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What is Kwanzaa?

Written by: Morrow, Carlotta    Posted on: 11/29/2003

Category: Misc.


What is Kwanzaa?

When and where created

Kwanzaa was created in 1966 by Dr. Maulana Ron Karenga, who is the leader of the Black nationalist cultural group US, and also professor and chair of the Department of Black Studies at California State University, Long Beach.  He is an  author of several books, some which are quoted throughout this site such as:  Kwanzaa: A Celebration of Family, Community and Culture and Kawaida Theory.

Kwanzaa is a seven-day holiday that was created by Dr. Karenga, a fact he does not deny.  He doesn't claim that it's from another country or continent, but is an American-made celebration.  He makes this clear in one of his earlier books titled:  Kwanzaa: origin, concepts, practice. Dec. 1977:

"...I did not mean to suggest in any way that Kwanzaa was a continental African holiday rather than Afro-American one.  On the contrary.  I have always stressed that although Kwanzaa has some historical roots in Africa, it is essentially a product of the particular social conditions and self-determined needs of the Afro-American people." p 12.


What "Kwanzaa" means

The word "Kwanzaa" itself is man made.  It is derived from the swahili phrase "matunda ya kwanza" which means first fruits.  Karenga's history has it that the extra "a" was added to represent the seven children that were a part of his organization, (US Organization) as each child wanted to represent a letter of Kwanzaa.  (Kwanzaa: A Celebration of Family, Community and Culture, pg. 108.)

The Kwanzaa celebration consists of seven days to celebrate seven principles (the Nguzo Saba), with emphasis on one principle a day.  The seventh day culminates in a feast, patterned much like the first-fruits celebrations of ancient Africa.  There are activities such as the pouring the libation for ancestors, lighting of candles, raising names of ancestors (also referred to by many as "ancestor worship" - discussed more in detail later), and gift-giving.

Purposes

"It was designed to unite and to strengthen African communities." Kwanzaa: A Celebration of Family, Community and Culture, p. 108 

In spite of attempts to make this celebration multicultural, Kwanzaa was clearly created with the intention of this being a "Black Only" cultural event.  This would explain stories regarding white parents of black children who have been banned from entering Kwanzaa celebrations ("White Mother Unwelcomed at Black Gathering," San Francisco Chronicle; San Francisco, Calif.; Dec 29, 1993).

Those who understand the true purpose of Kwanzaa understand that is was intended only for those of African ancestry.  Notice the use of the following quote from Dr. Karenga who speaks of Whites as the "dominant society:"

"...it was chosen to give a Black alternative to the existing holiday and give Blacks an opportunity to celebrate themselves and history, rather than simply imitate the practice of the dominant society." p. 21 Kwanzaa: origin, concepts, practice

Karenga clearly created this holiday for Blacks but has softened his "Black only" stance somewhat when in his 1997 book of Kwanzaa, twenty years later he says the following:

"Kwanzaa is clearly an African Holiday created for African peoples.  But other people can and do celebrate it, just like other people participate in Cinco de Mayo besides Mexicans; Chinese New Year besides Chinese; Native American pow wows besides Native Americans." p. 110,  Kwanzaa: A Celebration of Family, Community and Culture


The Nguzo Saba
(The Seven Principles Of Kwanzaa)
Unity, Self-determination, Collective Work and Responsibility,
Cooperative Economics, Purpose, Creativity, and Faith

Because Kwanzaa was built with the intention of unifying the Black Family, Karenga created a set of moral principles to which Kwanzaa is centered upon.  The following is a quote from his 1977 book on Kwanzaa:

"The Nguzo Saba are in fact, the matrix and minimum set of values by which Black people must order their relations and live their lives, if they are to liberate themselves and begin to build a new world and a new people to inhabit it." p. 40. Kwanzaa: origin, concepts, practice

Dr. Karenga shows more evidence of his desire to create not only just a 7-day holiday, but a way of life complete with principles to be followed daily.

At the heart and soul of Kwanzaa is the Nguzo Saba, Kiswahili for seven principles. Dr. Karenga stresses the importance of these principles in his 1997 book, Kwanzaa: A Celebration of Family, Community and Culture, when he says:

"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 lives in their own image and interest and build and sustain an Afrocentric family, community and culture." (p. 41)
The purpose of the Nguzo Saba is non other than setting a value system specifically for the black family. This contradicts any attempt by Karenga and others to say that Kwanzaa is a holiday to be celebrated by ALL people with its UNIVERSAL principles.  A greeting similar to the one made by former President Clinton in 1997 when he declared that "the Principles of Kwanzaa -- ring true not only for African Americans, but also for all Americans."

