The days between Dec. 26 and Jan. 1 mark an honored holiday celebrated within the African-American community. This seven-day event, known as Kwanzaa, commemorates the culture and community of Black people.
Kwanzaa was created by author and political activist Dr. Maulana Karenga in 1966. Dr. Karenga sought “to reaffirm the communitarian vision and values of African culture and to contribute to its restoration among African peoples in the Diaspora, beginning with Africans in America and expanding to include the world African community.” Kwanzaa, meaning first fruits in Swahili, highlights the seven most important principles of the African-American community including: Umoja (Unity), Kujichagulia (Self-Determination), Ujima (Collective Work and Responsibility), Ujamaa (Cooperative Economics), Nia (Purpose), Kuumba (Creativity), and Imani (Faith). These principles are celebrated individually throughout the week, with each day receiving its own principle. Finally on the seventh day, African-American families join together for a large feast and celebration.
Though Kwanzaa is traditionally an African-American holiday, members from other cultural backgrounds are taking part in the celebrations as well. African-American culture expert and entrepreneur, Juanita “Busy Bee” Britton, has noticed the change in recent years.
“It seems as if less people in the African-American community are celebrating Kwanzaa. But believe it or not, across many communities celebrate it and it is considered a multi-cultural celebration now. It’s not just for African Americans.”
Britton’s knowledge and expertise of Black culture is reflected in the Anacostia Art Gallery & Boutique located in Southeast Washington, D.C. There, her collection of African artwork and Black memorabilia are on display for viewing and purchase. Her knowledge and presence in the community have made her a minor celebrity and the go-to person for African-American celebrations. This includes Kwanzaa.
“You have racially mixed communities all doing it together in respect to one another. I have witnessed in churches where there are multiracial members that celebrate Kwanzaa. So it may seem that it’s growing because there are people other than African Americans celebrating Kwanzaa.”
Britton has noticed the increase in Kwanzaa celebrations first-hand; in 2009 she was invited to 43 separate Kwanzaa celebrations. That’s a 30 percent increase from years prior, she said. Many of these celebrations included members of non-African descent.
Though this recent practice may symbolize the unity among the American culture as a whole, Dr. Karenga does not seem too pleased. On his website, TheOfficialKwanzaWebsite.org, Dr. Karenga states, “You should not mix the Kwanzaa holiday or its symbols, values and practice with any other culture. This would violate the principles of Kujichagulia (Self-Determination) and thus violate the integrity of the holiday.” He goes on to say that though people of other cultures can and do celebrate Kwanzaa, “…particular people should always be in control of and conduct their own celebrations. Audience attendance is one thing; conducting a ritual is another.”
Robert L. Hall, associate director for education at the Smithsonian Institution’s Anacostia Community Museum, weights in on the subject. “I think that what happens is this time of year, Kwanzaa joins in with Hanukkah and Christmas and all these other celebrations to say that diverse culture. But the principles in Kwanzaa are so universal they can be used by anybody.”
In response to whether Kwanzaa is still celebrated today, Hall believes, “Each year it increases, because more and more people are finding out about it.” Hall says he is seeing more references to Kwanzaa in department stores, grocery stores and on television advertisements.
This comes as a sigh of relief for some, as major elements of the African-American culture have traditionally been ignored by the commercial media. However, Britton summed up the idea of Kwanzaa in one simple phrase, saying, “Kwanzaa is not a holiday as much as it is a way of life.” It seems fortunate then, that this way of life is being exposed to and honored by all.