A smiling Black family lights candles on the kinara. via Image Source Trading Ltd/Shutterstock.

Kwanzaa — a Holiday of Purpose and Principles

by Patheresa Wells

A seven-day African American and Pan-African celebration starting on Dec. 26, Kwanzaa — created in 1966 by Maulana Karenga — was developed as a way to connect, commemorate, and honor community and culture by focusing on Nguzo Saba, or the Seven Principles of Kwanzaa. These principles are rooted in traditions of first fruits or harvest celebrations that are found throughout Africa. Even the name of the celebration is taken from the Swahili phrase matunda ya kwanza, or “first fruits.” 

LaNesha DeBardelaben, president and CEO of the Northwest African American Museum (NAAM), shares that “[the] holiday came about during the Black Arts Movement of the mid-1960s,” as Black museums were forming in cities across the United States. 

“Black arts, such as poetry, drama, dance, music, and literature, were embraced as avenues for cultural and political empowerment,” DeBardelaben told the Emerald. “Kwanzaa’s seven days were designed to fortify Black identity, purpose, and direction.” 

The seven days of Kwanzaa are celebrated alongside the Seven Principles, which you can learn more about on the Smithsonian National Museum of African American History & Culture website. The Seven Principles of Kwanzaa are Umoja (unity), Kujichagulia (self-determination), Ujima (collective work and responsibility), Ujamaa (cooperative economics), Nia (purpose), Kuumba (creativity), and Imani (faith). Because Kwanzaa is not a religious holiday, it can be celebrated on its own or alongside other traditions. 

Here are some ways you can incorporate Kwanzaa into your celebrations in your homes and in your communities this year. 

One of the greatest ways we can observe the holiday, which is not only tied to African cultural traditions and practices but is also born out of the diaspora that African Americans experience, is to spend time learning about why Kwanzaa exists. A great resource is the Searchable Museum feature of the National Museum of African American History & Culture, which is a free digital expansion of the museum’s walls and a way to learn, see, and view history often left out of textbooks. 

Teroshua Thomas with Africatown Center for Education & Innovation is a chair of the Northwest Kwanzaa Committee, which will hold a hybrid celebration this year. Thomas shares that their celebration extends back to the first Kwanzaa held in Seattle in 1969. The event will be exclusively for those of the African diaspora and, as Thomas shares, “is a time for us to not just celebrate these principles but celebrate elders, making sure we are serving them in the right manner and pulling on their wisdom.” The intergenerational aspect of Kwanzaa is one that the Northwest Kwanzaa Committee stresses by making sure to provide what they call “edutainment” to all ages of the community. Thomas says it’s essential to understand that though the principles of Kwanzaa are being practiced during the celebration, “we practice these things all year round. And this is just the time for us to heighten it.” If you are part of the African diaspora and would like more information about the events, please email NorthwestKwanzaaCommittee@gmail.com.

If you are interested in virtual celebrations this year, NAAM will be presenting Nia: A Kwanzaa Celebration of Spoken Word and Song on Thursday, Dec. 30. This event will focus on the fifth principle of Kwanzaa, Nia, or purpose. DeBardelaben told the Emerald that “NAAM aims to use Black heritage to invest in our collective healing and to cultivate hope. Healing and hope are essential to realize and live within our Nia — our purpose.” 

DeBardelaben believes it’s important to offer virtual gatherings that uplift the community. “There is an African proverb that says, ‘Smooth seas don’t make skillful sailors.’ It is during these tough times that we can become stronger and more resilient, realizing the strength we didn’t even know we had. We all learn to be innovative during times like this.” By celebrating our purpose, by bringing together artists, and by creating a space for what DeBardelaben calls “cultural reflection and personal renewal as one year closes out and another arises,” NAAM’s Kwanzaa celebration is an opportunity to build and nurture community. 

For those who would like to attend an in-person event, Wa Na Wari, “a center for Black art and belonging,” is holding two events this weekend: a night market Dec. 17, 5–9 p.m., and a weekend market Saturday, Dec. 18, through Sunday, Dec. 19, 12–5 p.m., which will include a Kwanzaa photo booth designed by artist Perri Rhoden. Please note that proof of COVID-19 vaccination or a negative test result taken within 72 hours and a face mask are required for both events. Find more details on Wa Na Wari’s website

While there are many ways to celebrate the purpose and principles of Kwanzaa, it is vital that we acknowledge that the holiday was created to reunite those stripped of their heritage with a connection to the rich traditions of the first fruits celebrations. These fruits born all year round are celebrated during the seven days of Kwanzaa, providing a time to learn, reflect, and grow.

Patheresa Wells is a Queer poet, writer, and storyteller who lives in SeaTac, Washington. Born to a Black mother and Persian father, her experiences as a multicultural child shaped her desire to advocate for and amplify her community. She is currently pursuing a B.A. in creative writing. Follow her on Twitter @PatheresaWells.

📸 Featured Image: Photo via Image Source Trading Ltd/Shutterstock.com.

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