KWANZAA: A CULTURE CELEBRATION INSPIRED BY A POLITICAL ERA
By Fahim A. Knight-EL
Kwanzaa is an African American culture based celebration and it is not considered a religious holiday or as an alternative to Christmas nor is it a Black Muslim celebration. These are often the misnomers that are associated with the celebration of Kwanzaa. This article will somewhat delve into the historical and social variables in order to give the readers some understanding of the culture void of African Americans that was created by Chattel Slavery (1555-1865), the greatest criminal act in the history of humanity. We will never overlook this crime and the devastating affect it had on the psychological, social, political and economic lives of over one (100) million Africans that were killed and displaced during Middle Passage and the Transatlantic Slave Trade. The impetus and motivation of Kwanzaa and its celebration has to be viewed and understood within the said historical context and the necessity of its establishment then becomes justifiable within the scheme of an African cultural linkage for the prodigal sons and daughters that were displaced 450 years ago. (Reference: Carl N. Degler; “Out of Our Past: The Forces That Shaped Modern America”).
It was founded by Dr. Maulana Karenga in 1966 in Los Angles, California. The word Kwanzaa comes from the Ki- Swahili language of East Africa, which means First Fruit. Karenga would perhaps be considered a Pan-Africanist, Cultural Nationalist and perhaps one of the foremost Black Nationalist intellectuals in the United States. This writer visited the Los Angles, California Crenshaw District in 1990 and 1991 and got a chance to visited Dr. Karenga’s Us Organization Study Group. Thus, Dr. Karenga struck me to be highly intelligent and very insightful on the liberation struggles of black people in America, Africa and the Diaspora, along with having a keen knowledge of Kemet (Egypt) as an Egyptologist, anthropologist, historian, and archeologist.
Karenga rose to national prominence in the 1960s as an aspiring black nationalist and as one of the premier spokesperson and leaders in 1967 the Black Power Conference held in Newark, New Jersey on October 20, 1967, which also included Imamu Amiri Baraka, Floyd McKissick, Nathan Wright Jr. (the conference chairman and workshop coordinators) in included Ossie Davis, James Farmer, Hoyt Fuller, Nathan Hare, H. Rap Brown (Jamil El-Amin) Cleveland Sellers, Chuck Stone and host of other black activist during that time.
The United States was in an unjust war in Vietnam in South East Asia and antiwar demonstrations were taking place on white and black college campuses; protesting U.S. Foreign Policy. Thus, this also was at the height of the 1960s Civil Rights Movement being led by Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr., who was protesting segregation and racism in the Jim Crow South and North inside the United States; demanding public accommodation and equal rights under the law. King advocated non-violent social change, but organizations like the Deacons for Defense in Monroe, North Carolina headed Robert Williams (NAACP president in Monroe, NC), and Stokley Carmichael (Kwame Ture) Lowndes County, Alabama had already began to formulate the early stages of “Black Power” and actually the symbol of the Black Panther came out of Lowndes, County Alabama before Huey P. Newton and Bobby Seale officially established the Black Panther Party in 1966 in Los Angles. (Reference: Elaine Brown: “A Taste of Power: A Black Woman’s Story”).
The United States in the 1960s was a social tender box in which segregation, political, economic, and social disparities created an atmosphere of unrest and black grassroots people began to call for freedom, justice and equality by any means necessary. The Vietnam War was steadily heighten the contradictions and although, Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr., on August 28, 1963 led one of the largest mass protest demonstration in the history of the United States on the Capitol grounds for equality, jobs, public accommodation and inclusion, which his strategy was based on Civil Disobedience modeled after the philosophy of Mahatma Gandhi. The political mood was beginning to change and the social politics being led by the political left were becoming more radicalized and challenging to the traditional Civil Rights leaders philosophy. The racist Jim Crow philosophy was tearing the United States apart as a nation and although the Brown versus Board of Education decision was rendered by the United States Supreme Court in 1954. It was not until African Americans had fought for the passing of the 1964 Civil Rights Bill and 1965 Voting Rights Act which these two groundbreaking pieces of legislation signed into law by President Lyndon B. Johnson that began the gradual process of fostering public accommodation access and desegregation. (Reference: Martin Luther King and James M. Washington; “A Testament of Hope: The Essential Writings and Speeches of Martin Luther King, Jr.”).
