Kwanzaa celebrations begin with reflection on African roots

Week-long holiday starts Dec. 26 with a focus on 'sowing and harvesting seeds of good,' founder says

The first candle of Kwanzaa, for unity, is lit at the Emmit Scott Center in Tyler, Texas, Dec. 26, 2002. In the background is a statuette, one of a pair representing the first man and the first woman.
Tom Worner/AP

Kwanzaa, a week-long, African-American holiday with both ancient and modern roots, began Thursday with this year's theme "sowing and harvesting seeds of good."

The celebration is based on several ancient African spiritual texts, but its political genesis dates to the Black Freedom Movement of the 1960s.

Kwanzaa is not connected to any particular religion, but is instead a time to meditate on the meaning and responsibility of being African in the context of the ancient African moral imperative to bring good into the world, Maulana Karenga, the founder of the holiday, wrote in the Los Angeles Sentinel Thursday.

"To know our past and honor it, to engage our present and improve it and to imagine a whole new future and forge it in the most ethical, effective and expansive ways," is the Kwanzaa celebrant's duty this season, Karenga, who is a professor and chair of the Africana Studies department at California State University, Long Beach, wrote. "Heri za Kwanzaa! Happy Kwanzaa!"

Millions celebrate Kwanzaa in the U.S. and while others elsewhere in the Western African diaspora may participate, more specific estimates of how many take part in the holiday are not available.

Karenga created Kwanzaa in 1966 during the Black Power movement, when many emphasized the importance of rediscovering "Africanness." The holiday still reflects this aspect of the movement that prioritized cultural grounding, self-determination, social justice, liberation and struggle.

"How do we, as African persons and peoples, address the critical issues of our time, speak our own special truth to the world and engage in personal social practice which upholds our highest values and contributes meaningfully to creating the good world we all want and deserve to live in," Karenga pondered in his message Thursday.

Though the Black Power movement has come a long way since the 1960s, Kwanzaa's emphasis on struggle still resonates with the African-American community today.

"We still struggle ... and Kwanzaa places an emphasis on solidarity with all the struggling peoples of the world," Chimbuko Tembo, associate director of the African American Cultural Center in Los Angeles, told Al Jazeera. The center is considered the birthplace of Kwanzaa.

Munir Bahar, founder of 300 Men March, which takes on violence in Baltimore by engaging with youth in the streets, told Al Jazeera that Kwanzaa's principles empower African-Americans and link them to an ancestry most have forgotten.

"The African-American community has assimilated itself into this Western, European lifestyle ... without regards to African ancestry," Bahar said.

The Seven Principles

Bahar said that members of the African diaspora in the U.S. lost ties to their culture and lineage and have no concept of their history before slavery.

"Kwanzaa was created to do that ... We are operating without that link, without that there's no ancestral bonding, no reminder of the old way," Bahar said.

"Most have no clue ... part of it is because of how history is taught in school. You aren't taught about ancient African empires and kingdoms ... Black History Month only goes back to slavery, a few hundred years."

The African American Cultural Center's Tembo said that connection to history is essential to establishing justice, which has so often been denied to African-Americans since slavery.

"If we want to free ourselves as a people, we have to be ourselves ... in fullness as African people."

The name Kwanzaa is derived from a Swahili phrase meaning "first fruits," and the holiday is based on harvest celebrations that took place across Africa as far back as ancient Egypt, according to Tembo. The Swahili language was chosen because it is the most widely understood language in Africa.

"The emphasis is not on theology, but on ethics," Tembo said. "How do we live a righteous life today? How do we take these ancient teachings and bring them into modern times in order to answer the essential questions of human life."

Each of the seven days of Kwanzaa focuses on a specific principle — one of the Nguzo Saba (Seven Principles) — that should be practiced year-round. The Nguzo Saba are based on ethics that Karenga has compiled in the Husia, a collection of ancient Egyptian texts, hymns and other spiritual works.

"Do good. Doing good is not difficult. Just speaking good is a monument for those who do it. And those who do good for others are also doing it for themselves," the Husia reads.

The theme of the first day of Kwanzaa is Umoja, or Unity, which is a time to reflect on the importance of maintaining solidarity with the suffering and oppressed peoples of the world, Karenga said.

The next six days focus on the principles of Kujichagulia (self-determination), Ujima (collective work), Ujamaa (cooperative economics), Nia (purpose) — based on an ancient African spiritual text called the "Odu Ifa," which says "humans are divinely chosen to bring good into the world," Kuumba (creativity) and Imani (faith).

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