Americans are exceptional. As in, we celebrate an exceptional number of holidays. The holiday of Kwanzaa is both an exceptionally recent development and an exceptionally controversial one; it is steeped in politics, philosophy, criminal intrigue and higher learning. If all of that sounds boring to you and you just want to figure out what Kwanzaa is about, scroll down to watch Kwanzaabot's (Coolio's) explanation of the holiday.
Since the late 1960s, Americans have celebrated the Pan-African holiday of Kwanzaa from December 26 to January 1. The name Kwanzaa comes from the Swahili term, "matunda ya kwanza" or "first fruits of the harvest" in English and has as its goal the reaffirmation and restoration of African-American connections to traditional African communitarian culture. Kwanzaa is actually celebrated in a few other countries, but those countries complain that it's really a celebration of African-American culture and is therefore yet another instance of American hegemony. What they meant to say that it is one of many pieces of evidence that point to African-American American exceptionalism.
As holidays go, however, I have to question the placement of a holiday celebrating African-American heritage in the United States after the 25th day of Kislev and during the 12 days of Christmas. Sure, it means that yearly Christmas cards can have Kwanzaa stamps on them, but strategically someone should have seen 1976's Black History Month coming when historian Carter Woodson designated a week in February as "Negro History Week" in 1926 in honor of Abraham Lincoln and Frederick Douglass's birthdays and planned accordingly.
But I digress. This post is really about learning the history of a holiday.
While most people give Black Power movements props for harnessing black nationalism and using it to cause social and cultural change in the United States, fewer people know that they also had a hand in creating Kwanzaa.
Ronald McKinley Everett, later better known by his Swahili name, Maulana Ron Karenga, was a prominent figure in the Black Power movement, writing his first Ph.D. dissertation on African-American nationalism and his second Ph.D. dissertation on classical African morality, using Egypt as his guide.
Dr. Karenga was influenced by Malcom X, Pan-Africanist movements, and was involved in the Black United Front, which included the Black Panthers and Dr. Karenga's US Organization. The Us Organization was devoted to promoting the African-focused humanistic philosophy of Kawaida, but it eventually developed a young subgroup that developed para-military tactics and began to battle with the Black Panthers themselves.
The FBI's counterintelligence staff saw Karenga's appeals to black nationalism as an attempt to divide the United States and create internal conflict. Dr. Karenga landed in jail as a consequence of these para-military tactics based partially on testimony from his ex-wife, but claimed that he was a political victim and came out of prison with the hope that he could convert all African-Americans to his brand of secular humanism.
And so Kwanzaa was born.
The philosophy of Kawaida is based on Ngudo Saba, or 7 principles:
- Umoja (Unity) - in family/community/nation/race
- Kujichagulia (Self-Determination) - in name/creation/speech
- Ujima (Collective Work and Responsibility) - in working together to solve each other's problems
- Ujamaa (Cooperative Economics) - build and maintain businesses and profit from them together
- Nia (Purpose) - to restore the African diaspora to its traditional greatness
- Kuumba (Creativity) - to leave the community better than it was before we existed
- Imani (Faith) - to believe in our people/parents/teachers/leaders and the righteousness and victory of our struggle
As promised, here is Kwanzaabot (Coolio):
|Hermes' Kwanzaa Party|