Thus, Kwame Ture (Stokley Carmichael) was beginning to advocate the philosophy of “Black Power” and young African Americans were starting to be influenced by militant black radical spokesmen like Minister Malcolm X who taught a form of Black Nationalism and called for a renewal in black cultural identity. The Diasporas Africans in America and their movement for social, economic and political justice led to the influencing of the liberation struggles of African Nations in the 1960s who were also seeking freedom, liberation and independence from under European colonial rule. Ghana in 1958 became one of the first African nations to throw off the shackles of British colonialism and became a sovereign state. (Reference: Stokely Carmichael & Ekwueme Michael Thelwell; “Ready For Revolution: The Life and Struggles of Stokely Carmichael [Kwame Ture}”).
African leaders such as Kwame Nkrumah, Nnamdi Azikiwe, Julius Nyerere, Ahmed Ben Bella, Amilcar Cabral, Jomo Kenyatta, Ahmed Seku Toure, Haile Selassie, Patrice Lumumba, Ide Amin, etc. These African leaders in return provided African Americans with a model of African Nationalism and their philosophies of Pan-Africanism gave the Black movement in America a necessary connection to their motherland, in particular the ability to reclaim a distant culture and history that were stolen from them 400 years ago. (Reference: John Henrik Clarke:Africans at the Crossroads) & (Reference: Kwame Ture and Charles V. Hamilton; “Black Power: The Politics of Liberation”).
The political analysis in the 1960s ranged from black activist adopting the class struggle, race struggle and cultural struggle—Marxism and economic determinist theories and black theoreticians declared scientific socialism as an alternative to Capitalism and there were others more partial towards cultural nationalism, which Franz Fanon work titled, “The Wretched of the Earth” typified the African intellectual struggle and its opposition to European colonialism in Africa and there was other works such as the one written by Walter Rodney titled, “How Europe Underdeveloped Africa typified these struggles.”
Dubois called his first Pan-African Congress 1900 and would call four more Pan-African Congress 1919, 1921, 1923 and 1927 which to dramatize the necessity of blacks in America and throughout the Diaspora linking up with Africa to resolve the issues of colonialism, racism, oppression, imperialism, etc., as well as enhance cultural unity. There was also the Pan-Africanist George Padmore who was deeply involved in issues of a Pan African worldview and in his latter years in the 1940s stood as an elder Statesman in the last Pan African Congress session. However, there were probably none more passionate about reconnecting Disaporian Africans back to Africa than Marcus Mosiah Garvey (his motto "Africa for the Africans at home and abroad"). The Garvey back to Africa movement was perhaps both physical and psychological—more psychological than physical, it provided Disaporian Africans with a symbolic reaffirmation of a long lost home from whence their ancestors were kidnapped from over four hundred (400) years ago and robbed of the knowledge of self and culture, as well as land and valuable resources. (Reference: Amy Jacques Garvey; “Philosophy & Opinions of Marcus Garvey”).
The 1960s rebellions (what the United States Government and the popular media referred to this form of resistance as riots) in cities such as Newark, Washington D.C., Gary, Detroit, Los Angles, etc. The rebellions represented a philosophical and strategic departure from the political views of Dr. Martin Luther King. Jr. who consistently advocated non-violent social resistance. For example, the Student Non-Violent Coordinating Committee (SNCC) philosophy changed and evolved and became radicalized under the leadership of Stokley Carmichael (Kwame Ture) and later under H. Rap Brown (Jamil Abdullah El Amin). Their philosophical tactics and strategies were based a lot more on direct confrontation with the Power Apparatus and became the greatest challenge and threat to the passive politics of the traditional Civil Rights movement—not to mention the revolutionary politics of the Black Panther Party led by its Chairman Huey P. Newton. (Reference: H. Rap Brown; “Die Nigger Die!”).
