Dr. David Childs, D.D., Ph.D.
Northern Kentucky University
In our last post we wrote about cultural diversity during the holiday season in an article entitled Lesson Planning for Diversity in Holiday Celebrations. In this article we would like to expand upon the theme of diversity during the holidays and discuss Kwanzaa, briefly focusing on the history and cultural background of the holiday.
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History of Kwanzaa
Kwanzaa is an African American seven-day cultural festival celebrated after Christmas every December 26 to January 1. The holiday began in the US and is now a global, pan African phenomenon. Kwanzaa was created in 1966 by Maulana Karenga, a major figure in the Black power movement in the US. Karenga developed the holiday subsequent to the tumultuous Watts riots in California, triggered by rising tensions between Blacks and White authorities due to racial discrimination in the Los Angeles area. As a revolutionary, Karenga established Kwanzaa as a sort of cultural revolution for African Americans, which he argued was needed before a physical revolution could take place. That is, a violent revolution needed an ideological foundation on which to build upon. Karenga saw Kwanzaa as helping to fulfill that goal.
The holiday was originally designed, in Karenga’s own words– to “give blacks an alternative to the existing holiday and give blacks an opportunity to celebrate themselves and history, rather than simply imitate the practice of the dominant society.” Initially, Karenga had viewed Kwanzaa as a counter to Christmas, viewing Christianity as a “White” religion that should be abandoned by African Americans. But as the holiday grew in popularity he changed his position, arguing that Kwanzaa was inclusive and could be practiced by Christians or persons of any faith or holiday tradition.
Historical/Cultural Origins of Kwanzaa
The name Kwanzaa was taken from the phrase “matunda ya kwanza”, which means “first fruits” in Swahili. The idea for the holiday was inspired by the first fruits festivals that exist in Southern Africa, celebrated in December/January with the southern solstice. Specifically, Karenga drew ideas for the holiday from the Zulu festival Umkhosi Wokweshwama, a popular festival that celebrates the December solstice. The holiday’s name is spelled with an additional “a” so that it would have a symbolic seven letters in accordance with the seven principles of Kwanzaa.
Dr. Maulana Karenga
The Seven Principles of Kwanzaa
The holiday highlights the seven principles of Kwanzaa (or Nguzo Saba). This was originally called Nguzu Saba – the seven principles of African Heritage. The seven principles are all Swahili words that collectively make up the concept Kawaida or “common” philosophy. Kwaida (Also developed by Karenga) is a mixture of nationalist, pan-Africanist, and socialist values. Each of the seven days of Kwanzaa correspond with one of the seven principles. The principles are as follows:
Day One- Umoja (Unity): This is a call for the Black community to strive for and to maintain unity in the family, community, nation, and race.
Day Two- Kujichagulia (Self-determination): This is a call for the Black community to “define and name” themselves, “as well as to create and speak” for themselves. Kujichagulia represents the ability to have control over one’s choices and destiny.
Day Three- Ujima (Collective work and responsibility): This principle has to do with togetherness and interdependence in the black community. To build and maintain the Black “community together and make our brothers’ and sisters’ problems our problems and to solve them together.”
Day Four- Ujamaa (Cooperative economics): Jim Clingman uses the term Blackonomics to describe this phenomenon. The idea is “to build and maintain” African American owned “stores, shops, and other businesses and to profit from them together.” This is not to create a separatist society but to counteract the fact that many African Americans have been shut out of the American dream.
Day Five- Nia (Purpose): This tenet calls for the Black community to make their “collective vocation the building and developing of their community” in order to restore Black “people to their traditional greatness.”
Day Six- Kuumba (Creativity): This is a call for people of African descent to always do as much as they can, in the way they can, “in order to leave the community more beautiful and beneficial than when it was inherited.” Kuumba is the celebration and advancement of arts in the Black community, including the visual and performing arts as well as the humanities.
Day Seven- Imani (Faith): Imani is the seventh and final day of Kwanza. It calls for people of African descent to “believe with all their hearts in their people, their parents, their teachers, their leaders, and the righteousness and victory of the struggle.” The African American Registry’s website says the following about Imani: “The seventh day focuses on Imani or faith. This principle focuses on honoring the best of our traditions, draws upon the best in ourselves, and helps us strive for a higher level of life for humankind. Imani affirms our self-worth and confidence in our ability to succeed and triumph in righteous struggle.”
As the United States moves towards a more socially just society and continues to work to diversify the curriculum, teachers can integrate lessons about kwanzaa and its seven principles into their classrooms. Here are some resources and lesson ideas to assist teachers in this effort.
Resources and Lesson Plans
Click here to learn more from this article, Understanding Kwanzaa.
Cincinnati Public Radio’s Classics for Kids has published information here about the musical aspects of Kwanzaa.
Illinois Public Radio published an informative article about Kwanzaa in 2020 entitled The history and traditions of Kwanzaa that serves as good further reading on the topic.
Here is the official Kwanzaa website for more information.
Lesson Plans/Units on teaching Kwanzaa
7 Kwanzaa Activities for Elementary Students
Celebrate Kwanzaa in the United States by Scholastic
Kwanzaa Teacher Resources
Kwanzaa Lesson Plans
Kwanzaa Lesson Plan: Habari Gani (What’s the News)?
Kwanzaa Homeschool Activities
Before reading this article I didn’t know much about the celebration of Kwanzaa. I find it interesting that the holiday not only unites the black community, but also helps the individuals that celebrate in emotional and physical ways. I love that Kwanzaa promotes finding yourself and looking towards your own destiny. I also think it’s important to support businesses within the community to help bring everyone together. I wish schools taught students more about Kwanzaa and other holiday celebrations outside Christmas.
Ive always heard about Kwanzaa, but didn’t know the history. I celebrate Christmas, so I never looked into the other Holidays that are celebrated around Christmas. I have heard of the 7 principles I do believe there should be a class or a lesson taught about the different Holidays. I didn’t know that Kwanzaa was originally designed, in Karenga’s own words– to “give blacks an alternative to the existing holiday and give blacks an opportunity to celebrate themselves and history, rather than simply imitate the practice of the dominant society.”