What is the history of Kwanzaa?
Kwanzaa, a variation of the Swahili word “Kwanza” which means “first,” is an African-American holiday celebrated December 26 – January 1. It is a festival of African-American life created by Maulana Karenga, a graduate student, in 1966 who wanted to celebrate the diversity of Black Americans in the United States.
To understand the motivation behind creating this holiday, it is important to understand what was happening in California, where racial tension was front and center. In August of 1965, the Watts Rebellion began with police violence perpetuated by the members of a predominantly white police force. It was fueled by ongoing practices of racial discrimination despite the passage of the Civil Rights Act of 1964 which made these practices illegal. Black Veterans who returned from World War II were refused jobs, housing and basic Civil Rights. The escalation of the racial tension resulted in a week-long period of civil unrest in which the Governor Pat Brown brought in the California Army National Guard to help break up the riots.
As community members tried to heal from violence, Maulana Karenga hoped to create a values-based holiday to honor the rich history and culture of Africa. Unlike the first harvest celebration of African communities which take place at the end of August and may now combine some Christian and Islamic practices, Kwanzaa is not a religious holiday. And while those festivals last only a day, Kwanzaa is a week-long event emphasizing the colors red, black, and green.
What are the Colors of Kwanzaa?
- Black – represents the descendants of the African Diaspora (the dispersion of African people during the Transatlantic Slave Trade (1500s-1800s))
- Red – represents those who have died fighting for freedom and liberty
- Green – represents the Earth/Land from which Black Americans come
What are the Nguzo Saba (The Seven Principals) of Kwanzaa?
- Umoja (unity): To strive for and maintain unity in the family, community, nation and race.
- Kujichagulia (self-determination): To define ourselves, name ourselves, create for ourselves and speak for ourselves.
- Ujima (collective work and responsibility): To build and maintain our community together and to make our Brother’s and sister’s problems, our problems and to solve them together.
- Ujamaa (cooperative economics): To build and maintain our own stores, shops and other businesses and to profit from them together.
- Nia (purpose): To make as our collective vocation the building and developing of our community in order to restore our people to their traditional greatness.
- Kuumba (creativity): To do always as much as we can, in the way that we can, in order to leave our community more beautiful than when we inherited it.
- Imani (faith): To believe with all our hearts in our parents, our teachers, our leaders, our people and the righteousness and victory of our struggle.
What are the Seven Symbols of Kwanzaa?
- Mazao (crops) – Rewards of collective labor
- Mkeka (mat) – our foundation and history from which we are born
- Muhindi (corn) – represents Black children- the future.
- Kikombe cha umoja (unity cup) – the collective unity that connects us all.
- Kinara (candleholder)- this represents the roots of the family tree- the African ancestors of African-Americans
- Mishumaa Saba (seven candles):
- 1 black (Umoja)
- 3 red (Kujichagulia, Ujamma, Kuumba)
- 3 green (Ujima, Nia, Imani)
- Zawadi (gifts) – While not required, the last day of Kwanzaa can include the exchange of gifts. Homemade gifts or gifts from Black-Owned Businesses are encouraged.
How is Kwanzaa Celebrated?
- Choose a central place in the home like a table, counter, or mantle.
- Spread an African cloth over the service and place the mkeka on top.
- Place all other items atop the mkeka with the kinara and the mishumaa saba in the center of the table. The Black Candle should be in the center, the red candles are placed to the left, and the green candles are placed to the right).
- Light the Black candle on day one and one candle each day after starting on the left.
- Engage in activities that explore the ideas of this celebration.
Umoja Family Tree Activity
- Leaf Cutout Activity
- 6-8 sheets of white card stock
- brown paper bag from the grocery store
- primary paint colors
- Black Marker
- Painter’s tape (doesn’t damage walls)
- a wall
- Complete the Leaf Cutout Activity making the leaves just big enough to fit your Family Member’s name, their relation to you, and birth/death date.
- Cut out a tree-trunk shape from the brown bag and some branches to hold your leaves.
- Using the painter’s tape, tape the tree-trunk and the branches to a wall. You will want to fold the tape so it’s double-sided and hidden on the back.
- Write your family members’ names on the leaves and add them to the branches.
Hoppin’ John Black-eyed Peas and Rice
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- Sea Island Red Peas (soaked)
- Smoked Bacon (or ham-hock)
- Carolina Gold rice
- Chicken broth
- salt and pepper to taste
- Collard Greens (fresh and chopped)
Sauté garlic and onion in heavy pot. Add bacon, rice, beans, collards, and enough broth to just cover everything in the pot. Cover. Allow to cook until it just begins to boil. Reduce to medium-low and cook for 3 hours.
Printable Kwanzaa Cards
- Read some African and African American Folktales
- Write a letter to a relative or someone in your community who has made a difference.
- Volunteer with, visit, or research a local organization that is working to help those in marginalized communities.
- Learn more about Black-American history