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Kwanzaa Celebration at Jefferson School of African American Heritage

by Leslie Scott-Jones

Join the Jefferson School of African American Heritage Center on Monday, December 26th, 2022 between 1:00 and 5:00 pm for a celebration of Kwanzaa. Read on for Leslie Scott-Jones’ brief recapitulation of the holiday celebration’s origins.

Kwanzaa was introduced to Black Americans in the United States in 1966 by Dr. Maulana Karenga. It was not merely a fictitious construction from Dr. Karenga’s imagination. The celebration came from traditions on the African continent which Dr. Karenga knew would feel like home for Black Americans. Dr. Karenga was born in Maryland in 1941 and studied at the University of California, Los Angeles, receiving a degree in Africana Studies. He joined the Congress for Racial Equality and Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee (SNCC). Following the Watts Riots in 1965, his goal was to “give an alternative to Christmas…an opportunity to celebrate themselves and their history, rather than imitate the practice of the dominant society.” It was his way of contributing to a cultural understanding that Black people had been stripped of. The name of the holiday, “Kwanzaa,” was taken from a Swahili phrase which means “first fruits” and is celebrated as a festival in southern Africa regardless of tribal affiliation.

Several African peoples have long celebrated by gathering together, sharing the fruits of their harvests, showing reverence to our creator and those on whose shoulders we stand. Karenga simply wanted to reintroduce Black Americans to African cultural ideals and begin to shift how the descendants of the Transatlantic Slave Trade thought of the continent. Before the introduction of Kwanzaa in the U.S., many Black Americans only thought of the continent through a white lens. For example, Black Americans might encounter photos of African and Africans in National Geographic or in commercials for aid for starving children. We thought of the places our ancestors were stolen from as desolate, uninviting, and harsh. The Black Power Movement, along with Karenga, made efforts to continue the work that Marcus Garvey had begun to instill a pride in and knowledge of African cultures. We as a people know better than any other that once pride in who you are is taken from you, it’s hard to get back. The descendants of the Africans that were stolen as part of the Transatlantic Slave Trade are still targeted today for the eradication of pride in themselves. What other explanation could there be for such an uproar over something so small as a cartoon and fictional character like Ariel of The Little Mermaid having brown skin and typically African features?

One thing that was savagely ripped from our ancestors was culture. The enslaved were given new names, forbidden to speak their native languages, and many were even given a new religion. Although we found ways to keep some African traditions alive, there’s no way to measure what we’ve lost. Kwanzaa, therefore, is one way we can connect with the truest, most intimate parts of ourselves, as we make our plans for the coming year. What do we want to accomplish? How will we support our community, our people? How can we honor our ancestors? How do we hold on to the culture we came from, even when it was violently beaten out of us by white supremacist systems? Kwanzaa is a simple and powerful answer.

Today many people observe Kwanzaa in addition to their other holiday traditions. And while it was created to interject a more African perspective back into Africans on U.S. shores, it has become a way for Black people to recenter themselves during the last week of the year. It’s used to talk with your family about how we can lean into important principles like cooperation, creativity, and unity. As much as we buy into the pride and honor of a fictional Wakanda in the Marvel Cinematic Universe of Black Panther, sometimes we forget that it’s up to us to create the environment that brings us pride in our own homes and our own hearts. Kwanzaa offers us the chance to do just that.

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