[Eds. note: I originally wrote about Kwanzaa when I was the Managing Editor of City Beat Long Beach and a version of this piece originally appeared in the December 2011 issue of that magazine. Since City Beat is no more and their website has been taken down as well (and Dr. Karenga has yet to return our calls), I received permission to re-run this relevant piece on this important holiday that has some epic roots in our own backyard.]
Though its history is much younger than the other holidays celebrated during this time of year, Kwanzaa is by no means less significant. Created in 1966 by Dr. Maulana Karenga as a way for African-Americans to honor their shared heritage and culture, the seven-day celebration—which begins today, December 26, and goes until January 1—has become an important holiday for those with black heritage worldwide.
Starting today with a parade down Crenshaw Blvd., the 36th annual Kwanzaa Gwaride Parade and Festival will be the largest Kwanzaa kickoff celebration in Southern California. With this year’s festival theme being “Freedom from Obesity,” the parade’s Iyaba (queen) and Oba (king) are both medical practitioners. The Kwanzaa Heritage Festival will also be held in Leimert Park on December 29 and will include live music, traditional dancing, a drum circle and international marketplace.
In his 2012 founders statement, Dr. Karenga Kwanzaa discusses his theme for this year’s Kwanzaa, “Us and the Well-being of the World: A Courageous Questioning.”
“At the center of this concern and care must be a constant and courageous questioning first about how we understand and assert ourselves in the world and what this means,” Dr. Karenga wrote. “Thus, the Day of Meditation during Kwanzaa which is the culminating point and place of our remembrance, reflection and recommitment calls on us to sit down, think deeply about ourselves in the world, and measure ourselves in the mirror of the best of our culture to determine where we stand.”
The word Kwanzaa comes from the Swahili phrase matunda ya kwanza which translates roughly to “first fruit”), and the holiday’s template is loosely based on traditional pan-African harvest festivals. But that is where any precedent stops. As an internationally celebrated, non-religious, non-heroic, non-political African-American holiday, Kwanzaa is a unique experience that encourages unity among those of African descent and attempts to preserve common African culture.
Dr. Karenga—a leading theorist during the ’60s Black Power Movement who is now the chair of Cal State Long Beach’s Department of Africana Studies—organized Kwanzaa around a set of communitarian African values, called the Nguzo Saba. These seven principles include Umoja (unity), Kujicahgulia (self-determination), Ujima (collective work and responsibility), Ujama (cooperative economics), Nia (purpose), Kuumba (creativity) and Imani (faith). Each day of Kwanzaa focuses on one of these driving principles and is expressed through the lighting of colored candles, dancing, reciting poetry and the giving of appropriate gifts.
In addition to the daily celebrations, Kwanzaa calls for a central place in the home to be dedicated to the construction of a Kwanzaa Set—a display of the holiday’s symbolic objects. Central to this is the kinara, a candleholder that carries the seven candles—three red, three green and one black—as well as a Unity Cup, the filling and sharing of which is a central Kwanzaa ritual. Ears of corn are placed on the Kwanzaa Set’s staw mat, each representing a child in the family. African foods such as millet, spiced pepper balls and rice are often served, though some people fast during the holiday and a feast is often held on its final night.
While Kwanzaa was originally directed at a small group of activists, it gained popularity as interest in multiculturalism expanded in the late 1980s and has since coexisted alongside Christmas and Hanukkah celebrations for both black and white families nationwide. Though estimates of the number of people who celebrate the holiday worldwide vary—from 250,000 to 40 million—Los Angeles is seen as the cultural epicenter and birthplace of the holiday and has multiple Kwanzaa celebrations, several of which have in the past taken place in Long Beach including one at the Long Beach Senior Center and another annually organized by Village Treasures, an African art store in the historic Lafayette building.