Like a sunlit praise house in the middle of the woods, Kwanzaa is a wonderful retreat in an insane world, a laying-on-of-hands for my soul, a season to reflect on the past year and to fortify myself for coming challenges. But mostly, it is the time to dwell on the principles of Kwanzaa, to commit to living by them every day. I didn't really begin observing this cultural holiday until I moved to the Midwest in the early '90s. I was hooked from my very first Kwanzaa celebration, and this week of assessment, collective planning and rejoicing has become my favorite time of the year.
Kwanzaa is about values and rituals. Africans were/are a ritualistic people—raising their babies to the heavens to celebrate their births, ushering their children into adulthood through often painful rites of passage, practicing elaborate ceremonies for marriages and deaths. Those rituals were lost through slavery, and these new people—these African Americans, fumbling without a cultural map in a hostile country, replaced those ceremonies as best they could.
But I believe they lost much of the heart, soul and generosity with which their ancestors had celebrated life. It was in the way they danced a mask to celebrate a good harvest, in their speechifying as they named a new chief, in the deliciousness of the feast they served a wedding party. They lived the hell out of life, at their own pace, in their own way. And they understood that stopping to reflect on the important moments—truly understanding their significance in the marrow of the bones—was paramount to maintaining a strong culture, passing on a powerful history, and creating traditions that would become mortar to hold a people together.
Maulana Karenga had a strong sense of this when he founded the holiday in 1966 in the middle of the Black Power Movement. Then chairman of the African Studies Department at California State University at Long Beach, he mined various African cultures for the holiday's foundation principles that celebrate family, community and culture, and stretched them across the framework of Kawaida, the African philosophy that brings together the finest African thinking and practices.
Celebrated from Dec. 26 to Jan. 1, Kwanzaa means "first fruits of the harvest" in Swahili, the most widely spoken language in Africa; Karenga chose it to signify a commitment to the entire continent. The holiday's colors are black, for the people; red, for their liberation struggle (sometimes bloody); and green, for a triumphant future.
Preparing for the ceremonies is almost as important as the ceremonies themselves. The best should be selected—the prettiest African cloth, the finest art, the best fruit. The centerpiece of the celebration is the Kwanzaa setting, which includes: a mat (Mkeka) on which rests the Kinara (candle holder), which holds Mishumaa Saba (seven candles): three red, three green, and one black for the Nguzo Saba or seven principles of Kwanzaa.
The Kikombe Umoja (the unity cup) represents the spirit of togetherness, the Bendera (flag) is a symbol of a proud heritage, and Muhindi (corn), is the embodiment of the children—our future.
Celebrants gather intimately with family, friends, and neighbors or in larger groups. They greet each other with Habari gani? And answer each other with the day's principle. Each day a candle is lit to observe a different principle. On the first day, we celebrate Umoja (unity), the struggle for unity of family, community and culture. Kujichagulia, self-determination, is observed on the second day. This principle underscores the significance of our naming ourselves, speaking for ourselves, and designing our own destinies.
On the third day, we celebrate Ujima, collective work and responsibility, which promotes the collective building and maintaining of our community. Ujamaa, cooperative economics, is observed on the fourth day, and emphasizes the importance of developing our own businesses and institutions. The fifth day is dedicated to Nia, purpose—the collective vocation of building our communities in order to restore our people to traditional greatness.
Kuumba, creativity, is celebrated on the sixth day, the last day of the year. This principle challenges us to leave our communities more beautiful than they were when we inherited them. The feast of Karamu also is usually held on this day, and is the time to thank the Creator for all blessings. Karamu should be gloriously filled with singing, dancing, storytelling, drumming, African dishes, and a conjuring of the ancestors through some kind of remembering ceremony. A libation also may be poured in honor of those who have gone on.
The celebration is brought to a close on the first day of the year. Imani, faith, is observed on this day of assessment. Celebrants should take stock and commit to strategies that will help them achieve goals collectively.
An estimated 20 million people across the world celebrate this holiday, and the number is growing. Black people are seeking, and Kwanzaa provides something that helps steady them to face their unique challenges. There is nothing like the powerful energy of a righteous celebration. Something spiritual flows from person to person, binding them to each other in a promise to find a way to do what needs to be done—together.
One of my favorite celebrations was held in a large church filled with people. As drumbeats rocked us, we joyously threw the names of our ancestors into the air—Harriet Tubman, Ida B. Wells, James Baldwin, Emmett Till, Medgar Evers, Fannie Lou Hamer, Jackie Robinson, Carter G. Woodson. They floated majestically to the cathedral ceiling, then rained back down on us like embers, igniting our spirits and lighting Kwanzaa candles inside each of us that we carried out into the dark to face whatever. HARAMBEE!!!
Carole Cannon is a writer/writing coach who lives in Rankin County.
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