Kwanzaa and fragmented perceptions of African Culture

“The Black Candle” The Story of Kwanzaa, narrated by Maya Angelou.

Within the span of a few short decades, Kwanzaa has grown from little-known observance among a handful of black nationalists in Los Angeles during the 60s into being recognized as a mainstream international holiday. Although Kwanzaa’s origins lie within the African American community, it is being practiced by growing numbers each year in the African Diaspora and in Africa itself.

Kwanzaa has grown in popularity to the point where President Obama (like Presidents Bush and Clinton before him) makes an annual statement in recognition of the holiday, and it has become the subject of television, radio and print advertisements. Even the U.S. Post Office issues various Kwanzaa commemorative stamps and Hallmark produces its own line of Kwanzaa greeting cards.  Given its novelty, the holiday is often misunderstood by white Americans or even denigrated and vilified by conservative pundits or white supremacist groups.

Kwanzaa was conceived by Dr. Maulana Karenga in 1966, and was intended to strengthen a sense of community and unifying cultural values among African Americans.  According to the official Kwanzaa web site, the holiday is based on “Matunda ya Kwanzaa” or literally the “first fruits” of African harvest celebrations.  Occurring each year in the 7 days following Christmas, Kwanzaa designates a Swahili theme for each day, including Umoja (Unity); Kujichagulia (Self-Determination); Ujima (Collective Work and Responsibility); Ujamaa (Cooperative Economics); Nia (Purpose); Kuumba (Creativity) and Imani (Faith).

The holiday is observed through community events, as well as among individual families who may have a set of 7 black, red and green candles which are placed in a special candle holder called a Kinara. Fruit and ears of corn are sometimes placed around the Kinara and offered to friends and family to represent the abundance of harvest, and the lighting of each candle symbolizes reflection on the Kwanzaa theme for that particular day. 

“This was the beauty of the principles, although they come out of the black freedom struggle – in many ways they are not “black” principles,” says Keith Mayes, author of the book “Kwanzaa: Black Power and the Making of an African-American Holiday Tradition.” They can apply to any community, they can apply to any situation and in many ways they are lifelong principles that all of us as human beings can live by.”

According to Mayes, in its early years Kwanzaa spread from Los Angeles to Oakland and the Bay Area, and then to other large cities like Chicago, New York and Atlanta. By the 80s and 90s Kwanzaa celebrations had become far more popular and could be found throughout the Caribbean and in cities like Toronto and Paris. 

One study for the National Retail Foundation suggests that approximately 4.7 million people observe Kwanzaa, while the African American Research Council and Dr. Karenga claim that between 20 and 28 million people celebrate Kwanzaa, and Mayes claims that about 2 million people participate in the holiday. In between these extremes, Duke University Anthropology Professor Lee D. Baker estimates that 12 million people observe Kwanzaa. 

Many large cities organize special Kwanzaa community events and social gatherings. Denver, Colorado has one of the most active annual Kwanzaa celebrations, with a daily ceremonial lighting of a community Kinara and a variety of symposiums, drum and dance performances, guest speakers, museum exhibits, events for children and seniors and library activities.

U.S. Postal Service 2001 commemorative Kwanzaa Stamp.

U.S. Postal Service 2001 commemorative Kwanzaa Stamp.

But the rapid growth of Kwanzaa has confounded many, including African immigrants coming to the United States as well as others who discovered or learned about the holiday by accident. While the criticism white supremacist groups might be seen as visceral reaction to anything foreign or outside of traditional American celebrations like Thanksgiving and Christmas, there has been some surprising criticism from Africans themselves, particularly Kenyans, who question some of the language and concepts underlying Kwanzaa.

During the Kwanzaa holiday in 2014, CNN commentator and Morehouse Professor of African American Studies Marc Lamont Hill set off a Twitter firestorm on when he commented, “Can y’all please stop saying that Kwanzaa is a made-up holiday? What holiday ISN’T made up?”

While some African Americans have typically opposed or resisted the holiday because of reservations concerning Dr. Karenga or Kwanzaa’s philosophy, a surprising number of Kenyans spoke out and reacted negatively. 

“Well just to begin with, for all intents and purposes of what it is meant to describe, Kwanzaa is spelled with two As, and that is a mistake,” says Wanjiru, a Kenyan high school teacher who has become a naturalized American citizen, in recent a telephone interview. “So the name of the festival is incorrect.

