Dr. Karenga and the History and Origins of Kwanzaa
The Los Angeles neighborhood of Watts was the scene of rioting, destruction, and death from August 11th–16th, 1965. What became known as the Watts riots emerged from reports that local police hurt, kicked, and mistreated a pregnant African-American woman. The alleged abuse resulted in the conception of a cultural phenomenon that gave birth to Kwanzaa. Dr. Maulana Ndabezitha Karenga invented the African-American holiday amid the aftereffects of the Watts riots.
Dr. Maulana Ndabezitha Karenga invented the African-American holiday of Kwanzaa amid the aftereffects of the Watts riots.
Dr. Maulana Ndabezitha Karenga
Born on July 14, 1941, Ronald McKinley Everett had thirteen siblings—six brothers and seven sisters. His father was a poultry farmer in Parsonburg, Maryland and an ordained Baptist minister. Within twenty years, Ronald Mckinley Everett went from being Ron Everett the sharecropper to being Ron Karenga the cultural leader. Later, he became Maulana Karenga, which translates as "Master Teacher." Karenga received his Ph.D. in 1975.
Becoming a Master Teacher
In 1959, when he was around eighteen years of age, Ron Everett migrated to Los Angeles, California where his older brother was teaching in the city. Everett's transformation began at Los Angeles City College (LACC). As a student, Ron became engrossed in African studies. He also passionately interacted with the civil rights groups, the Congress of Racial Equality (CORE), and the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee (SNCC). Ron Everett's enthusiasm for knowledge and understanding led to his election as LACC's first African-American student president.
Contact with Councill Taylor, a Jamaican anthropologist who challenged Eurocentrism along with other influences, led to Ronald McKinley Everett's embracement of the Swahili name Karenga (keeper of tradition). Everette also added the Swahili-Arabic title Maulana (master teacher).
After earning his associate's degree, he enrolled at the University of California in Los Angeles (UCLA). His political science major resulted in BA and MA degrees. Everett dove into Afrocentric languages such as Arabic and Swahili. UCLA allowed Everett to come into contact with Councill Taylor, a Jamaican anthropologist who challenged Eurocentrism. Taylor's and other influences led to Ronald McKinley Everett's embracement of the Swahili name Karenga (keeper of tradition). Everett also added the Swahili-Arabic title Maulana (master teacher).
The Early Years of Kwanzaa
First observed in 1966, Kwanzaa provided a festive environment to celebrate African-American culture and heritage. At first, Dr. Karenga wanted Kwanzaa, which was seasoned with separatism, to be an annual alternative to Christmas. Karenga adopted the notion that blacks should reject Christianity because it was a "white" religion. To avoid the estrangement of Christians, Karenga later changed his position. In 1997, he was quoted as stating, "Kwanzaa was not created to give people an alternative to their own religion or religious holiday." Kwanzaa became a means for African-Americans to achieve cultural identity, direction, and purpose. Many African-Americans started to celebrate Kwanzaa in addition to the observance of Christmas. The holiday is held from December 26th to January 1st and has expanded beyond the borders of the United States. It ends with gift-giving at Karamu Ya Iman (Feast of Faith).
The Name Kwanzaa
According to Karenga, the name Kwanzaa derives from the Swahili phrase matunda ya kwanza (first fruits of the harvest, or first fruits). Festival celebrations of first fruits occur in the Southern parts of Africa alongside celebrations of the southern solstice in December and January. The spirituality and significance of the number seven motivated Karenga to add an extra "a" to the holiday's name. The symbols and principles of Kwanzaa all have names derived from the East African Swahili language.
The Kwanzaa Kinara
Kwanzaa's most notable symbol is the Kinara (Kee-Nah-rah). The Kinara is a candle holder that symbolizes the ancestral roots of the African continent. Placed in the Kinara are seven candles, three red, three green, and one black. The seven candles (Mishumaa Saba) represent one of the Seven Principles (Niguzo Saba) of Kwanzaa. Inspired by the Pan-African flag (Bendera) adopted by Marcus Garvey on August 13, 1920, each candle color has an inherent meaning. Red represents the unifying blood that people of black African ancestry shed for liberation. Black signifies black people who exist as a spiritual nation. Green denotes the abundant natural wealth of Africa.
The Placing of the Candles
Placement of the candles in the Kinara occurs in a specific order. The three red candles go on the left side. The three green candles go on the right. The single black candle goes in the center. Candle lighting takes place each day of Kwanzaa, beginning with the black candle in the center. Lighting a new candle each day symbolizes the Kwanzaa Nguzo Saba (principle of the day). After the black candle, the lighting of the farthest red candle initiates an alternating color sequence. First, as mentioned, the black candle is lit. After that, the farthest left red candle is lit. Then, the most distant right green candle is lit. Then the next red is lit, followed by the next green, the last red, and the final green.
Because there are no rules as to who lights the candles, each family has leeway to establish their candle lighting traditions. Some families give the youngest child the honor of lighting the candles, while others extend the privilege to the eldest family member. Families sometimes share the candle lighting duties each night by allowing a different family member to light the candles.
