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Kwanzaa: The Roots, Origin, And Purpose


Compiled by Gabrielle Grant


To most, Kwanzaa is just another celebration of African American culture, traditional values, and of course, food. However, it is so much more than that.

Born in a time of racial unrest, Kwanzaa is a weeklong celebration of African American culture and heritage. This secular holiday is observed by millions of people in the United States and around the world.

Dr. Maulana Karenga, a professor and the Chairman of Africana Studies at California State University, Long Beach (now retired) created Kwanzaa in 1966 in response to the Watts Riots in Los Angeles in 1965 as a way to bring African-Americans together as a community. Dr. Karenga researched African harvest celebrations and combined facets of different celebrations, from the Ashanti and the Zulu Tribes, to develop the foundation of Kwanzaa.

The name Kwanzaa is derived from the phrase “matunda ya kwanza,” which means first fruits, or harvest, in Swahili.

(“The History, Principles, and Symbols of Kwanzaa”)


The Seven Principles of Kwanzaa and the meaning of each of the candles are:

1. Umoja (Unity)

2. Kujichagulia (Self-Determination)

3. Ujima (Collective Work and Responsibility)

4. Ujamaa (Cooperative Economics)

5. Nia (Purpose)

6. Kuumba (Creativity)

7. Imani (Faith)


Kwanzaa is celebrated from the day after Christmas, December 26th to January 1st. Celebrations include singing and dancing, storytelling, poetry reading, African drumming, and feasting. It culminates in gift giving and enjoying a big feast.

Dr. Karenga created seven guiding principles to be reviewed during the week of Kwanzaa. The seven principles represent seven values of African culture that help build and reinforce community among African Americans. Each day a different principle is reviewed, and each day a candle is lit on the kinara (candleholder).

On the first night, the center black candle is lit, and the principle of Umoja, or Unity is reviewed and shared.

Zawadi, African-Swahili meaning gifts, is one of the symbols and traditions of Kwanzaa. "Gifts are given in the days after Christmas or on the last principle of Kwanzaa, Imani, to inspire self-determination, development, and accomplishments," according to "Gift Giving for Kwanzaa, Chicago Defender."

On the final day of Kwanzaa, families enjoy an African feast, called karamu.

Kwanzaa has seven core principles,referred to in Swahili as Nguzo Saba:

"1. Umoja: Unity - To strive for and maintain unity in the family, community, nation, and race."

2. Kujichagulia: Self-Determination - To define ourselves, name ourselves, create for ourselves, and speak for ourselves.

3. Ujima: Collective Work and Responsibility - To build and maintain our community together and make our brothers' and sisters' problems our problems and solve them together.

4. Ujamaa: Cooperative Economics - To build and maintain our own stores, shops, and other businesses and to profit from them together.

5. Nia: Purpose - To make our collective vocation the building and developing of our community in order to restore our people to their traditional greatness.

6. Kuumba: Creativity - To always do as much as we can, in the way we can, in order to leave our community more beautiful and beneficial than we inherited it.

7. Imani: Faith - To believe with all our heart in our people, our parents, our teachers, our leaders, and the righteousness and victory of our struggle.

Kwanzaa also has seven core symbols:

1. Mazao: Crops - Mazao symbolizes the fruits of collective planning and work, and the resulting joy, sharing, unity and thanksgiving part of African harvest festivals. To demonstrate mazao, people place nuts, fruits, and vegetables, representing work, on the mkeka.

2. Mkeka: Place Mat - Just as the crops stand on the mkeka, the present day stands on the past. The mkeka symbolizes the historical and traditional foundation for people to stand on and build their lives. (“The History, Principles, and Symbols of Kwanzaa”)

3. Muhindi: Ear of Corn - The stalk of corn represents fertility and the idea that through children, the future hopes of the family are brought to life. "One vibunzi is placed on the mat for every child in the family."

4. Mishumaa Saba: The Seven Candles - Candles are ceremonial objects that serve to symbolically re-create the sun’s power, as well as to provide light. "There are three red candles, three green candles, and one black candle that are placed on the kinara."

5. Kinara: The Candleholder - The kinara represents our ancestry, and the original stalk from which we came.

6. Kikombe Cha Umoja: The Unity Cup - On the sixth day of Kwanzaa, the libation ritual is performed to honor the ancestors. "Every family member and guest will take a drink together as a sign of unity and remembrance."

7. Zawadi: Gifts - On the seventh day of Kwanzaa, gifts are given to encourage growth, achievement, and success. "Handmade gifts are encouraged to promote self-determination, purpose, and creativity."

In Part 2 of our Kwanzaa series, NOIRE will profile our "2021 Kwanzaa Honorees." They will also be showcased on each day of Kwanzaa, according to the day and principle, in NOIRE's social media family.

Sources: “The History, Principles, and Symbols of Kwanzaa," InterExchange.org.; OfficialKwanzaaWebsite.com; The Chicago Defender.

[Updated on December 21, 2021]

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