Kwanzaa may not be a celebration familiar to many Africans recently immigrated to Canada or the United States. However, it is a wonderfully empowering celebration for all black people that pay respect to many of the great traditions found in African first fruits celebrations. Kwanzaa was created by Dr. Maulana Karenga, a professor of Africana Studies at California State University, in 1966. It emerged as a means for black people from all origins to be able to reclaim, redefine and reaffirm their identity and purpose in the world. Kwanzaa is more than a celebration to bring together Africans living in the Diaspora. Its principles can be used as a template for the mobilization of the heterogeneous black people, who reside in North America and everywhere else. The term Kwanza came from a Swahili phrase “matunda ya kwanz”, meaning “first fruits”.
As a week long holiday celebrated from December 26th to January 1, Kwanzaa assigns seven principles called the Nguzo Saba to each of the seven days. These principles are the framework with which black people are encouraged to analyze and improve their community through reflection on their culture and move towards action. The seven principles include Unity, Self Determination, Collective Work and Responsibility, Cooperative Economics, Creativity, Purpose, and Faith. Out of all the principles, the first one of Unity is perhaps the most essential, out of which all of the others can spring forth with strength and confidence.
Unity is defined as to strive for and maintain unity in the family, community, nation and race. Unity is the foundation needed to form a stepping-stone from which any significant progress is to take place. Unity speaks to people working together for a similar purpose and identifying with similar characteristics, values and goals. However, in order to properly unify, first the recognition of the differences need to be acknowledged. It is a fallacy to believe that simply because a race of people shares a similar hue in skin, that all of their goals, dreams, desires and ways of accomplishing things are the same. Black people need to allow themselves to let this be okay. Too often we are lumped together as one people, who should all be treated in the same way and who are assumed to all want the same things. If we let ourselves accept our differences and not allow this to become a dividing force, but an opportunity to learn, black people will succeed in unifying in a positive force.
Black people living in Canada or the United states hailing from the Caribbean, have a different history than those hailing from West African, than those hailing from South Africa, or East Africa, or from those have been living in the North America for generations due to slavery. The complexities of the histories have given different black communities different perspectives and resources to influence the world around them. At the same time, all black people can find some core elements that they have faced in their lives that provide a source for unification. Enduring racism is simply one example that black people from various origins can all relate to. Yet there are also positive rallying points such as enduring strength, pride in history and ancestors and the value of family that can be found across black communities.
Kwanzaa provides an opportunity for black people of all origins to come together and learn from each other. Through a discourse, the likeminded goals, methods and ideas can emerge. Once these are revealed by us, becoming unified will not seem like such an unattainable goal. It is these differences that have been used as barriers to breaking through the cycles of institutionalized racism. The dominant culture has been allowed to define what is success, the ideal family, and the ideal life for black people. With these erroneous definitions, black communities continue to encounter failures, dissatisfaction and inner conflict. Defining things for ourselves through unified discourse is a solution and also speaks to the second principle of Self Determination. Self Determination as defined by Kwanzaa’s creator is the act of defining ourselves, naming ourselves, to create and speak for ourselves. It is easier to do this at an individual or family level than at a larger community level when the members are people with different histories and realities. However, this self definition at all levels is equally important and should be done from a unifying point.
The third principle is Collective Work and responsibility: to build and maintain our community together and to approach each of our problems as if they are our own and to work to solve them together. Building and maintaining a community and sharing the joys and sorrows together can make the black community a strong place and home for our members. When a child of a Congolese family is gunned down in the street of Toronto, it is not just a problem for the Congolese community. If a Jamaican family suffers the failure of their business, it is not just their failure, it is a problem that the community can work together to address so similar outcomes do not happen in the future. This example links to the fourth principle of Cooperative Economics, the act of building and maintaining our own stores and businesses so that we can support each other in a reciprocal and economically beneficial manner. The larger culture may want to operate from a place of competition and capitalism, but if our communities can work together to support ourselves economically, we can rise to be powerful economic contributors, which do not exclude the members of the community who contributed to this possibility.
The final principles are defined as Purpose; to make our collective vocation the building and developing of our community in order to restore our people to their traditional greatness, Creativity; to do always as much as we can to leave our community more beautiful and beneficial than we inherited it, and Faith; to believe completely in our people, our parents, our teachers, our leaders and the righteousness and victory of our struggle. Anyone of African descent who takes the time to learn about the spirit behind Kwanzaa will feel something that rings true to them. To approach the principles of Kwanzaa from a united place will enhance their effectiveness to a larger community extent. When Unity is honoured through honest and open communication, we can identify how our differences make us stronger and how our similarities make us one.
Kwanzaa is celebrated by lighting candles, placing African clothes, arts, fruits on a table. It also involves passing books and heritage related valuables to children as gifts.