Tips for celebrating Kwanzaa

First, there is the name: Kwanzaa.

Then, the principles: Umoja, Kujichagulia,
Ujamaa, Kuuma, Ujima Nia, and Imani. These words were not part of the Black lexicon until a professor of Africana studies, Maulana Karenga, set out to create holiday designed for Blacks to observe and celebrate African culture and traditions. That was nearly 50 years ago and now the holiday is celebrated across the world with postage stamps, greeting cards, and presidential recognition. (Presidents Bill Clinton and George W. Bush recognized the holiday)

For many people, the terms alone keep them from participating in Kwanzaa activities or even acknowledging the celebration. Others, remain critical that the observance is not an African holiday. Most people around Baton Rouge acknowledge Kwanzaa is a time where Black reconnect to community and family. The question of whether Kwanzaa is truly of African culture or a facade “holiday” for Black people still permeates throughout the city although more people say they recognize Kwanzaa in one way or another.

The seven-day cultural observance was created during the height of the Black Freedom Movement in 1966. It blends African harvest and festival traditions with community pride. As a result critics have called the celebration racist and anti-Christian. However, Kwanzaa is not a religious celebration, said Karenga. According to national organizers, Kwanzaa “is not an alternative to religion or faith but a common ground of African culture which (we) all share and cherish.”
From December 26 – January 1, families who celebrate Kwanzaa introduce and reinforce seven basic values of African culture which contribute to building and reinforcing family, community and culture among African American people as well as Africans throughout the world. These values are called the Nguzo Saba which in Swahili means the Seven Principles.

On each day, greetings of “Habari Gani?” and followed by naming the principle of the day. Gifts, including a book and a heritage symbol, are exchanged daily and are mainly given to children. Most often, these gifts are handmade.

Tables are decorated with a Kwanzaa Set donning red, green, and black colors, a beautiful piece of African cloth as a mkeka, or mat, to symbolize the family’s traditional roots. Thethe Kinara (candle holder) is placed on the mat with the seven candles representing the principles, Nguzo Saba. Traditional African symbols like harvest baskets, masks, and cloth patterns are included in the set. Although critics have argued against the use of Swahili terms because most Blacks’ lineage ties back to West Africa while Swahili is prominent in Central and East African countries, the core meaning of the principles are broader than one region. Here are some suggestions for observing the principles of Kwanzaa:

Day 1’s principle is Umoja or unity. This principle means “to strive for and maintain unity in the family, community, nation, and race.” Extend an apology to those you have offended and offer forgiveness to those who have offended you. Create an opportunity for you to work together within the family using each others’ skills and strengths. Reconnect loved ones and introduce family members to new members.

Day 2’s principle is Kujichagulia, or self-determination. On this day, observers are to “define ourselves, name ourselves, create for ourselves, and speak for ourselves”. Encourage the voices of the community by finding books, newspapers, friends that empower the family and community.

Day 3’s principle, Ujima, means collective work and responsibility. The goal is to “build and maintain our community together and make our brother’s and sister’s problems our problems and to solve them together.” Identify opportunities to speak out, volunteer, and be active in improving one aspect in the community where people are voiceless i.e. become a reading friend at a local school or volunteer with Louisiana CASA.

On Day 4, the princple is Ujamaa or cooperative economics, for building and maintaining “stores, shops, and other businesses and to profit from them together”. Day 5’s principle is Nia, meaning purpose. Similar to the other principles, this day focuses on working to “develop our community in order to restore our people to their traditional greatness.”On these days, find businesses within the community to consistently patronize. Introduce and market your or another person’s business to build growth and new relationships. Share information on resources, networking opportunities, and training that may help a business.

The Kuumba principle of day 6 reinforces creativity: “to do always as much as we can, in the way we can, in order to leave our community more beautiful and beneficial than we inherited it”. Gather a group to clean up an abandoned, blighted lot and plant flowers.

Faith, or Imani, ends the celebration with a call to “believe with all our heart in our people, our parents, our teachers, our leaders, and the righteousness and victory of our struggle”. On this day, remembering Black history and the history of your family can strengthen your faith in who you are and how you are equipped to handle obstacles that may lie ahead. Write down a list of your personal victories from the year, give thanks for them and use them as a foundation of faith to remember for the upcoming year.

Then, bring in the new year with a family feast.

> By Candace J. Semien

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