Celebrated annually from December 26 through January 1, Kwanzaa is something many Americans consider either a curiosity or a joke. To wonder whether anyone really observes Kwanzaa or to ridicule it as a “made-up holiday,” however, is to miss its fascinating origin story grounded in the evolution of the civil rights movement of the 1960s and in the life and career of its founder. For a holiday rightly understood as an embrace of African cultures and traditions, Kwanzaa ironically emerged from a peculiarly American history of Afrocentrism and black nationalism.
The creator of Kwanzaa was born Ronald Everett in Maryland in 1941. The fourteenth child of a minister and tenant farmer, Everett spent his childhood and adolescence in the fields before moving to California in the late 1950s. There, he earned an associate’s degree at Los Angeles City College and enrolled at UCLA, where he completed his undergraduate training and went on to receive a master’s degree in political science, specializing in the theory and practice of nationalism.
Everett demonstrated a penchant for leadership and activism soon after arriving in California, becoming the first black student president at Los Angeles City College and getting involved with civil rights organizations such as the Congress of Racial Equality and the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee. He also became interested in African cultures, histories, and languages, and his politics became increasingly radicalized as his education progressed over the course of the first half of the 1960s. By the middle of the decade, disenchantment with the progress made toward black equality in the United States led Everett to embrace ideas most clearly articulated by Malcolm X about black self-reliance and the need for black Americans to study and appreciate the distinctive virtues of their African ancestry.
The urban rebellion that broke out in the Watts district of Los Angeles in the summer of 1965 proved a significant turning point in Everett’s life. In its aftermath, he helped pull together local residents into a group known as the Black Congress to aid neighborhood rebuilding. That activity, in turn, led to the creation of an organization known as US, a reference to the notion of “US black people,” which called not only for black community organizing and unity but also for a broader turn toward black power and revolutionary black nationalism throughout the United States. Central to the politics and ideology of the US organization was a rejection of supposedly Eurocentric values and cultural expressions and an embrace of imagined pan-African ones instead. Accordingly, members of US founded independent schools for black children, dressed in kente and other traditional African attire, learned Swahili, and often changed their names to reflect identities consciously grounded in connections to Africa. Ronald Everett thus became Maulana Karenga, combining Swahili words meaning “master/teacher” and “keeper of tradition.”
By 1966, Karenga had elaborated his developing ideas about what he called “a communitarian African philosophy” into the Nguzo Saba, a set of seven principles each of which he expressed with a Swahili term: Umoja (unity), Kujichagulia (self-determination), Ujima (collective work and responsibility), Ujamaa (cooperative economics), Nia (purpose), Kuumba (creativity), and Imani (faith). Designed to promote racial pride and black liberation, the Nguzo Saba served as the foundation for the holiday of Kwanzaa. Pronounced by Karenga late in 1966, Kwanzaa was envisioned as an occasion for black people around the world to contemplate the year that was ending and plan for the year to come, to celebrate their African heritage and identities, and to focus on the Nzugo Saba as a platform for a black alternative to holiday festivals based in European traditions and customs.
The name Kwanzaa is derived from the Swahili phrase “matunda ya kwanza,” meaning “first fruits of the harvest,” and the celebration of the holiday is grounded in a mélange of African harvest festivals. Spiritual but not religious in any particular way, Kwanzaa has no prescribed ritual components. But observances often include gatherings for meals that frequently involve symbolic foods, the sharing of libations, song and dance, readings, gift giving, the display of flags and posters, and the lighting of candles in a holder known as a kinara. Of the seven candles held by a kinara, three are red, three are green, and a central candle is black, a nod to the pan-African flag designed by Marcus Garvey’s United Negro Improvement Association in 1920. Each candle, meanwhile, represents one of the seven principles of the Nguzo Saba, and Kwanzaa celebrants are encouraged to reflect on the meaning of a different principle as they light candles nightly during the holiday.
Kwanzaa began with relatively few celebrants, mostly in Los Angeles and along the West Coast of the United States. But its popularity began spreading more widely in the late 1970s and it especially took off over the course of the 1980s as the United States more generally celebrated multiculturalism and as the black middle class increasingly showed a willingness to spend money in response to marketing of the holiday. Originally conceived as an alternative to more mainstream holidays, as time passed and the vogue for black nationalism waned, Kwanzaa became a holiday that black people could and did celebrate alongside Christmas and New Years, even as the total number of celebrants declined. Estimates of the number of people who celebrate Kwanzaa today vary widely, but the most reliable figures suggest it sits at perhaps two million, primarily in the United States and Canada.
Maulana Karenga’s prominence and position has waxed and waned over time no less than the holiday he founded. By the late 1960s, political infighting and competition between Karenga’s US organization and the Black Panther Party led to several shootouts, including one at UCLA, that resulted in at least four deaths and to the investigation and infiltration of both groups by the FBI and its notorious COINTELPRO operation. Then, in 1971 Karenga was tried and convicted of assault and false imprisonment for torturing a female member of US, a crime for which he served four years in prison. The US organization largely collapsed in Karenga’s absence, but he renewed both his education and his activism after being released from jail, and today he is Chair of the Africana Studies Department at California State University-Long Beach.
Kwanzaa may never assume a place alongside Christmas and Hanukkah as a winter holiday with which most Americans are familiar, in part precisely because it has no necessarily religious component and in part because its origin is so tied to a very particular moment in the black freedom struggle whose ideology has changed dramatically in the intervening years. Nevertheless, for people who do celebrate it, Kwanzaa provides a regular time for contemplation and appreciation of a heritage and ancestry that the dominant culture generally downplays or ignores. Those who would mock the impulse to create such a time as artificial or invented, meanwhile, might consider whether there really exists any holiday that would be exempt from the same kind of critique. Joyous Kwanzaa.