These new radical and militant leaders were inspired by the voice of Minister Malcolm X, in particular after his defection from the Nation of Islam in 1964. The rebellions of the 1960s left many urban cities under U.S. Military seize because the violence and the destruction of personal property crippled the so-called orderly running of local governments and many black communities were in social and economic despair. This was the social, political and economic climate that led to Dr. Mualana Karenga formerly known as Ron Everett originally from Baltimore, Maryland to establish the cultural celebration we come to know as Kwanzaa.
Dr. Karenga was head of a Black Cultural Nationalist organization called Us Organization he is professor and chair of the Department of Black Studies at California State University, Long Beach. Dr. Karenga is also chair of the President's Task Force on Multicultural Education and Campus Diversity at California State University, Long Beach. Dr. Karenga holds two Ph.D.'s; his first in political science with focus on the theory and practice of nationalism (United States International University) and his second in social ethics with a focus on the classical African ethics of ancient Egypt (University of Southern California). (Reference: Maulana Karenga & Haki R. Madhubuti; “Million Man March/Day of Absence: A Commemorative Anthology”).
Dr. Karenga for over forty (40) years has advocated synthesize theories of Pan Africanism and Black Nationalism and although the Black Panther Party started out with similar theories, but in the late 1960s began to transition more towards the socialist theories of Marxist-Leninist and some of the early emphasis on Pan Africanism and Black Nationalism were debunked. The Black Panther Party replaced their hardcore black nationalist views upon embracing of the revolutionary philosophy of Che Guevara and the Chairman Mao Tse Tung’s “Red Book” in which the these economic determinist theorist viewed the class contradictions as the foremost antagonistic contradiction throughout human history that has led to the political, economic and social destabilization and division of humanity.But proponents of Black Nationalism and Cultural Nationalism in the 1960s and 1970s viewed race as the social contradiction that was leading the cause of social and political conflict in American and was driving the international conflicts that was rooted in European imperialism and colonial domination of Developing Nations in Africa, Caribbean, Asia, Central and South America, Australia, New Zealand and other nations of color.
These analysis and political evaluations led to theoretical conflicts in the Black Nationalist Community; many argued including Dr. Maulana Karenga that African Americans were engaged in a cultural struggle for self-identity and reclaiming of a glorious history and past that needed to be reaffirmed by revisiting a history that declared Africa as the “Dark Continent” and offering a more correct view of history that was shaped by western civilization and was steeped in a Eurocentric ideology that had justified the stealing of the indigenous peoples lands. (Reference: Chip Smith; “The Cost of Privilege: Taking on the System of White Supremacy and Racism).
This writer in the early 1990s as stated above flew out to Los Angles to visited Dr. Maulana Karenga’s Kawaida Institute of Pan-African Studies and his Us Organization and in certain aspects of the black community within Los Angles, in particular and in the entire black community in general, there exist a level of suspicion and skepticism relative to Dr. Maulana Karenga. This rift seems to have its origin in the 1960s between Karenga’s Us (United Slaves) Organization and the Black Panther Party had a historical rife that was never mended and there is a lot of bad blood in Black Nationalist and Pan-African circles even in 2008 relative to a four (4) decade old dispute. Some black nationalist have accused Dr. Karenga of allegedly being a Federal Bureau of Investigation (FBI) agent provocateur who was complicit in a shootout that landed two popular Black Panthers Party members dead—Alprentice “Bunchy” Carter and John Huggins of the Southern California Chapter were murdered on the Campus of University of California at Los Angles (UCLA), in which their deaths have haunted the image and legacy of Dr. Karenga since 1969.
