On Celebrating Kwanzaa

For me and 18 million other Americans, another holiday starts the day after Christmas: Kwanzaa, a seven-day celebration from December 26th – January 1st. Created by Dr. Maulana Karenga in 1966, Kwanzaa is a non-religious, Pan-African and African-American holiday that means “first fruits” in Swahili. It was first celebrated during the turbulent 1960s to build community for African-Americans, but, as Lee Standberry writes, Kwanzaa can be practiced by anyone who shares its values:

“Kwanzaa has always been about the celebration of values that transcend through racial boundaries. The seven principles of unity, self-determination, collective  work/responsibility, cooperative economics, purpose, creativity, and faith; find purchase in the mind and hearts of everyone. These principles reinforce the  concept of community – in a community – not just African-American ones.”

There is variation in the practice of Kwanzaa, but one central activity is gathering with family each evening to reflect upon one of the seven principles (Nguzo Saba).

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Another part of the Kwanzaa celebration is to display a candle holder (Kinara) surrounded by fruit and other symbols of harvest, history, unity, love, and commitment.  One candle is lit each evening of Kwanzaa to correspond with one of the seven principles.


We would live in a more loving world if everyone embraced Kwanzaa values, and this week of reflection can serve as an antidote to the personal and national toll of the hate-based Trump presidency.

If you are white and want to celebrate this glorious holiday, be cognizant of the fine line between cultural appropriation and appreciation. White privilege too often leads “whites” to assume that everything is for us, a “privilege” that comes at the cost of our humanity.

I follow two simple rules when I practice Kwanzaa: 1) Do so privately, and 2) step back.

My first rule is to celebrate Kwanzaa is with family members in the privacy of my home (or the home of someone who celebrates the holiday) so as not to take “ownership” of it in a public space.

My second rule is to step back and play only a minor role as a participant in the evening ceremony if African/African-American people are present. Akilah Bolden-Monifa writes about the importance of people who are not African/African-American to step back in Kwanzaa celebrations:

“When invited, I go to cultural and religious celebrations that are not part of my cultural or religious heritage. I participate in a way that is comfortable for my host and for me. It would be arrogant of me, a non-Jew, to dominate a Seder or Hanukkah celebration, for example. People who are not of African descent should approach Kwanzaa with the same attitude.”

I can’t think of a better way to bring in 2018 than to learn more about the history of the people who built the Capitol Building, the White House, the U.S. economy, and the world economy, while reflecting upon unity, self-determination, collective work and responsibility, collective economics, purpose, creativity, and faith with loved ones.

Happy Kwanzaa!


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