Kwanzaa: History and Etymology

Kwanzaa: History and Etymology
Kwanzaa is an African American celebration observed every year from Dec. 26 through Jan 1.

American Maulana Karenga created Kwanzaa in 1966 during the aftermath of the Watts riots as a specifically African-American holiday. Karenga said his goal was to “give blacks an alternative to the existing holiday of Christmas and give blacks an opportunity to celebrate themselves and their history, rather than simply imitate the practice of the dominant society.” For Karenga, a major figure in the Black Power movement of the 1960s and 1970s, the creation of such holidays also underscored the essential premise that you must have a cultural revolution before the violent revolution. The cultural revolution gives identity, purpose, and direction. 

According to Karenga, the name Kwanzaa derives from the Swahili phrase matunda ya kwanza, meaning “first fruits”.  First fruits festivals exist in Southern Africa, celebrated in December/January with the southern solstice, and Karenga was partly inspired by an account he read of the Zulu festival Umkhosi Wokweshwama. It was decided to spell the holiday’s name with an additional “a” so that it would have a symbolic seven letters.  

During the early years of Kwanzaa, Karenga said it was meant to be an alternative to Christmas. He believed Jesus was psychotic and Christianity was a “White” religion that Black people should shun.  As Kwanzaa gained mainstream adherents, Karenga altered his position so practicing Christians would not be alienated, stating in the 1997 book Kwanzaa: A Celebration of Family, Community, and Culture that “Kwanzaa was not created to give people an alternative to their own religion or religious holiday.”  Many African Americans who celebrate Kwanzaa do so in addition to observing Christmas.  

After its initial creation in California, Kwanzaa spread outside the United States. 

The Seven Principles 

1. Umoja means “unity.” On his Kwanzaa website, Karegna defines this as: “To strive for and maintain unity in the family, community, nation and race.” 

2. Kujichagulia means “self-determination:” “To define ourselves, name ourselves, create for ourselves and speak for ourselves.” 

3. Ujima means “collective work and responsibility:” “To build and maintain our community together and make our brother’s and sister’s problems our problems and to solve them together.” 

4. Ujamaa means “cooperative economics:” “To build and maintain our own stores, shops and other businesses and to profit from them together.” Similar to Ujima, this principle refers to uplifting your community economically. 

5. Nia means “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 means “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 means “faith:” “To believe with all our heart in our people, our parents, our teachers, our leaders and the righteousness and victory of our struggle.”