Unfortunately, Clinton and many others were completely unaware that the principles of Kwanzaa are not aimed for all Americans but ONLY for African Americans as we can see in Dr. Karenga's full description of the Nguzo Saba.  He says in the principles repeatedly, to do for "our own" and as an "African people."  Not exactly terms that can be used for universality.

Belief in God Condemned

Dr. Karenga's hatred of God-fearing religions prompted him to create his own system of principles that apparently he hoped would steer men away from what he felt was a weakness -- a belief in God.  An example of his opinion of religion is the following quote from his book, Kawaida Theory (1980):

"Belief in spooks who threaten us if we don't worship them and demand we turn over our destiny and daily lives must be categorized as spookism and condemned." pg 27

And also when he says of Christianity and Judaism in his list of negatives of religion:

"...it is a simplistic and often erroneous answer to existential ignorance fear, powerlessness and alienation.  An example is the Hebrew myth of the six-day creation and the tower of Babel, or Christian myths of resurrection, heaven and hell;" Kawaida Theory, p 23.

"...it often denies and diminishes human worth, capacity, potential and achievement.  In Christian and Jewish mythology, humans are born in sin, cursed with mythical ancestors who've sinned and brought the wrath of an angry God on every generation's head. ... If a mythical being has done, does and will do everything, what's our relevance and role in the world?" K.T. p 24.

And in spite of claiming Kwanzaa to be a time of giving "reverence to the Creator" as he claims now (Kwanzaa: A Celebration of Family, Community and Culture,, pg 19), his disdain for prayer of any type is shown in his early writings.

"Thus if persons want to fast or pray, read numbers, stare at stars, chant spookistic slogans or anything similar, they may, but is is imperative that they not add these to or pretend they are a part of the principles and practices of Kwanzaa." Kawaida Theory, p 15.

It wouldn't be erroneous to say that Karenga intended to create a celebration that steered Blacks away from God, but to celebrate and honor man instead.  He makes this clear when he makes the following statement in his book, Kawaida Theory:

"When messenger Muhammad taught that we are Gods and can make history and remake the world in our own image and interests, he set a good example." p 27.

The Nguzo Saba - A Black Way of Life

The Nguzo Saba are seven principles clearly set apart for the Black American and not for others.  It is also an attempt by Dr. Karenga to introduce humanistic principles for improving life without God.  Kwanzaa is not just a cultural celebration, but an attempt to establish a way of life with man as the center of worship and reverence.  The Nguzo Saba as a way of life are being recognized by many Blacks as such.  An example is a quote from the Kwanzaa Information Center website that says the following: 

"Thus, the Nguzo Saba are social and spiritual principles, dealing with ways for us to relate to each other and rebuild our lives in our own images."

If anything, many are accepting these principles as SPIRITUAL principles and a guide for their lives.  A disturbing fact for the Christian who believes that all spiritual principles begin with the Bible and not with man.

The Nguzo Saba

1) Umoja (Unity) "To strive for and maintain unity in the family, community, nation and race."

"...unity means a oneness, a similarity and sameness that gives us an identity as a people, an African people."  Kwanzaa: A Celebration of Family, Community and Culture, p 44.

2) Kujichagulia (Self-determination) "To define ourselves, name ourselves, create for ourselves and speak for ourselves instead of being defined, named, created for and spoken for by others."

"The principle and practice of self-determination expresses and supports the concept and practice of Afrocentricity. Afrocentricity is a quality of thought and practice which is rooted in the cultural image and human interests of African people." p 50.

3) Ujima (Collective Work and Responsibility) "To build and maintain our community together and make our sister's and brother's problems our problems and to solve them together.

...is commitment to active and informed togetherness on matters of common interest.  It is also recognition and respect for the fact that without collective work and struggle, progress is impossible and liberation unthinkable." p 51.

4) Ujamaa (Cooperative Economics) "To build and maintain our own stores, shops and other businesses and to profit from them together."

*"The fourth principle ... is essentially a commitment to the practice of shared social wealth and the work necessary to achieve it." p 55.

5) Nia (Purpose) "To make our collective vocation the building and developing of our community in order to restore our people to their traditional greatness.

The assumption here is that our role in human history has been and remains a key one; that we as an African people share in the great human legacy Africa has given the world." p 58.

6) Kuumba (Creativity) "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." p 61.

7) Imani (Faith) "To believe with all our heart in our people, our parents, our teachers, our leaders and the righteousness and victory of our struggle."

"For in all African spiritual traditions, from Egypt on, it is taught that we are in the image of the Creator and thus capable of ultimate righteousness and creativity through self-mastery and development in the context of positive support." p 65.

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