Thus, in Los Angles during the 1990s a cultural nationalist and African Centered theoretician named Ashra Kwesi led a huge African Centered Study group and it was taboo to mention Dr. Karenga’s name. There were other renowned scholars and activist who were critical of Dr. Karenga such as the late Professor Emeritus Dr. John Henrik Clarke, the dean of the Afrocentric thought in America and there was Steve Cokley who I heard make some real critical statements against Dr. Karenga and his allege government complicity against the Black Panther Party. This writer has heard both sides of this argument and in all fairness; it has left him inconclusive about the allegations and counter allegations, but the burden of proof in my opinion lies with Dr. Maulana Karenga. We also must understand the United States Government and its Cointelpro (Federal Bureau of Investigation Counter Intelligence program) was in full affect under FBI Director J. Edgar Hoover aimed at militant and not so militant leaders and personalities in the 1960s and 1970s.
Minister Louis Farrakhan leader of the Nation of Islam and Dr. Benjamin Chavis Muhammad reached out to Dr. Karenga during the campaign to organize the Million Man March in 1995, naming him to the Million Man March Executive Committee; this appointment helped reestablish Dr. Karenga’s credibility amongst some Black Nationalist leaders and progressive leaders who for almost four decades wouldn’t be caught on the same stage with Dr. Karenga. But Minister Farrakhan is a smart leader and organizer he recognized that Dr. Karenga still possess a black cultural nationalism following and this was a vital segment of the black community, which brought a militant and radical legitimacy to the Million Man March—this alliance was perhaps more political than Minister Farrakhan overlooking Dr. Karenga’s controversial history.
Karenga advocated building institutions and teaching and training African people to be self-sufficient; he was academician by training who has taught in the California state University systems for now over four (4) decades and has led to the establishment of Black Studies programs, as well as being engulfed in the Afro Centric movement and using his wealth of intellectual knowledge and pen to write one of the foremost black history college text books titled, “Introduction to Black Studies.” Thus, using African models, conventional data, research methodology and more of an empirical and scientific approach to document African contributions to American history and to all of western civilization. He has been one of the few Black Nationalist leaders from the 1960s that has delved into analyzing African contribution to humanity from a scholarly perspective.
Karenga was unique because as a social activist he was able to tie the liberation struggles of Black people in America to a higher intellectual pursuit taking place on the campuses of colleges and universities and he struck me as being equally committed to the intellectual and academic struggle as he was about his social activism. (Reference: Maulana Karenga: “Introductions to Black Studies”).In 1966 the Watts section of Los Angles and the black community after the 1965 rebellions was in dire need of positive rehabilitation. Dr. Maulana Karenga developed a theory known as Kawaida which gave life to Kwanzaa; he defined Kawaida as “Kawaida Theory stood out as the most structured and influential theory of the Black Cultural Revolution. Kawaida (Karenga. 1980, 1978b) contends that the key crisis in Black life is the cultural crisis, i.e., a crisis in views and values. This crisis was caused by several factors, among which are enslavement and deculturalization, the ideological hegemony (dominance in the realm of ideas and values of the ruling race/class) and the growth of popular culture at the expense of national culture.
Dr. Karaenga continues “Culture revolution, according to Kawaida, can be defined as the ideological and practical struggle to: 1) transform the cultural context in which people live; 2) transform them in the process, making them self-conscious agents of their own liberation; and 3) build the institutional base to sustain and constantly expand that transformation. It implies and necessitates revitalizing, creating and recreating culture (Karenga, 1967). Kawaida defines culture as the totality of a people's thought and practice by which a people creates itself, celebrates, sustains and develops itself and introduces itself to history and humanity. This occurs in seven basic areas: religion, history, social organization, economic organization, political organization, creative production (art, music and literature), and ethos (collective self-definition and consciousness). It is on these seven levels, Kawaida contends, that Black people must rebuild themselves by rebuilding their culture; so that each area is in both their image and interests. This in turn necessitates a struggle against oppression to define, defend and develop that distinct culture. For it is a political fact that the greater the difference between the culture of the oppressed and the oppressor, the greater the difficulty of dominance and the capacity for resistance (Cabral, 1973).” (Reference: Maulana Karenga: “Introductions to Black Studies”).
