Maulana Karenga is a Black activist, author, chair of the Africana Studies department at Long Beach State, and creator of Kwanzaa. He holds doctorate degrees in social ethics and political science.
“Kwanzaa marks a profound reorientation of how we understand and assert ourselves in the world,” said Karenga. “One of the main reasons I created Kwanzaa was the reaffirm our rootedness in African culture. We have been lifted out of our own cultures’ history.”
Karenga created Kwanzaa in 1966, around the time of the civil rights movement, to unite and empower the African American community. He brought up historical activists like Harriet Tubman and stressed the need for people to root themselves in African culture by reading history, listening to oral accounts and following in the footsteps of Black ancestors.
“We have to root ourselves in the best ideas and practices of our people from ancient to modern Afro-American,” Karenga said. “Somebody did something good, raise up the good. Teach it as a model so your children can benefit from it and so you can be inspired.”
Kwanzaa is a week-long African American holiday from Dec. 26 to Jan. 1 where families and communities come together to remember and celebrate African American culture and history.
“Kwanza’s origins centered around the celebration and harvesting and sharing of goods in the world,” said Karenga. “This celebration is rooted in the cooperative project of giving, gathering together in harmony, planting the seeds and possibilities of good.”
Kwanzaa was created based on African harvest festival traditions from various parts of West and Southeast Africa. The ideas and concepts of Kwanzaa are expressed in Swahili, one of the most widely spoken languages and the lingua franca of the Great Lakes region of East Africa. The name “Kwanzaa” comes from the Swahili phrase “matunda ya kwanza,” which translates to “first fruits.”
Kwanzaa aims to reinforce the seven principles, or the Nguzo Saba. The seven principles include Umoja (unity), Kujichagulia (self-determination), Ujima (responsibility), Ujamaa (cooperative economics), Nia (purpose), Kuumba (creativity) and Imani (faith).
The holiday consists of various activities including reciting poetry, African drumming and a feast called Karamu on the sixth day. Each day, a candle is lit on a Kinara, a seven-branch candle holder, with each one standing for a different principle. The candles are green and red with a single black candle in the center.
The colors of the Pan-African flag, green, red and black are also seen on the clothing of participants and in decorations.
“Each principle calls for corresponding practice that’s not just a practice. That’s also a cultural practice,” said Karenga. “People forget Kwanzaa is born in struggle and if you read the language of each principle, it starts with striving and struggling.”
Karenga is highly involved in various professional and community affiliations such as the African Heritage Studies Association, the Journal of Black Studies, TransAfrica Forum, the National Association of Kawaida Organizations (NAKO) and more.
He is the author of over 17 books and numerous African studies articles. Winning numerous awards for leadership, Black studies and scholarly achievements, Karenga’s activism has touched many lives.
“There are two things we should all care about; never forget where we came from and always praise the bridges that carried us over,” said Karenga.
Kwanzaa is a primarily African American holiday and can be celebrated by any African American of any religion. Generally celebrated by Black Americans, it’s also celebrated outside of the United States in other countries where there are large numbers of African descendants, including the Caribbean. It was conceived as a nonpolitical, nonreligious holiday; contrary to popular belief, it is not a substitute for Christmas.
Public Policy Polling shows that around 12.5 million Americans and around 40 million globally, celebrated Kwanzaa in 2022. This includes South Africa, Nigeria, South America, Canada, the Caribbean and more. According to Karenga, it’s not just for people of African American descent.
“One of the most important things you can do as Black people is to dialogue with your own culture,” Karenga said.