The Seven Principles of the Kinara
The Nguzo Saba (En-GOO-Zoh Sah-BAH), or the seven principles that the candle lighting represents are:
- Umoja (oo-MOE-Jah): Unity
- Kujichagulia (Koo-jee-cha-goo-LEE-ah): Self-Determination
- Ujima(oo-JEE-mah): Collective Work
- Ujamaa (oo-JAH-mah): Cooperative Economics
- Nia (nee-AH): Purpose
- Kuumba (Koo-OOM-bah): Creativity
- Imani (ee-MAH-nee): Faith
The Meanings of the Seven Principles
- Umoja (oo-MOE-Jah) represents unity. The goal of Umoja is to strive for and maintain unity in families, communities, the race, and the nonmaterial nation.
- Kujichagulia (Koo-jee-cha-goo-LEE-ah) stands for self-determination. Through Kujichagulia, Kwanzaa practitioners learn to define, name, create, and speak for themselves, both individually and collectively.
- Ujima (oo-JEE-mah) means collective work and responsibility. Ujima is building communities and solving problems as brothers and sisters collectively.
- Ujamaa (oo-JAH-mah) constitutes cooperative economics. Kwanzaa enthusiasts believe in building and maintaining stores, shops, and other businesses that profit themselves and their progenitors.
- Nia (nee-AH) connotates purpose. The mission of Nia is to build and develop communities in a manner that will restore and maintain new and ancestral greatness.
- Kuumba (Koo-OOM-bah) denotes creativity. The practice of Kuumba leaves communities stunning and exponentially advantageous for generation after generation.
- Imani (ee-MAH-nee) signifies faith. By faith, Kwanzaa devotees internalize with all of their beings the righteousness and victory of the struggle of their people, parents, teachers, and leaders.
The Seven Symbols of Kwanzaa
Kwanzaa has seven basic symbols, including the Kinara (Candle Holder). Two supplemental symbols, the Bendera (Flag) and the Nguzo Saba Poster (Poster of The Seven Principles), are also included in the festivities.
The seven basic symbols are:
- Mazao (mah-ZAH-oh): The Crops
- Mkeka (em-KEH-kah): The Mat
- Kinara (Kee-Nah-rah): Candle Holder
- Muhindi (Moo-heen-dee): The Corn
- Mishumaa Saba (Mee-shoo-maah): The Seven Candles
- Kikombe cha Umoja (kee-KOHM-bee chah oo-MOH-jah): The Unity Cup
- Zawadi (Sah-wah-dee): The Gifts
The Meanings of the Seven Basic Symbols
- Mazao (mah-ZAH-oh) symbolizes the crops. Representing African Harvest celebrations and the rewards of productive and collective labor, the Mazao consists of fruits and vegetables, preferably of African origin, placed in a bowl.
- Mkeka (em-KEH-kah) refers to the mat. Mkeka refers to the building foundation of Afrocentric tradition and history. It is often a straw mat that supports a Kwanzaa centerpiece arrangement.
- Kinara (kee-NAH-rah) denotes the candle holder. It is representative of the continental roots of people of African descent.
- Muhindi (Moo-heen-dee) is the corn. Muhindi connotates children and the embodiment of their future. The Muhindi or (vee-BOON-zee) resides on the mkeka along with the mazao. Each ear of corn (Muhindi) represents the number of children in the family.
- Mishumaa saba (mee-shoo-MAH-ah SAH-ba) are the seven candles of the Kinara. Symbolic of the Nguzo Saba (The Seven Principles), the Mishumaa saba is a reminder of positive and reconstructive values by which all people of African ancestry are encouraged to live.
- Kikombe cha Umoja (kee-KOHM-bee chah oo-MOH-jah) is the unity cup. The unity cup occupies the mkeka along with the mazao and the muhindi. The Kikombe cha Umoja exemplifies the progress resulting from the foundational principles and practices unity.
- Zawadi (zah-WAH-dee) are gifts. The gifts rest on the mkeka along with the mazao, muhindi, and the kikombe cha umoja. The Zawadi is reflective of the labor and love of parents and the commitments made and kept by the children.
At the Celebration
While at a Kwanzaa celebration, the expression "Habari Gani?" will be heard. Habari Gani is a Swahili term meaning "What is the news?" Kwanzaa participants say "Habari Gani?" when greeting others at the festival. Saying the name of the principle for that day is the appropriate response. If it is your first time at a Kwanzaa gathering, someone there will gracefully instruct you when you get a little stumped on what to say. For example, if you are attending a fouth day Kwanzaa activity, and someone says to you, "Habari Gani?" your response should be "Ujamaa."
To Top It Off
Zawadi tops off the week-long Kwanzaa celebration. On the seventh day, Zawadi (gifts) are exchanged with immediate family and with guests. Zawadi is the reward for accomplishments and commitments. The giving of handmade gifts demonstrates self-determination and the avoidance of commercialism. Accepting a present promotes and highlights the importance of Umoja (unity).
The Practice of Kwanzaa Is Increasing
After its 1966 inception, Kwanzaa and its practices had a slow increase in the United States. The Internet was the vehicle by which the holiday gained national and international notoriety. The twenty-first century revealed that the seeds of Kwanzaa had been sown across North America and had germinated in Africa and Europe.
- eHow Holidays & Celebrations Editor. (2017, August 31). How to Pronounce and Understand Kwanzaa Terms. Retrieved from https://www.ehow.com/how_11270_pronounce-understand-kwanzaa.html
- Kwanzaa. (2020, April 5). Retrieved from http://www.holidayscalendar.com/event/kwanzaa/
© 2020 Robert Odell Jr