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In 1966, at the height of the black self-awareness and pride that characterized the Black Power movement, cultural nationalist Maulana Karenga created the holiday of Kwanza, which means "first fruits" in Swahili. The holiday is derived from the harvest festival of East African agriculturalists. Karenga believed that black people in the diaspora should set aside time to celebrate their African cultural heritage and affirm their commitment to black liberation. His philosophy, called kawaida, formed the ideological basis of Kwanza. The holiday was intended to provide a nonmaterialistic alternative to Christmas and is celebrated from December 26 through January 1. Each day is devoted to one of the seven principles on which kawaida is based: umoja (unity), kujichagulia (self-determination), ujima (collective work and responsibility), ujamaa (cooperative economics), nia (purpose), kuumba (creativity), and imani (faith).

The attempt to honor communal heritage through ceremony is central to Kwanza. On each evening of the celebration, family and friends gather to share food and drink. The hosts adorn the table with the various symbols of Kwanza and explain their significance to their guests. First an mkeka (straw mat) representing the African-American heritage in traditional African culture is laid down. Upon the mat, a kinara (candleholder) is lit with seven candles in memory of African ancestors. Each of the seven candles represents one of the seven values being celebrated. A kikomba (cup) is placed on the mat to symbolize the unity of all African peoples, and finally tropical fruits and nuts are laid out to represent the yield of the first harvest.

Although Kwanza was at first limited in practice to cultural nationalists, as more African Americans came to heightened awareness and appreciation of their African heritage the holiday gained wider and more mainstream acceptance. In the 1990s Kwanza came to be celebrated internationally, but it gained its widest acceptance and popularity among African Americans.

See also African Diaspora; Africanisms; Karenga, Maulana; Kawaida


Karenga, Maulana. Kwanzaa: Origin, Concepts, Practice. San Diego: Kawaida Publications, 1977.

Karenga, Maulana. Kawaida Theory: An Introductory Outline. Inglewood, Calif.: Kawaida Publications, 1980.

Karenda, Maulana. Kwanzaa: A Celebration of Family, Community and Culture. Los Angeles: University of Sankore Press, 1997.

Magubane, Bernard. The Ties That Bind: African American Consciousness of Africa. Trenton, N.J.: Africa World Press, 1987.

Weusi-Puryear, Omoniki. "How I Came to Celebrate Kwanza." Essence, December 1979, 112, 115, 117.

nancy yousef (1996)

robyn spencer (1996)
Updated bibliography