The Meaning of Kwanzaa

Dec 26, 2012


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Recorded in December 2007

Since its creation in 1966, African Americans have celebrated their cultural heritage with the celebration of Kwanzaa, which derives from Swahili phrase meaning "First Fruits." Dr. Brian Clardy and Dr. Debbie Owens explain the origins of the week long celebration and the seven associated principles.

Kwanzaa is an African American celebration based on African harvest festivals. It was developed in 1966 by California philosopher and scholar, Dr. Maulana Karenga. Karenga's studies of traditional African societies led him to develop a similar custom in America. As in African societies, Kwanzaa is based upon seven principles called the "Nguzo Saba."

Kwanzaa is not considered a religious holiday, or an alternative to Christmas. Rather, it is considered a cultural statement that makes Black people aware of their history and heritage. And for the past four decades, thousands of Black families have embraced the Kwanzaa tradition and incorporated it into their holiday celebrations.

Symbols used in the Kwanzaa celebration include harvest corn (as it represents the number of children in the family), a straw mat, and a candleholder (in which a candle is lit for the seven days and principles of Kwanzaa). Also, gifts are exchanged. Ultimately, Kwanzaa is a time of rejoicing, reflection, and renewed commitment shared by both the family and community.

The first principle is Umoja (Unity)

Umoja stresses the unity of the family and broader community within the context of a defined and structured framework.

The second principle is Kujichagulia (Self-Determination)

Of special significance is the ability of a people to name and define themselves in broader terms, rather than to accept negative and degrading labels that are imposed upon them.

The third principle is Ujima (Collective Work and Responsibility)

Here, any hint of idleness, selfishness, or slacking is strongly discouraged. Rather, Ujima calls upon the celebrants to work as a collective body for the uplift of its people. This principle best encapsulates an African adage that says, "I am because WE are!"

The fourth principle is Ujamaa (Cooperative Economics)

Deriving itself from the principles of Booker T. Washington and Marcus Garvey, this idea places central importance upon the economic power and potential within the community and how that power can be harnessed through the principle of free enterprise prosperity.

The fifth principle is Nia (Purpose)

The above stated principles are useless unless they are guided by a unity of purpose and attainable goals that define the very existence of an empowered community.

The sixth principle is Kuumba (Creativity)

Here, the community seeks to utilize its active-positive creative energies to beautify the community and make it conducive for thought and growth. Moreover, the ultimate goal of this ideal is to pass down an energized and independently fashioned community to the next generation, who will in turn continue its creative vision.

And the final principle is Imani (Faith)

With a steadfast belief in the righteousness of the above principles, the community expresses faith in their lineage, their contemporary selves, in their future generations.

Dr. Brian Clardy is host of Cafe Jazz Wednesday nights on WKMS and an Assistant Professor of History at Murray State. Dr. Debbie Owens is an Associate Professor of Journalism and Mass Communications at Murray State.