This non-religious holiday is all about unity, creativity and self-determination.
2017 has been a rough year. We’ve had too many tragedies and not enough unity. It’s been hard to keep the faith that things are going to get better. So as we prepare ourselves for all the “New Year, New Me” memes that we’ll see floating around social media in the coming weeks, let’s make a real promise to ourselves to finally, once and for all, do our part to make things better.
A good way to begin that process is to embrace Kwanzaa, the non-religious holiday that marked its 51st birthday this year. Kwanzaa celebrates what we’ve accomplished and encourages us to have enthusiasm for what lies ahead — no matter how grim things might look right now.
I know Kwanzaa doesn’t have quite the same appeal as Christmas — it’s in need of some good PR, to be sure. But there are some truly life-changing values that Kwanzaa celebrates that could make the world a more affirmative place, if we’d only listen.
A brief history of Kwanzaa
The holiday as we know it was actually born during the Watts riots of the 1960s. It all began on a hot August day in 1965 when a 21-year-old African-American man was pulled over for drunk driving by a Los Angeles police officer. When the man’s mother arrived to the scene, an argument broke out with police that quickly became physical. One officer pulled out a shotgun while others used physical force to arrest the 21-year-old.
Soon, rumors spread that police had kicked a pregnant woman and badly beaten an unarmed motorist. A crowd gathered and quickly became angry; some people started throwing rocks at the police. Soon, a full-scale riot was underway.
For 6 days straight, riots raged in South LA’s Watts neighborhood. Almost 4,000 members of the National Guard were called to quell the looting and arson. By the time things quieted down, more than 30 people had died in the violence.
Police arrested more than 3,000 others.
Above: National Guardsmen in Los Angeles during the Watts riots.
In the riots’ aftermath, Maulana Karenga — who was the chairman of the Black Studies department at California State University in Long Beach — wanted to find a way to unite the African American community.
In 1966, he found an answer in an unexpected place: rural Africa.
Typical African harvest festivals aim to unite the community in joy, sharing and thanksgiving. So Karenga borrowed traditions from the harvest rituals of two major African tribes — the Ashanti and Zulu — to create what we now know as Kwanzaa. (The Ashanti are an influential tribe in Ghana; the Zulu are the largest ethnic group in South Africa.)
Today, somewhere between 5–10 million people in the US observe the holiday.
How it’s celebrated
Kwanzaa is observed over a period of 7 days, from Dec. 26 to Jan. 1, and its followers light a candle each night in celebration. Each of the 7 days corresponds to a specific candle; each candle, in turn, represents a principle that observers of Kwanzaa are supposed to uphold. Those principles are Umoja (unity), Kujichagulia (self determination), Ujima (working together), Ujamaa (supporting one another), Nia (purpose), Kuumba (creativity) and Imani (faith).
The combined goal of these principles is to reinforce the values of family, community and culture.
Birthed during the civil rights movement, Kwanzaa was a new breath of life for African Americans. “[It’s] really just recognizing the accomplishments of African people and promoting self pride,” Kiara Williams, a medical student at Tennessee State University who observes and teaches Kwanzaa, told Dose in a phone interview.
Williams noted that the holiday’s seven principles are a way to keep a family’s unique traditions going through tough times. She also stressed that it’s important to celebrate Kwanzaa’s principles year round.
“Just because it’s during those 7 days, [it] doesn’t mean that those values are only around for a week,” she said. “We honor them on those specific seven days, but we try to honor them every other day as well.”
Through its core values, Kwanzaa inspires people to find peace both in the world and within themselves. People of any race and any background can join, even if you already observe a religion. It doesn’t cost anything to join. And because it’s a relatively new holiday, it doesn’t come with any awkward historical baggage.
Why not give it a try?
top image: Antonio Manaligod/Dose