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Celebrating the Kwanzaa Holiday and Understanding its Impact on Race Relations


Celebrating the Kwanzaa Holiday and Understanding its Impact on Race Relations
Ron Chapple

Just what is Kwanzaa? Unlike Christmas, Ramadan or Hanukkah, Kwanzaa’s unaffiliated with a major religion. One of the newer American holidays, Kwanzaa originated in the turbulent 1960s to instill racial pride and unity in the black community. Now, fully recognized in mainstream America and elsewhere, Kwanzaa is widely celebrated. The U.S. Postal Service launched its first Kwanzaa stamp in 1997, releasing a second commemorative stamp in 2004. In addition, former U.S. Presidents Bill Clinton and George W. Bush recognized the day while in office. But Kwanzaa has its share of critics, despite its mainstream status. Are you considering celebrating Kwanzaa this year? Discover the arguments for and against it, whether all blacks (and any non-blacks) celebrate it and the impact of Kwanzaa on American culture.

What is Kwanzaa?

Established in 1966 by Ron Karenga, Kwanzaa aims to reconnect black Americans to their African roots and recognize their struggles as a people by building community. It is observed from Dec. 26 to Jan. 1 annually. Derived from the Swahili term, “matunda ya kwanza,” which means “first-fruits,” Kwanzaa is based on African harvest celebrations such as the seven-day Umkhost of Zululand.

According to the official Kwanzaa Web site, “Kwanzaa was created out of the philosophy of Kawaida, which is a cultural nationalist philosophy that argues that the key challenge in black people’s [lives] is the challenge of culture, and that what Africans must do is to discover and bring forth the best of their culture, both ancient and current, and use it as a foundation to bring into being models of human excellence and possibilities to enrich and expand our lives.”

Just as many African harvest celebrations run for seven days, Kwanzaa has seven principles known as the Nguzo Saba. They are: umoja (unity); kujichagulia (self-determination); ujima (collective work and responsibility); ujamaa (cooperative economics); nia (purpose); kuumba (creativity); and imani (faith).

Celebrating Kwanzaa

During Kwanzaa celebrations, a mkeka (straw mat) rests on a table covered by kente cloth, or another African fabric. On top of the mkeka sits a kinara (candleholder) in which the mishumaa saba (seven candles) go. The colors of Kwanzaa are black for the people, red for their struggle, and green for the future and hope that comes from their struggle, according to the official Kwanzaa Web site.

Mazao (crops) and the kikombe cha umoja (the unity cup) also sit on the mkeka. The unity cup is used to pour tambiko (libation) in remembrance of ancestors. Lastly, African art objects and books about the life and culture of African people sit on the mat to symbolize commitment to heritage and learning.

Do All Blacks Observe Kwanzaa?

Although Kwanzaa celebrates African roots and culture, the National Retail Foundation found that just 13 percent of African Americans observe the holiday, or approximately 4.7 million. Some blacks have made a conscious decision to avoid the day because of religious beliefs, the origins of the day and the history of Kwanzaa’s founder (all of which will be covered later). If you’re curious about whether a black person in your life observes Kwanzaa because you want to get him a related card, gift-wrapping or other item, simply ask. Don’t make assumptions.

Can Non-Blacks Celebrate Kwanzaa?

While Kwanzaa focuses on the black community and African Diaspora, people from other racial groups may join in the celebration, according to the official Kwanzaa Web site. Just as people from a range of backgrounds partake in cultural celebrations such as Cinco de Mayo, Chinese New Year or Native American pow wows, those who aren’t of African descent may celebrate Kwanzaa.

As the Kwanzaa Web site explains, “The principles of Kwanzaa and the message of Kwanzaa has a universal message for all people of good will. It is rooted in African culture, and we speak as Africans must speak, not just to ourselves, but to the world.”

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