The Purpose of Kwanzaa: History and Relevance of this Unique Holiday By Alexandria Barabin Harris

By January 9, 2019 Uncategorized No Comments

Kwanzaa is a family and community holiday and celebrates Black cultures from around the world!

When I was 18 years old, I moved out of my parents home to go to college, and I never moved back in.  During that time, I have lived in Washington, DC, New York, and Atlanta. So for a decade, the holiday season means traveling “home” to see family, friends, and the familiar. Nothing saying Merry Christmas like being in an airport going through TSA lines and delayed flights due to inclement weather. Or it means missing family altogether. During the past decade away from the traditions I grew up with, I learned a great deal about other traditions from around the world.

The holiday season is one of many occasions. Some are cultural, religious, spiritual, and historical. From October- January. In October, there is Halloween but also celebrated as Hallow’s Eve leading into November’s holidays such as Dios de los Muertos (Day of the Dead), All Souls Day, and Thanksgiving. Between Thanksgiving and Christmas, December is quite full. There is the 8 day Jewish celebration of Chanukah (often spelled Hanukah) and Winter Solstice signaling a new moon, an important symbol in many indigenous spiritual practices. Not to be out shined, there is the Advent season, a daily celebration of the Christian celebration leading up to Christmas. And just when you think you can catch your breath and recover from all the festivities, we count down to a Happy New Year!

With so many existing holidays, you may wonder why another one was added in the last 50 years. Kwanzaa, like all the aforementioned, happens towards the end of the year beginning the day after Christmas and ending on New Year’s Day. It began in the late 1960’s by political Black nationalist and professor Dr. Maulana Karenga. Truly, Dr. Karenga created it celebration to be an alternative to Christmas for people of African decent in the United States to get back to their African roots using ki-Swahili words and adapted symbolic practices from West Africa. Basically, he created a tradition. Many have struggled with their acceptance of the holiday called Kwanzaa for this reason not realizing that each of the traditions practiced for Thanksgiving, Hanukah, and Christmas as just as symbolic and made- man. Some have also struggled with embracing Kwanzaa because of the founder. Karenga is very outspoken and over the years, he has critiqued the commercialism of Christmas, spoken negatively about women, as well as other culture groups. Karenga is unapologetically pro-Black and proud.

It is important to note that celebrating Kwanzaa is not celebrating the founder. If that were the case, the celebration would not have been a sustainable holiday. In fact, some of the regularly observed traditions in Black households for the new year precede the official formation of the holiday such as eating certain meals like black eyed peas and collard greens for prosperity. Instead, Kwanzaa, which means first fruits of the harvest, is really about resisting the erasure of Black people and honoring our unique experience. No other holiday during the busy Fall and Winter calendar has any cultural significance to people of African descent.

In this way, Kwanzaa answers the call to fill in a gap for many. In essence, it is not really an African tradition. And it is not solely an American one either. It is a cultural blend of so many hints of us as people who carry our celebrations, histories, and traumas in us. It is like jazz- African roots, American born. It is like gumbo- Cajun, Creole, French, coastal, Bayou, and African together.

However, I am not advocating that people change their holiday traditions to include Kwanzaa. In fact, I have struggled with multi-dynamics of this celebration. I do want to encourage millennials and the next generation to know the origins and at least what it is all about. At the core of Kwanzaa are the 7 principles, each one celebrated every day.

Umoja- which means unity

Kijichaculia-  means self-determination

Ujoma- collective work and responsibility

Ujimma- means cooperative economics

Nia- means purpose

Kuumba- means creativity

Imani- means faith

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