The Roots and Origins of Kwanzaa


Kwanzaa is a national holiday that is primarily celebrated by African-Americans, though there are a number of other ethicalities who join in the fun. It is a week-long, non-religious festival where people can celebrate African heritages and traditions. Kwanzaa means “first fruit” in Swahili and is celebrated in December, coinciding with Christmas.

The roots and origins of Kwanzaa are quite modern – it was founded by Dr. Maulana Karenga in 1966. Dr. Maulana Karenga is an African-American scholar and is currently professor and chair of Black Studies at California State University, Long Beach.  Dr. Karenga has stated that the holiday’s origins can be found in the African Rights Movement and that its objectives were to create a socio-historical consciousness for those of African heritage. He has said that the celebration of Kwanzaa was created for the African-American society to “rescue and reconstruct our history and culture and shape them in our image”.

According to Dr. Karenga, Kwanzaa is a blend of Continental African and Dispersal African elements; it has managed to merge the traditional customs of old Africa and merged them into the modern African-American society to make a truly unique celebration to unite the black community together.

There are five main sets of values that are practiced during Kwanzaa – 1) ingathering; 2) reverence; 3) commemoration; 4) recommitment; and 5) celebration. These create the main body of Kwanzaa, ‘Nguzo Saba’. These are the principles that modern African-American people set their lives to in order to enrich themselves.

These principles, Nguzo Saba have their origins in Africa; their names are always presented first in Swahili and then in English in America. The Nguzo Saba are as follows: 1. Umoja (unity) 2. Kujichangulia (self-determination) 3. Ujima (collective work and responsibility) 4. Ujamaa (cooperative economics) 5. Nia (purpose) 6. Kuumba (creativity) 7. Imani (faith).

Dr. Karenga was asked about his views on the development of Kwanzaa. He replied, “It reaffirms our commitment to the African culture and gives us a time to come together, as was done by the ancestors of old. We measure ourselves, the authenticity of our lives, by how rooted we are in our tradition. Kwanzaa is a celebration of the good, celebration of the good of our lives, the good of our history, the good of our culture, celebration of the good of life, the good of love in each other, building with each other, the good of history marching towards the ultimate goal of full human freedom”.

Kwanzaa is currently the only holiday that was specifically created for those of African heritage, although Dr. Karenga has encouraged the participation of other ethicalities. It is a celebration that involves celebrating the African-American community’s links with the whole of the African continent.


 Flores-Pena, Ysamur & Evanchuk, Robin (1997) Kwanzaa: The Emergence of an African-American Holiday, Western Folklore, Western States Folklore Society.

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