Beginning the day after Christmas, a number of Black households across the United States and elsewhere in the diaspora celebrate Kwanzaa, the African American festival that honors African culture and has been observed for decades in the United States. Some of you may be familiar with the main principles and practices of the holiday, but as we enter this year’s Kwanzaa season, here are five things you might not know about the festival.
Kwanzaa was founded after the Watts riots
Kwanzaa was created in 1966 by Dr. Maulana Karenga, born Ronald Everett, in the aftermath of the Watts riots in Los Angeles.
Karenga had moved to Los Angeles several years earlier, where he attended Los Angeles City College and UCLA and became involved in groups such as the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee and the Congress of Racial Equality. Karenga became increasingly involved in the Black Power movement and interested in the philosophy of Pan Africanism. After the Watts riots, Karenga and Hakim Jamal, a cousin of Malcolm X, founded the US Organization or Organization Us, which worked to rebuild the Watts neighborhood while espousing Black nationalism. Us was based on what Karenga called the “seven principles of African Heritage.” Karenga used these principles as the basis for the week-long festival of African culture he named Kwanzaa.
Karenga and Us went through a time of turmoil after its founding. Us and the Black Panthers engaged in a violent feud, partially orchestrated by the FBI’s COINTELPRO campaign against Black activism. Karenga himself ended up going to prison for kidnapping and torturing two associates whom he accused of poisoning him, an allegation he denies. After getting out of prison in 1975, Karenga earned his first of two doctoral degrees. He now chairs the Africana Studies department at California State University Long Beach and has published a number of books and articles, including the 1997 book Kwanzaa: A Celebration Of Family, Community And Culture (Commemorative).
Kwanzaa combines elements of various African and African American culture
Kwanzaa celebrates African culture and tradition, but it is not based on any one culture but rather a mix of traditions from across the continent. While at UCLA, Karenga studied both Arabic and Swahili, the common language of much of East Africa, and the name Kwanzaa is an abbreviated form of the Swahili phrase matunda ya kwanza, meaning "first fruits." The language of Kwanzaa is largely Swahili, including the seven principles of the festival: Umoja, Kujichagulia, Ujima, Ujamaa, Nia, Kuumba and Imani, which translate to unity, self-determination, collective work and responsibility, cooperative economics, purpose, creativity, and faith, respectively.
By modeling Kwanzaa after harvest festivals, Karenga drew from various cultures across Africa, including the Zulu of southern Africa, the Ashanti of modern-day Ghana, and the ancient Egyptians. While much of Kwanzaa is rooted in African traditions, some of the holiday’s symbolism is American in origin. This includes the holiday’s colors – black, red and green – which are drawn from the Pan African flag adopted by Marcus Garvey’s Universal Negro Improvement Association in 1920. In addition to being used for Kwanzaa, the color scheme was adopted by a number of African countries upon gaining independence.
The relationship between Kwanzaa, Christmas and commercialism has changed over time
Kwanzaa is not a religious holiday nor a substitute for Christmas, and many people celebrate both. However, in its early years, Kwanzaa was intended to be an alternative to Christmas rather than an addition to the Christian holiday.
Early on, Karenga reportedly said that Kwanzaa “was chosen to give a Black alternative to the existing holiday and give Black people an opportunity to celebrate themselves and history rather than simply imitate the practice of the dominant society.”
But, by the 1980s, Kwanzaa was seen by many as a Black-oriented extension of Christmas, as discussed in a 1983 Ebony magazine article. And by the 1990s, Kwanzaa had become fully compatible with Christmas and more commercialized. Karenga himself said in his 1997 book that Kwanzaa was not intended to be a substitute for Christmas.
When major companies like Hallmark began acknowledging Kwanzaa, some Black business and community leaders objected, arguing that the holiday was being commercialized and coopted by non-Black run companies. Nevertheless, Hallmark continues to make Kwanzaa cards, and the holiday has become a mainstream fixture, with merchandise and celebrations around the country. Due to COVID-19 restrictions, many of these celebrations will be held virtually this year, with the National Museum of African American History and Culture providing online resources for families and communities looking to celebrate Kwanzaa via Zoom.
Although it's not a federal holiday, Kwanzaa has been recognized by the government
Although Kwanzaa is not a federally recognized holiday, it has been acknowledged by every American president since President Bill Clinton. Clinton issued the first White House Kwanzaa message in 1993. Kwanzaa messages were regularly issued by President George W. Bush and his wife, Laura. President Barack Obama and First Lady Michelle likewise acknowledged Kwanzaa each year. Even President Donald Trump and his wife Melania have continued the tradition of recognizing Kwanzaa each year. The United States Postal Service began issuing Kwanzaa-themed stamps in 1997, and have so far produced seven Kwanzaa designs.
The Extra “A” was added to make a child happy
The holiday name Kwanzaa is spelled differently than the Swahili word kwanza. Some people have assumed that the extra letter was added to differentiate the holiday from the Swahili term, or to match the seven days and seven principles of the festival.
However, several sources report a much more specific, and sweeter, reason for the change. The story behind the spelling change is that an early celebration of the holiday featured a children’s pageant, with six children each holding up a letter to spell the name of the festival. However, a seventh child ended up being present and, in order to stop this child from crying, the youngster was given another “A” to hold up and the name of the festival was changed to match. This version of the “Kwanzaa” story is told in the children’s book Kwanzaa Gets an A by Steven Christopher Thedford and LaSquizzie Kern.
The story of Kwanzaa's extra "A" is a good illustration of the creativity and inclusiveness of the holiday, which continues to persist and evolve as an expression of Black unity and culture.