What the heck is Kwanzaa?

Answers to a question you may have been afraid to ask

By Lauren Adams

Photo: Larry Crowe performs tambiko—the ritual of pouring libation is an essential ceremonial tradition and a way of giving homage to the ancestors

It is a question many of us have. Like most holidays, many think Kwanzaa is a religious celebration, but no specific religion observes it. If it’s not religious, what is it? Who celebrates it, why is it celebrated every year, and how?

This article is here to answer all of the questions you were afraid to ask.

Kwanzaa is a non-religious cultural holiday nestled neatly between Christmas and New Year’s Day, falling Dec. 26 to Jan. 1.

“It was created by [a black power] organization headed by Maulana Karenga in 1966 to celebrate African American culture, community and family,” says Dr. Boikai Twe, the Psychology and Africana studies chairperson at Sinclair. “He saw it as a [revolutionary attempt to create an] alternative to Christmas because he felt that African Americans were being duped into supporting corporations that were selling Christmas … Since then, however, he has said that people can celebrate both Christmas and Kwanzaa, he really doesn’t see them as opposition.”

Kwanzaa focuses on these seven principles over seven days:

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

2. Kujichagulia (Self-Determination): To define ourselves, name ourselves, create for ourselves and speak for ourselves.

3. Ujima (Collective Work and Responsibility): To build and maintain our community together and make our brothers’ and sisters’ problems our problems, and to solve them together.

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

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.

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.

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

Like Karenga, many see it as an alternative, and celebrate Christmas as well. While Kwanzaa is an Afrocentric holiday focusing on African American families, culture, and history, there are also multicultural Kwanzaa celebrations that focus on the broad humanity within the principles.

“You can find the principles in all cultures in some form,” says Twe. “They’re not just African principles … Karenga has argued though that he feels that even if you celebrate it in a multicultural sense, that African Americans or Africans need to lead it, because that’s what it’s for.”

If you walk into almost any story the day after Halloween, you’ll find all the Halloween merchandise on clearance, and the Thanksgiving tablecloths and Christmas wreaths will be out. The holiday anticipation lasts all year. We celebrate, and the next day we’re looking forward to, and planning and shopping for, the next one on the list. Christmas has become more commercialized, and increasingly there’s more focus on presents, and less focus on religion and family. As the great poet Martin Payne once said, “For 50 percent off, I say [Jesus] was born on the 26th.” Unlike the other holidays, you won’t see Kwanzaa decorations in stores as soon as Halloween ends. It turns out there are no trees, no specific menus, and no wish lists to keep up with.

But while there are no decorations, there are various symbols associated with the celebration, and each represents values and concepts that reflect African culture. There are crops (which symbolize collective labor), a mat (which symbolizes the foundation on which everything is built), a candle holder (symbolic of ancestral roots), corn (which represents children), seven candles (green, red and black candles with represent the seven principles), the unity cup (symbolic of the unity that makes the celebration possible) and gifts, often handmade. There are also various activities. The symbols are placed on the mat, a candle is lit each day and an elder uses the unity cup to pour tambiko (or libation) to the ancestors as a symbol of remembrance and honor. There are also songs, readings, prayers and a feast to close out the holiday.

Dr. Twe says the focus of each day is bringing the principle to our daily lives.

“Whether it’s … doing something in the community to highlight the principle … or some kind of artistic presentation that highlights the principle,” he says. “The strive is to keep it noncommercial, and so even though there are gifts … the gifts are not something you can buy in stores, the gifts are oftentimes stuff that is made by somebody and then most of the time the gift needs to be something that is of African or African American origin…those are not things you can just walk to the store and get…the best gifts are made by someone in the family.”

Often times, people grow up not knowing what Kwanzaa really is. Sinclair has hosted a Pre-Kwanzaa celebration for 26 years to teach students and community members more about the principles and to help eradicate misconceptions.

Bakari Lumumba, an African Studies & Public Administration graduate student at Ohio University, says his first experience with Kwanzaa occurred while he attended Sinclair. Since then, it has become a big part of his life. Now he ensures that his children grow up aware of and celebrating the various principles of Kwanzaa in fun and exciting ways. For example, he uses homework to help demonstrate ujamaa.

In an increasingly commercial world, it’s key that Kwanzaa has remained non-commercialized. Rather than focusing on the ornaments, costumes, and food first, and humanity second, the focus is on bringing the family, friends and community together to create and celebrate the core principles.

Reach DCP estivalreelance writer Lauren Adams at LaurenAdams@DaytonCityPaper.com.

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Lauren Adams
Reach DCP freelance writer Lauren Adams at LaurenAdams@DaytonCityPaper.com.

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