“This Dr. Maulama Karenga guy – I don’t know what any of this is. I’ve traveled and talked with a lot of people – not just with Kenyans, but with Tanzanians and Ugandans who also speak Swahili – and I have asked them, do you understand this Kwanzaa first harvest festival?  I haven’t found it in Tanzania, Uganda or Kenya anyone who is celebrating something called Kwanzaa or the “first harvest” or something like that. It does not exist.”

Wanjiru has lived in California for 20 years and attended four Kwanzaa celebrations, two in Los Angeles, one in Oakland and one in Hayward. She felt the event in Oakland was the most “authentic” because it had more Swahili speakers with ties to Africa, while the Swahili spoken at events in Los Angeles was difficult to understand and the Hayward commemoration felt like “a Mandarin class.”

“The third Kwanzaa principle, “Ujima” is supposed to mean “Collective Work and Responsibility,” but “Ujima” doesn’t mean that,” Wanjiru pointed out. ‘Ujima” is not a word I am familiar with in Swahili; I am familiar with “Ujamaa,” but the one before that, “Ujima” is not even a word; and these are some of the problems that we have. 

“I think there’s a big disconnect between Kwanza and the linguistics and what it’s supposed to represent. I think it’s really important for there to be that connection with actual Africans. If you are going to use my language, I want you to communicate with me.”

Wanjiru added that the language issue is very sensitive, because in the wars for Kenyan independence people like the Kikuyu and the Mau Mau fought and died for the right to use their language, and it is central to their indigenous culture.

While Kenyans agree that Kwanzaa is not found in their region of Africa, not all Kenyans feel the holiday is problematic in its usage of Swahili and ties to Africa.

Rosemary Oyugi, a prominent businesswoman in Denver and a board member of the Denver Sister Cities project involving her home city of Nairobi, feels very strongly that Kwanzaa is having a positive influence and should be appreciated. She says she learned about Kwanzaa serendipitously through a dance troupe she helped organize, where some of the dancers observed Kwanzaa.

“If you use a word, it’s a symbol. If African Americans are picking up a word and using it as a symbol and that is bringing people together, it is not a big deal – there is nothing offensive about that,” Rosemary said during a conversation at her retail store, Rosma Designs, in Aurora, Colorado. She agreed that she had not heard of a Matunda ya Kwanzaa festival in Kenya or in the Great Lakes region of Africa. 

“I would simply say that in Africa, Kwanzaa does not exist – simple. But it’s not that Kwanzaa has offended anybody, because African Americans have a right to their own thinking or imagining. When African Americans think of a word or come up with a word, it doesn’t offend anybody – in fact, it is really exciting for them to do that.”

Oyugi had a similar ambivalence or confusion about certain words in the Kwanzaa canon. She did not identify “Ujima” as a word, but suggested that Dr. Karenga and others may have meant to use “uzima,” which means “life,” or “kuamzima” which means “to be alive.”  She recognized “Ujamaa,” which she interpreted as “community,” and “Nia,” which she said means “Intention.” Oyugi also thought that “Kuunda” is a more appropriate word for “creativity,” whereas “Kuumba” implies the idea of “Creation.” Finally, she thought “Kuchagua” was a better word for “Self Determination” or to “select” than “Kujichaglia,” which she said meant to identify with something. But despite some semantic differences, she believes the overall framework of the holiday – particularly the importance of the word “Umoja” in emphasizing unity as an underlying theme – is valid. 

“What I’m finding out is the people who believe in Kwanzaa – there’s quite a number, and me, I support them – anything that brings communities together, I support it. It’s coming up and it’s going to succeed,” Oyugi said. “I think his (Dr. Karenga’) idea was perfect – the words that he selected were perfect. You have to select a word; anything that is done in this world starts with a word. So for me, I’m not seeing anything wrong with the words.”

Former University of Denver college professor Dr. Paul Hamilton and author of “African Peoples’ Contributions to World Civilizations: Shattering the Myths,” sees the ambiguities of Kwanzaa’s philosophical foundations in a historical context of changing attitudes of African Americans toward Africa.

“I think the key thing to emphasize is getting more people to come together. And for the intellectuals it’s a great thing to talk about and refine and that becomes part of the history and lessons,” says Dr. Hamilton, recently retired at 75. “From my point of view, you want to make sure you’re adding to connections, versus taking them out – we’ve got so few, particularly Americans with Africa. It’s been very strained relationship.

