Academic journal article Western Folklore

Kwanzaa: The Emergence of an African-American Holiday

Academic journal article Western Folklore

Kwanzaa: The Emergence of an African-American Holiday

Article excerpt

Kwanzaa: The Emergence of an African-American Holiday 1


On December 23, 1991,Janice C. Simpson, in the Living section of Time magazine, wrote: "Add a new seasonal greeting to your list: Habari Gani. It is Swahili for `What's new?' and the salutation for millions of African Americans who celebrate Kwanzaa" (Simpson 1981:81). More and more, Kwanzaa has become a familiar name in the public and the media. In Los Angeles Kwanzaa's festivities include the Kwanzaa Parade, in which different segments of the African American community celebrate the spirit and values of the holiday. Kwanzaa is the only specifically African American festivity that has attracted a significant (but as yet unmeasured) portion of the African American population, which is increasingly looking for identity and meaning for its ethnicity. Now, more than thirty years after the invention of this holiday, it is perhaps appropriate to reflect on its successes.

Kwanzaa was created in 1966, by Dr. Maulana Karenga (Karenga 1988). An African American scholar, Dr. Karenga is currently professor and chair of Black Studies at California State University, Long Beach. According to Dr. Karenga the holiday had its origins in the black nationalist movement. Its objectives are to create a sociohistorical consciousness among blacks. Dr. Karenga's words indicate the need for such a celebration: it is an instrument to help the African American community "rescue and reconstruct our history and culture and shape them in our image" (interview by Y. Flores, 1992). Kwanzaa means "first fruit" in Swahili. It is rooted in and modeled after the African celebration of the harvest, with many cultures contributing to its creation. Dr. Karenga asserts: "In a word, the values and practices of Kwanzaa are selected from peoples from all parts of Africa-South, North, West and East-in a true spirit of Pan-Africanism" (Karenga 1988:15).

Concerning the origins of Kwanzaa Dr. Karenga states: "Kwanzaa is a synthesis of both Continental African and Diasporan African cultural elements. This means that it is rooted in both the cultural values and the practice of Africans on the continent and in the U. S. with strict attention to cultural authenticity and values for a meaningful, principled and productive life" (interview by Flores, 1992).

Kwanzaa celebrates both African and African-American cultures. Dr. Karenga calls this an "ingathering," not only of the fruits of the earth, but also of society's most valuable crop, its people. This ingathering is but one of five criteria found in first fruit celebrations that Dr. Karenga considered to be pertinent when he created the celebration. Writes Karenga:

There are at least five common sets of values and practices central to African first fruit celebrations which informed the development of Kwanzaa: 1) ingathering; 2) reverence; 3) commemoration; 4) recommitment; and 5) celebration (Karenga 1988:17).

This set of values paved the way to create the "Nguzo Saba" or seven principles that are the core of the Kwanzaa celebration. Dr. Karenga's reasoning for placing them at the center of the celebration is very clear:

The Nguzo Saba...are the core and consciousness of Kwanzaa. They are posed as the matrix and minimum set of values African-Americans need to rescue and reconstruct their life in their own image and interest and build and sustain an Afrocentric family, community, and culture (Karenga 1988:43).

These principles are taken from continental Africa and have as their goal to enrich the African-American community by developing a sense of continuity and at the same time to keep the focus on a people with a history outside of Africa. The Nguzo Saba are as follows:

1. Umoja (unity)

Kujichangulia (self-determination)

Ujima (collective work and responsibility)

Ujamaa (cooperative economics)

Nia (purpose)

Kuumba (creativity)

Imani (faith)

These seven principles are always presented first in Swahili and then in English in the United States. …

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