By Vicki T. Lee
AFRO Archives 2005

It was Dr. Maulana Karenga’s wish in 1966 that African-Americans have a celebration that spoke to their cultural beliefs and way of life. But for Stanley “Bunjo” Butler, a seven-day celebration is hardly enough.

Starting the day, after Christmas, and lasting until Jan. 1, Kwanzaa, derived from the Kiswahili term, “matunda ya kwanza,” was created upon a foundation of African tradition and racial and social tension with the goal of cultural reaffirmation for people of African descent.

Butler was about 20-years-old when the concept of a Kwanzaa tradition was introduced.

“There was some discussion about whether it was a substitute for Christmas,” Butler said. “I was coming into my Black self and as I became aware of each of the principles , I realized that I already lived those,” as did the rest of the African-American population during the early slavery days and the Civil Rights Movement. Black people helped each other and banned together throughout their trials and triumphs, something that Black people today could learn to do a little more Butler said. “As individuals, there are plenty of us who have manifested the principles of Kwanzaa,” Butler said. “But our plight would be better if we as individuals came together.”

Butler chose to live the principles of Kwanzaa 365 days of the year and celebrate its concept as a griot in the Baltimore community. Kwanzaa is predicated upon the African tradition of the first fruit of the harvest celebrations. The celebrations included rituals of ingathering with family and friends; commemoration of ancestors and lessons of the past; a recommitment to adhere to African cultural thought and practice; giving thanks to the creator for blessings and bounty of creation; and a celebration of community, culture, family and spirit. There are seven principals, collectively called “Nguzo Saba” which guide the seven days of the Kwanzaa celebration.

  • The first principal is Umoja (unity) – striving to maintain unity within family, community, nation and race;
  • Kujichagulia (self-determi-nation) – to define, name, create and speak for ourselves;
  • Ujima (collec-tive work and responsibility) – the process of building and maintaining our community together, making our brother’s and sister’s problems our problems, working together to solve them.
  • Ujamaa (cooperative eco-nomics) – to build, maintain, and profit from our own businesses;
  • Nia (purpose) – to make a collective vocation of community development;
  • Kuumba (creativity) – to do as much as we can to leave our community more beautiful than it was when we inherited it;
  • Imani (faith) – to believe with all our hearts, in our people, our teachers, our leaders, and the righteousness and victory of our struggle. The celebration of Kwanzaa also includes seven basic symbols:
  • Mazao (the crops) – symbolic of the rewards of productive and collective labor in African harvest celebrations;
  • Mkeka (the mat) – a foundation of which we build our history and tradition, preferably made of straw;
  • Kinara (the candle holder) – symbolic of our parent people, continental Africans;
  • Muhindi (the corn) – symbolic of the future our Children embody

The number of ears usually reflect the number of children in the household. Social parenthood is encouraged – placing an ear of corn to symbolize all the children we interact with daily.

  • Mishumaa Saba (the seven candles) – representing the seven principals (Nguzo Saba).

Three red candles on the left, one black candle in the middle, and three green candles on the right fill the Kinara; Kikombe cha Umoja (the unity cup) – representing the foundation of unity

  • Zawadi (the gifts) – symbolic of the labor and love of parents and the commitments of the children.

While he has participated in the seven-day tradition, Butler finds a greater fulfillment in educating the importance of Kwanzaa’s principles throughout the year.

“I point out that Kwanzaa was not created as a substitute of Christmas and you don’t have to walk around in red, black and green to live the principles of Kwanzaa,” Butler said.

“If we just believed in these principles: the unity, recognition of self; collective work and responsibility,” Butler said, “our children wouldn’t be suffering from bad school systems. We wouldn’t be under the negative influence of the drug culture. During  the Kwanzaa period I share how we can use those Kwanzaa principles for today. I let folks know that the principles have always been a part of who we are as an African people.

Nearly 40 years after Dr. Karenga created a cultural celebration designed to unite, not only the African-American family, but people of African descent worldwide, the celebration of Kwanzaa has reached epic proportions. Not intended as religious holiday, Kwanzaa is celebrated in various ways: as a sole spiritual observance or as an addition to the annual Christmas tradition, with or without a religious ceremony.

“We have to keep living and articulating the Kwanzaa prin-ciples,” Butler said, “even if that greatest articulation is only during those seven days.”