Kwanzaa means first fruit or first harvests, which borrowed many of its concepts and precepts from more ancient rites. For example, in ancient Kemet (Egypt) Africans built systems of religions, sacrament rites, myths, etc., based on the winter and summer solstice, in which agricultural rites evolved around the sacredness of planting and harvesting—this translated into elaborate myths such as Auras, Aset, and Heru that dealt with lessons in birth, death, resurrection and ascension. The Black community after the devastating affect of the 1960s rebellions which had destroyed many urban infrastructures and the political, economic, and social lives of African Americans that were effected; they were in need of a cultural resurrection and a rebirth.
The glorious 1960s created a movement of resistance and mood to re-identify and fulfill a vacuum that had been created by four hundred years of oppression and cultural alienation from Africa by a system rooted in white supremacy ideology. Karenga instituted what was called the Nguzo Saba, which is the Seven Principles of Kwanzaa—these principles were formulated to reconstruct a community that was divided and to correct a sense of despondency that was pervasive after the 1960s rebellions.
Many of these cities in 2008 have yet to recover from the 1960s and Newark, New Jersey somewhat under Mayor Cory Booker after forty (40) years is just starting to revitalize the infrastructure and the people. The rebellions had long term social, political and economic ramifications on black urban America; however, the neglect of these cities were a systematic effort to punish those who had violently opposed the status quo—they were left to become depilated, decadent, and languished in social and economic obscurity in which this seemed to be a pattern for the majority of the urban cities that rebelled during the 1960s. Kwanzaa was a solution to that despondency. Kwanzaa is celebrated from December 25 –January 1 (Reference: Maulana Karenga; “The Husia: Sacred Wisdom of Ancient Egypt) and (Reference Karenga: "Kwanzaa: A Celebration of Family, Community and Culture”).
Nguzo Saba (Seven Principles of Kwanzaa)
1). Umoja (Unity) to strive for and maintain unity in the family, community, nation and race.
2). Kujichagulia (Self-Determination)-To define ourselves, name ourselves, and speak for ourselves instead of being defined and spoken for by others.
3). Ujima (Collective Work and Responsibility)-To build and maintain our community together and to make our brothers and sisters problems our problems and to solve them together.
4). Ujamma (Co-Operative Economics)-To build and maintain our own stores, shops and other businesses, and to profit together from them.
5). Nia (Purpose)-To make as our collective vocation the building and developing of our communities in order to restore our people to their traditional greatness.
6). Kuumba (Creativity)-To do always as much as we can, in the way that we can, in order to make our community more beautiful and beneficial than we inherited it.
7). Imani (Faith)-To believe with all our hearts in our parents, our teachers, our legitimate leaders, our people, and the righteousness and victory of our struggle.
The dates for Kwanzaa are December 26 – January 1.
On each day of Kwanzaa one of the principles of the NGUZO SABA is highlighted and celebrated:
December 26- Umoja December 27- Kujichagulia
December 28- Ujima December 29-Ujamma December 30-Nia December 31- Kuumba
January 1- Imani
On each day members of the community greet each other with the phrase "Habari gani?" which means "What is the News?" The response to the greeting is the NGUZO SABA principle for the particular day. For example, if a brother or sister asks "Habari gani?" on the fifth day of Kwanzaa, the response would be "Nia", the fifth principle.
THE SEVEN BASIC SYMBOLS
1. Mazoa (crops, fruits and vegetables) These represent the fruits of our collective labor.
2. Mkeka (straw mat) Symbolic of tradition and history. The ground of which we stand and on which we build.
3. Kinara (seven lamp candleholder) Symbolic of theparent stalk-continental Africans. Represents our ancestors as a collective whole.
4. Mishumaa Saba (seven candles: 3 red, 3 green 1 black) These represent the seven principles of NGUZO SABA. They are placed in the Kinara with the black candle representing Umoja placed in the center.
5. Muhindi (ears of corn) These represent the children (watato). Each ear represents a child in the family and the potential of the offspring to become stalks themselves, reproducing and insuring the immortality of the people.
6. Zawadi (gifts) Rewards given in love and appreciationto children and adults for acts of commitment to the "family, community, nation and race. Gifts are given for merit and should enhance personal growth and "connection to the community.
