December 20, 2012

By Shirley Hawkins   

LAWT Contributing Writer


African Americans across the country and throughout the global African community are celebrating the arrival of Kwanzaa, a pan-African holiday that celebrates family, culture and community.

Kwanzaa is a time of remembrance, reflection and recommitment in which family, individuals and community remember the legacy of the ancestors, reflect on life and critical issues, and recommit themselves to excellence, especially values and practices which lead to a good and prosperous coming year.

Kwanzaa is organized around the Nguzo Saba, The Seven Principles, which serve as cultural grounding and guidance for millions, not only during Kwanzaa, but also throughout the year in their lives and work . For seven days, from Dec. 26 to Jan. 1, a candle is lit to represent one of seven principles of Kwanzaa which are unity (Umoja), self-determination (Kujichagulia), collective work and responsibility (Ujima), cooperative economics (Ujamaa), purpose (Nia), creativity (Kuumba), and faith (Imani).

One of the main symbols of Kwanzaa is the Kinara (the candleholder) with seven candles, each candle standing for one of The Seven Principles and the lighting of the candles represents an ancient African ritual called “lifting up the light that lasts,” the enduring ethical and spiritual values that anchor and inform the lives of the people, especially the Seven Principles

The candles are black, red and green. The center black candle symbolizes black people. The three red candles on the left of the Black candle symbolize the struggle of the people for good in the world. And the three green candles on the right symbolize the hope and future forged in struggle.

The celebration also incorporates drumming, singing and dancing, pouring libation to honor the ancestors, telling cultural stories, and holding a community-wide Karamu (feast) on December 31, the day before January 1, which is the Day of Meditation on the meaning and obligation of being African in the world. Participants also wear African clothing to celebrate their cultural roots.

Dr. Maulana Karenga, professor and chair of Africana Studies at California State University, Long Beach and executive director of the African American Cultural Center (Us) founded the holiday in 1966. Dr. Karenga also wrote the authoritative text on the holiday, Kwanzaa: A Celebration of Family, Community and Culture¸ Los Angeles, Sankore Press.

Dr. Karenga, who each year establishes the theme of Kwanzaa in his Annual Founder’s Message, said this year’s theme is “Kwanzaa, Us and the Well-being of the World: A Courageous Questioning.” He states that it calls on to remember the ancient African ethical teaching that we are chosen to bring good in the world.

Also, Dr. Karenga says that “to honor our obligation to constantly bring good in the world, we must have a world-encompassing concept of ourselves and our responsibility and answer not only the call of the vulnerable, the poor, the ill and aged, the widow, orphan, prisoner and oppressed, but also answer the call of our injured earth, constantly subject to plunder, pollution and depletion.” This means, he states, that “we must practice the ancient African ethical principle of serudj ta, that is to say, the moral obligation to heal, repair, renew and remake the world, making it more beautiful and beneficial than we inherited it.

In Los Angeles, the Kwanzaa Ujima Collective, founded by Dr. Karenga with several community organizations, annually holds celebrations each evening at a different venue where community members reflect on one of The Seven Principles and conduct activities of celebration of the holiday.

Nzinga and Jackie Kimbrough of Zambezi Bazaar in Leimert Park, members of the Kwanzaa Ujima Collective, have been practicing Kwanzaa for over 30 years. “We were one of the first participants,” recalls Nzinga, adding that her progressive parents began celebrating the holiday in the ‘70s. “Kwanzaa is about us, it speaks to our culture and tradition,” explained Nzinga, who said that Zambezi Bazaar will celebrate Kwanzaa on the evening of Dec. 27.  “Within the collective, we hold a ceremony and light a candle for the second night of Kwanzaa, called Kujichagulia, which means self-determination. We usually have fruit, oranges, dried corn, and apples on display,” said Nzinga.  “We dress in African clothing to bring forth our African culture and we usually have either a drummer, singer, dancer, storyteller to perform, or someone might give a speech—anything that is positive and expresses our culture.”

With households across the country struggling with the troubling economy and the lingering recession, Nzinga feels that practicing the reaffirming principles of Kwanzaa will prove to be more important to African Americans than ever. “Kujichagulia focuses you and purifies you,” she reflected.  “You are able to join hands with other African Americans and people around the world in a show of unity.” 

Reverend Richard “Meri KaRa” Byrd, founder of the KRST Unity Center of African Spiritual Science, said KRST will celebrate the principle of “Nia” (purpose) on the evening of Dec. 30. “We come together based on the principles established by Dr. Karenga and the Organization Us,” said Byrd. “Kwanzaa raises our consciousness as African Americans with the reality of our ability to make things better.”

Community Activist Ngoma Ali is busy preparing for the 11th Annual Kwanzaa Heritage Festival to be held from 10 a.m. to 6 p.m. on Dec. 29 in the Vision parking lot in Leimert Park. The festival will feature drill teams, reggae bands, poets, drummers, a children’s village, the Queens of Kwanzaa and cheerleaders from Susan B. Dorsey High School.  “The theme of this year’s festival is ‘Dream It, Believe It, and Achieve It,’” said Ali. “Kwanzaa reinforces our self-esteem as African Americans in terms of our cultural past and it gives us strength for the challenges of the future.”

Charmaine Jefferson, executive director of the California African American Museum, said that the museum celebrated pre-Kwanzaa in early December, but that the holiday continues to resonate with its patrons throughout the year.

“Kwanzaa is important to us as a people because we have suffered through the loss of generations and the loss of culture as well as through the horrors of slavery and segregation,” she said. “Kwanzaa is significant for us as a cultural tradition because we have had our traditions stripped away from us. We come to Kwanzaa knowing that we pass along a tradition that pays respect to African traditions, even though we can’t speak to our specific African heritage.” 

Pausing, she added, “As Christmas decorations continue to arrive earlier and earlier every year, Kwanzaa is about going back to basics. It makes us think and reflect about how we lead our lives every day. It gives us a framework to think about, ‘Did I do business with a black business today? Have I attempted to be all that I can be? Have I learned all that I can learn?’ Kwanzaa reflects being the best you can be for your community and the community being the best it can be for you.”


Category: Community