“When I was growing up, you would not say that you’re an African, at all. Those were fighting words – literally,” Dr. Hamilton said with a wistful laugh, recalling his childhood in the steel mill town of Pueblo, Colorado during the 40s. “Of course, we weren’t “black” back then either; we were “Colored” and “Negro.” But Africa had such a negative connotation.”  

Hamilton compared the evolution of Kwanzaa with the ethos of certain Jewish holidays, which have great potential for reconstructing a painful past and bringing people together. He pointed out that as an ethnic group or culture matures “you take the hurt and wounds, and you build on it to become celebrations.” 

Georgetown University professor and renowned author Michael Eric Dyson has said that Kwanzaa has taken on even more significance in the “Post-Obama” era, where African Americans have ascended to the American presidency, but are facing increasing racial conflicts due to a notable rise in police killings and perceived improprieties in the judicial process such as the grand jury investigations of the Michael Brown and Eric Garner deaths.

Given Kwanzaa’s extraordinary growth, it is clear that the holiday will continue to expand in the United States as well as throughout the African Diaspora and on the continent of Africa itself, well into the future. While the holiday has its limitations and detractors, it has also proven to be an evolving focal point around which families and communities can organize a vast array of meaningful activities.


Categories: Africa, Culture, Entertainment, Music

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4 replies

  1. Thank you James for all the research and work you put into this very interesting informative piece. Much appreciated!

    • I’m glad you like this article, Joni! Kwanzaa has grown and evolved very quickly and not many people outside of the African American community have much experience or understanding of it, and even people within the African American community don’t fully understand the roots of the holiday, so it’s worth examining some of this history. Hopefully in the future some people will organize symposiums and panel discussions about the linguistics and philosophy behind Kwanzaa because some of the Kenyans I talked to and observed on Twitter are genuinely befuddled about some of these issues. Language can be a sensitive thing, particularly in Kenya where there was a lot of bloodshed over independence the right to assert their own language and culture. African languages have their own beauty and layers of intuitive meanings and it would be helpful if some education along these lines happens during Kwanzaa, because it’s all related to some of these central issues. Kwanzaa fills a profound need for African Americans – and the African Diaspora and Africans generally – to celebrate certain aspects of our history. That’s why it went from being relatively unknown in the late 60s to being celebrated by millions of people worldwide in 2014-15 – and it will continue to grow and evolve in the years to come.

  2. Kwanza (firstly) Thanks for this informative post. I live in Kenya and even the usage of the language of Kiswahili at all is a bit of a live issue, given it is not the communal language of most of the Communities in Kenya, its more a sort of lingua franca that spread around Kenya and the East Africa region as a result of Trade routes and the colonial administration. Some even argue that English is more globally competitive. Anyway Thanks again for the insightful post

    • I’m glad you liked the post… I was surprised that there had been some controversy brewing, because I had always taken the meaning of Kwanzaa for granted without doing any in depth research on the linguistics or foundations of the holiday. The African American community in Denver is quite active during Kwanzaa, with extensive activities ranging from DJ parties to museum exhibits and cultural workshops and symposiums. Apparently it Kwanzaa’s success and popularity as what is becoming the first truly pan-African holiday celebration that has brought these questions to the surface. In US durig the late 60s and early 70s there was a lot of interest in Africa growing out of the civil rights movement and black nationalist groups like the Black Panthers. But very few African Americans at that point (we weren’t even calling ourselves African Americans, as Dr. Hamilton pointed out; we were making the transition from “Negro” and “colored” to “black”) had traveled to Africa or had done serious academic work on Africa. Many of these groups started using Swahili greetings and phrases, because Swahili was the most widely spoken language in Africa. But few people understood its nature, as you point out, as a lingua franca for that region; people thought that by learning some of these words it would help black Americans to be able to communicate with their African brothers and sisters. People had very little appreciation or practical understanding of how vast or complex Africa is linguistically and culturally. For us, Africa has always been an abstract unifying energy or quality that manifests through our music, culture, dance, etc. and the idea that people thought Swahili would put us in touch with our roots shows just how deep misconceptions can run! Holidays often evolve and change over time to become somewhat different from the traditions that spawned them. Kwanzaa has great potential and hopefully it can become an opportunity for African Americans and people throughout the Diaspora to develop more authentic ties with Africa.

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