding. The last day of Kwanzaa, January 1, called Siku ya Taamuli (The Day of Meditation), is dedicated to self-assessment and recommitment to the Nguzo Saba as well as other African values that reaffirm commitment to human rights and dignity, family and community well-being and flourishing, environmental protection and preservation, and human solidarity. To conduct this self-assessment, each person is to ask and answer three questions: Who am I? Am I really who I am? Am I all I ought to be?

This represents measuring oneself in the mirror of the best of African culture and history and recommitting oneself to standards and practices of human excellence that reflect this. Through this practice and throughout Kwanzaa, the people reaffirm the values and life lessons of the ancestors; strengthen commitments to family, community, and culture; and thus create the context for the ongoing creation, harvesting, and sharing good in the world.

  • Appendix B

    See also
  • African Americans; Afrocentricity; Black Nationalism; Multicultural Education; Symbolic Ethnicity

Further Readings
  • Karenga, Maulana. 1998. Kwanzaa: A Celebration of Family, Community, and Culture. Los Angeles, CA: University of Sankore Press.
  • Web Sites
  • Official Kwanzaa Web Site:
  • Maulana Karenga
    Copyright © 2008 by SAGE Publications, Inc.

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