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Black History Month: Kwanzaa

By Jada Jinks | February 27, 2023

Kwanzaa Candles

During August of 1965, large scale riots broke out in Watts, Los Angeles following the arrest of a Black family during a traffic stop. The riots lasted six days, and were done to protest the government and police’s treatment of black people at the time. This eventually became known as the Watts Rebellion, and was the event that spurred activist Dr. Maulana Karenga into action

Dr. Karenga wanted to create something that would unite the Black community after the Watts Rebellion. He wanted to emphasize Black life and struggle, but also celebrate and honor family, community, and culture. To do this, Karenga researched many different African “first fruit” celebrations. He decided to combine these various harvest celebrations, and created Kwanzaa in 1966. The name Kwanzaa comes from a phrase in Swahili, “matunda ya kwanza”, which means first fruit.

Kwanzaa lasts seven days, from December 26 to January 1. At the end of each day, a candle on the kinara, or candelabra, is lit. Every candle lighting ceremony begins with the Tambiko, or libation. This is where people pay homage to their ancestors and promise to honor them. Then, the elder in the household pours a liquid onto the Earth from the unity cup, or the Kikombe Cha Umoja. While they are doing so, reverence is given to departed family members and friends for the impact they’ve had. The elder then passes the Kikombe Cha Umoja around for everyone to share, and the group then shouts “HARAMBEE (Let’s pull together!)”, seven times.

Every candle on the kinara represents something. The black candle is meant to represent pan-African people from all walks of life, the red candle is meant to represent pan-African blood that’s been shed, and the green candle is meant to represent the hope and possibility for a better future. Each candle is tied to the seven principles, or the Nguzo Saba, of Kwanzaa.

The first principle of Kwanzaa is Umoja, or unity. This principle emphasizes how important it is for people to be connected to one another, and decide on issues together. The second principle is Kujichagulia, which means self-determination: how a person decides for themselves who they want to be. Ujima is the third principle, and translates to collective work and responsibility, for Black people to work together to solve the community’s problems.

Ujamaa, the fourth principle, means cooperative economics. This refers to the importance of Black-owned businesses, and how they should be uplifted and supported. Nia, the fifth principle, means purpose and spreads the message that people should devote parts of their life to helping their people. The sixth principle, Kuumba, means creativity. In this sense, creativity means that people should be doing whatever they can to make the world a more beautiful place. The seventh and final principle, Imani, means faith. The faith here isn’t talking about religious or spiritual faith, but refers to faith in the validity of Black struggle and belief in something better.

On December 31, there is a Kwanzaa feast. During the feast, people share their cultural expressions through dance, poetry, and other creative outlets. People also take the time to reflect on the homeland of Africa and the life they currently live in America, how to live in the glory they had before slavery. Every feast ends with a closing statement:

“Strive for discipline, dedication and achievement in all you do. Dare struggle and sacrifice and gain the strength that comes from this. Build where you are and dare leave a legacy that will last as long as the sun shines and the water flows. Practice daily Umoja, Kujichagulia, Ujima, Ujamaa, Nia, Kuumba and Imani. And may the wisdom of the ancestors alway walk with us. May the year's end meets us laughing and stronger. May our children honor us by following our example in love and struggle. And at the end of the year, may we sit again together, in larger numbers, with greater achievement and closer to liberation and a higher level of human life.”

Kwanzaa is not a religious holiday, but a cultural one, according to Dr. Karenga. You can be Christian, Muslim, Jewish, or belong to any other religion and still celebrate Kwanzaa. Kwanzaa reflects both the beauty and struggle of pan-African life, and how we can utilize both to move forward. This holiday is an opportunity for pan-African people to look at all the tragedies they’ve had to endure and say, this doesn’t have to be our only history and it isn’t our end.


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