The Man Who Invented Kwanzaa

By Collier, Aldore | Ebony, January 1998 | Go to article overview

The Man Who Invented Kwanzaa


Collier, Aldore, Ebony


Maulana Karenga's is not quite a household name. But the Kwanzaa celebration he started more than 30 years ago is practiced by people around the world.

Karenga, who is chairman of the Black Studies Department at California State University at Long Beach, was a civil lights activist in the '60s when he decided he wanted to create something to promote and reaffirm the ties between Black Americans and Africa.

"I created Kwanzaa ill the context of the Black Freedom Movement," he recalls. "An organization I formed named Us, which means Us Black people as opposed to our oppressors, began observing it in Southern California in the mid-1960s. We wanted to speak our own cultural truth to the World. We argued that culture is a is a fundamental way of being human in tile World."

So believing, he came up with the concept of Kwanzaa, a Swahili word that means first fruit. He saw the celebration as a means of introducing Black Americans to the values, customs and traditions of Africa. "It reaffirms our rootedness in Africa. "It reaffirms our rootedness in Africa," he says. "It's stepping back to Black! That was a strong push in the 1960s, getting back to roots."

In Swahili, the word is spelled Kwanza. In the early days of his Us organization, there were seven children who wanted to represented a letter of the celebration. So an extra "a" was added at the end of the word.

The seven-day celebration runs from December 26 through January 1 and is centered around seven basic principles--Nguzo Saba--unity, self-determination, collective work and responsibility, cooperative economics, purpose, creativity and faith.

The celebration also uses a variety of symbols that represent its spirit and focus--a straw mat on which all other objects are placed: the kinara (candleholder), which holds seven candles and represents the ancestral stalk from which Black Americans came; three red, three green and one black candle; ears of corn, representing children in the house and unit; the Unity Cup that is used to pour libations for each family member; culturally based gifts and, on December 31, an African feast. January 1 is dedicated to reflection on human life and purpose and the values of African culture.

Karenga chose red, black and green candles, following the symbolism of Marcus Garvey, a major Black nationalist leader of the early part of the century. "He gave us the colors. Black is for Black people, first," he says. "Red is for struggle, and green is for the future and the promise that comes from struggle."

The celebration, he says, calls for the gathering of people to reaffirm the bonds of family and friends, to commemorate the past and pay reverence to the Creator.

Karenga is quick to point out that Kwanzaa is a celebration, not a holiday. It was not created to serve as an alternate to any religious holidays. Also, it is open to all faiths.

Never in his wildest dreams did Karenga expect Kwanzaa to take off the way it has around the world. "I've gone to Canada and to England to celebrate with people," he says. "I've gotten letters from people in India, Turkey and in Africa. People find common ground because it's authentic."

Beyond the beauty of so many people embracing some of the best aspects of Africa, Karenga says he is extremely gratified because with no funding and little fanfare, people of different races and cultures have come to respect and embrace the celebration. "We didn't ask legislators to recognize Kwanzaa. We didn't ask for a political bill," he says. "We didn't ask for the media. The media only came after we, ourselves, embraced it and made it newsworthy. Black people in a beautiful demonstration of cultural self-determination embraced it and made this country and the world recognize and respect it."

Additional gratification for him comes from knowing that the seven principles used for the celebration have been used by some instead of the 12-step program to rehabilitate drug addicts. …

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