7. Kikombe Cha Umoja (unity cup) It is used to pour Tambiko (libation) in remembrance of those who have gone before us, our ancestors.
ARRANGEMENT OF SYMBOLS
A low table should be used to place the symbols. Spread out the Mkeka and place the Kinara in the center. The Muhindi should be placed around the sides of the Kinara. As they become available the Zawadi should be placed on the Mkeka in an artistic arrangement. The Mishumaa should all be placed at the far right of the Mkeka so that they are available for lighting each day. The Kikombe Cha Umoja and the Mazoa should be creatively and conveniently placed.
THE KWANZAA RITUAL
Each day the celebration of Kwanzaa should include but not necessarily be limited to the following:
1. An explanation of Kwanzaa: The African roots and contemporary meaning and significance of the celebration should be made clear to all who have gathered together.
2. An explanation of the NGUZO SABA: A presentation of the importance of a Black value system and a brief review of all the seven principles.
3. Lighting of the candles: The black candle is lit for the first day representing Umoja. Each day after the first day the black candle is 1 it first and then the candle is lit for that particular day and the days preceding it. For example, on the third day, Ujima, the first candle lit will be the black Umoja candle. Then alternating from left to right the first red candle would be lit for Ujima. On the seventh and last day of Kwanzaa six candles would be lit before "lighting the last (green) candle symbolizing Imani:
4. Description of symbols: A presentation describing the meaning and importance of the seven basic symbols of Kwanzaa.
5. Libation to ancestors (Tambiko): In traditional African societies expressions of homage were paid to ancestors through the pouring of libation. We pour libation during Kwanzaa in remembrance of those who have made sacrifices and prepared a way for us. Through libation rituals we are bonded to those who have' gone before us and to those who will come after. Our commitment to the liberation of African people is strengthened.As the libation is poured a tamshi la tambiko (libation statement) should be made as pouring gestures are made in the direction of the four winds: north, south, east, and west. Unfermented wine (grape juice)' should be used for the libation.
6. Elucidation of the Principle for the day: The principle for the day should be made fully clear. Participants in the ceremony should be led to have a full (spirit/mind/body) experience of the principle. Use of such things as arts and crafts, poetry readings, music, plays, chanting, singing, dancing, drumming, dialogue, etc. can be used to heighten the participants' experience.
7. The Call: A person should be designated to lead the gathered participants in seven spirited shouts of "Harambee" which means "We are pulling together." The seventh "Harambee" should be held for an extended length of time to symbolize unity and harmony among our people.
The Kwanzaa Karamu: The evening of December 31 has been designated as the time for the Karamu which means feast. Celebrants participate in an evening of eating, drinking, dancing and gaiety in an atmosphere of communal fellowship and oneness.
Exchanging of gifts: On January 1, the day of Kwanzaa, gifts in the spirit of the meaning of Zawadi may be enchanted. Gift giving MUST NOT become commercialized and the purchase of gifts should not place excessive economic strain on the giver. Gifts should educate and inspire the receiver.
Kwanzaa: The Origin. Concepts. Practice by R. Maulana Karenga, Kawaida Publications, San Diego, California.
KWANZAA: EVERYTHING YOU ALWAYS WANTED TO KNOW BUT DIDN'T KNOW WHERE TO ASK by Cedric McClester, Gumbs & Thomas Publishers, New York, N.Y.
Fahim A. Knight-EL Chief Researcher for KEEPING IT REAL THINK TANK located in Durham, NC; our mission is to inform African Americans and all people of goodwill, of the pending dangers that lie ahead; as well as decode the symbolisms and reinterpreted the hidden meanings behind those who operate as invisible forces, but covertly rules the world. We are of the belief that an enlightened world will be better prepared to throw off the shackles of ignorance and not be willing participants for the slaughter. Our MOTTO is speaking truth to power. Fahim A. Knight-EL can be reached at email@example.com.
STAY AWAKE UNTIL WE MEET AGAIN,
Fahim A. Knight-EL