Joyous Kwanzaa to you

The celebration of Kwanzaa centers around the a display of black, red and green candles, fruit, corn a cup, books and African cultural objects. The holiday celebrates family, community and culture. File Photo

Habari Gani? (traditional Kwanzaa greeting, Swahili for: “How are you?”).

The Pan-African/African-American cultural holiday Kwanzaa is just around the corner. The seven-day festival begins Dec. 26 and ends on Jan. 1. Each of the seven days are marked with their own theme: Unity, Self-Determination, Collective Work and Responsibility, Cooperative Economics, Purpose, Creativity and Faith (these sound more poetic when called by their Swahili names: Umoja, Kujichagulia, Ujima, Ujamaa, Nia, Kuumba and Imani).

Observance each day is marked by lighting one of the candles on the Kinara (the candle holder). The black candle (symbolic of race), in the center, is lit first. Next come three red candles (symbolic of the ancestors and struggle) and the three green candles (symbolic of hopes for the future).

The candle-holder is just one part of the Kwanzaa kit set up for the festival to celebrate African and African-American identity and culture. Other items include a mat, crops, corn, a chalice, gifts and African cultural objects and textiles.

2017 marks the 51st year that Kwanzaa has been observed as a holiday among some portion of the population of the United States. Since its inception in 1966, the holiday has spread to Canada and to other countries where there are populations of the African diaspora.

Kwanzaa was the brain-child of Maulana Karenga, now a professor of Africana studies at California State University, Long Beach. In 1966, Karenga would have been labeled a Black nationalist or radical. The principles of Kwanzaa reflect some of the core values of the Black Liberation Movement of that era. In a time when African-American studies departments did not exist and in which there was no social media, events like Kwanzaa functioned as a way for African-American families and communities to remember their struggle, to commemorate the positive aspects of their culture and to prepare to thrive in the future.

While there is evidence that Karenga intended Kwanzaa to be an alternative to the celebration of Christmas in American culture generally, in practice it became a means of appreciation of African roots and a celebration of African-American traditions, community and family. It was a way for African-Americans to gather in a positive environment to honor the past and to prepare for a better future. Its position at the end of the old year and the beginning of the new further enhances this dual aspect of the holiday.

As celebrated through the years, Kwanzaa did not supplant Christmas. Instead it became something of an extension of the holiday season. These days, Karenga asserts that Kwanzaa is a cultural, not a religious, holiday that does not compete with Christmas. Many families have incorporated observance of Kwanzaa into their Christmas and New Year’s celebrations.

In the 1980s and 90s, Kwanzaa looked to have entered the mainstream culture and seemed to reside alongside Christmas and Hanukkah as one of the wintertime festivals of light. When I searched the internet for Kwanzaa observances going on in Tacoma this year, however, all I could find was the Village Keepers’ First Annual Karamu Ya Imani (Feast of Feast) and “I’m A Keeper “ Awards, which will take place Dec. 31 from 2-5 p.m. (see for details). I find evidence for many local observances in previous years: The Black Student Unions at TCC and UPS both had Kwanzaa celebrations, as did some of the local churches. This year, not even the Northwest African American Museum in Seattle is listing anything Kwanzaa-related in their events calendar.

Is Kwanzaa observance dropping off? Estimates and surveys giving numbers of participants are all over the map. I have seen figures ranging from 500,000 (which seems way too low) all the way up to 30 million.

In a 2012 interview on National Public Radio, Mark Anthony Neal, Duke University professor of African and African-American studies, hints that Kwanzaa has been losing some of its appeal as African-American culture in general has become more and more a part of mainstream American life. “I think there’s also this sense of Kwanzaa being a made-up holiday,” said Neal, “And when you compare it to, say, something like Hanukkah, which is clearly a religious holiday, Kwanzaa is not a religious holiday, though it does have spiritual overtones.”

Kwanzaa’s creator Karenga, however, did not invent the festival out of thin air. As a scholar of African cultures, he was able to draw upon traditions of “first fruits” festivals that he found in many African cultures going back to Egypt and Nubia. Indeed “Kwanzaa” comes from the Swahili phrase “matunda ya kwanza,” meaning “first fruits of the harvest.” In that sense, Kwanzaa could be compared to Thanksgiving, which is a “made-up” holiday that is nevertheless deeply rooted in traditions of harvest festivals.

With the beauty of its displays and its emphasis on family, community and culture, I have always found Kwanzaa to be a wonderful thing. It is my own hope this holiday season that the lights of Kwanzaa will never go out and that it can spread its warmth out into American culture at large.

Karenga himself has observed that “any particular message that is good for a particular people, if it is human in its content and ethical in its grounding, speaks not just to that people, it speaks to the world.”

For more on Kwanzaa, there is no better place to start than the official Kwanzaa website, still maintained by Dr. Karenga:

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