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Culture, Community, and Celebration: A Kwanzaa Story

Kwanzaa provides us with a space to slow down, to get out of one’s head and come together as a community.

By Negesti Kaudo

On the last day of school, the middle and lower school students, faculty and staff gathered in the common area around a piano for The Holiday Sing. We sat with our classes, reading from printed booklets on blue paper with the lyrics to a dozen Christmas songs, a couple of Hanukkah songs, one Diwali song, and one Kwanzaa song. I want to stress the Kwanzaa song for a minute because in my prestigious school, there were probably about 60 Black students out of all 600 of us and maybe only three of those families celebrated Kwanzaa. We sang “O Kwanzaa”, which was written in 2002 by Teresa Jennings is pretty simple, calling out a couple of important Swahili terms like habari gani (“what’s the news?”), nguzo saba (“seven principles”) and harambee (“celebrate”).

In middle school, the one Black male teacher at the school started off “O Kwanzaa” with an improvised introduction, featuring a kembe drum and the booming bass in his voice calling out the seven principles of Kwanzaa. Everyone (and I do mean everyone) got excited when he sang the word Nia because my sister, like so many other Black girls in the world, is named after the fifth day of Kwanzaa.

I didn’t know many families who celebrated Kwanzaa. It was an intimate affair within my family lasting through the latter half of the holiday break and delivered with more purpose than we’d ever given Christmas. Growing up, I was never a big fan of Christmas. Santa Claus doesn’t come to the hood. We didn’t get or give gifts and we didn’t have a tree. Besides gathering with my cousins for a plate of ham, macaroni and cheese, yams, and greens, Christmas just wasn’t really a thing in my household. Instead, we went all-out for Kwanzaa: kente cloth, kinara, corn, gifts, memorized recitation of the seven days and their meanings, the ceremonial lighting of the candles and family time. When Kwanzaa was happening, it seemed like my family used each day to slow down, reconnect and evaluate our relationships with one another.

In comparison to the rest of the December holidays, Kwanzaa is relatively new and more exclusive. Created in 1966 by the admittedly violent figure, Dr. Maulana Karenga, Kwanzaa is a holiday celebrating African-American culture designed to imitate African harvest celebrations from various communities across the continent, such as the Ashanti and Zulu. It comes from the Swahili phrase “matunda ya kwanza” for “first fruits” and lasts for seven days, each day focusing on a different principle valued in African culture. The seven principles, in order, are as follows: Umoja (Unity), Kujichagulia (Self-determination), Ujima (Collective work and responsibility), Ujamaa (Cooperative economics), Nia (Purpose), Kuumba (Creativity) and Imani (Faith). My favorite days were Kujichagulia, Nia, and Kuumba because these are the days that require the most self-reflection and figuring out how an individual can impact the community. Each principle has a specific definition related to Kwanzaa, the individual, and the community—working towards building and bettering those relationships of the people celebrating. In many ways, Kwanzaa is a holiday that helps fill in the void between African-Americans and their African heritage, although it’s not an African holiday. 

Recommended: CHRISTMAS ISN’T CHRISTIAN: THE PAGAN ROOTS OF THE WINTER HOLIDAY

Kwanzaa was special to our family for three reasons: (1) it was our sole winter holiday, (2) it began on the same day as my little sister’s birthday and (3) it brought us together as a family. For as long as I can remember until I was about fifteen years old, we followed the same routine every winter. On the first day, we would follow up cake and ice cream by setting up table with the placemat (mkeka), kinara (candleholder), three ears of corn (vibunzi), the Unity cup (kikombe cha umoja) and a bowl of fruits and vegetables (mazao or “the crops”). We had a set of matching wooden bowls and cups with hand-carved reliefs, several kinaras and various sets of candles. On the first night, we lit the black candle in the center. Our unity cup was wooden and carved with a relief of African people harvesting crops and we filled it with juice or water before passing it around the table from my mother to my brother to me and finally, to my sister. We recited the principle of the day, its meaning and then discussed how we strived to incorporate into our lives that day and onwards. On the seventh day, New Year’s Day, we shared homemade gifts or sometimes we would receive books. We’d share our Imani sentiments and our New Year’s resolutions at the same time. Our Kwanzaa feast and New Year’s meal welded into one, after all, we’d contributed to Christmas dinner at my cousins’, celebrated my sister’s birthday and Kwanzaa all in one week. Once it was all over, we put away everything until the next year.

The last time we celebrated Kwanzaa it was just me and my sister lighting the candles, reciting the principles and talking. I don’t remember why our mom stopped doing it with us. Our father had died years earlier, but we had kept the kinara he’d carved, so we used it to light our candles. I was in high school, and I didn’t want to leave the glow of family and friendship across the street at my cousins’ to go to our dark house and celebrate Kwanzaa. But I did, for my sister.

It seems to be the defining moment when my family stopped being more close-knit and communicative. We haven’t celebrated Kwanzaa since, but we still have all of the objects, packed in the closet with the baby books, coats, and photographs. Every holiday season, Kwanzaa is in the back of my mind. Especially as an adult, I began finding out that a few of my friends had celebrated the holiday growing up and were still making sure to acknowledge the principles each day. I try to keep up like them, fostering a sense of community with myself by sharing things on social media about Kwanzaa and the principles. My mother, sister and I are living in the same place again. I think we need something bigger than ourselves to bring us closer together and develop healthy adult relationships. For the first time in over a decade, I asked my sister if she’d want to celebrate Kwanzaa this year. She lit up, reminding me that our dad’s kinara was buried in the closet. One of the things I feel is missing in a capitalist world is a sense of community between friends, family, and coworkers. Kwanzaa provides a space to slow down, to get out of one’s head and come together to discuss what’s happening around us and how to embody those seven principles—unity, self-determination, collective work and responsibility, cooperative economics, purpose, creativity, and faith—in our personal, professional and public spaces.

Negesti Kaudo is an essayist, teacher and pop culture enthusiast based in the Midwest. Her work has been published in Nailed Magazine, Cosmonauts Avenue, NewCity Lit, IDK City, Seneca Review, and elsewhere. She is currently working on a collection of essays on blackness in public and private spaces. In her free time she cooks, binge-watches TV and sometimes tweets (@kaudonegesti).

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