The Communitarianism of Kwanzaa

Daniel Hautzinger
A Kwanzaa table at Chicago's DuSable Museum of African American History, including a kinara
Photo: Courtesy DuSable Museum of African American History

Like many other middle class, suburban black families, Erica Griffin’s family never celebrated Kwanzaa when she was growing up. “It wasn’t until I went to college that I learned about Kwanzaa and its importance,” the Associate Director of Membership and Volunteer Services at the DuSable Museum of African American History recalls. But now she recognizes its significance and value to the African American community. “Kwanzaa demonstrates the importance of you as a person, of African Americans as a people, to yourself, your community, and the nation as a whole,” she says.

On December 26 and 27 from noon until 2:30 pm, the DuSable will host a free-admission Kwanzaa Observance Program in collaboration with Malcolm X College’s Bolozi Wazee/Shule Ya Watoto (Council of Elders) at the Museum. Each day will feature performances by, among others, Najwa Dance Corps, Thunder Sky Drummers, and the West Indies Dance Group, and will begin with a drum call, the Kwanzaa Ritual, and an explanation of each day’s Principle.

A Kwanzaa celebration with the Nguzo Saba listed at Chicago's DuSable Museum of African American HistoryPhoto: Courtesy DuSable Museum of African American History What are the Principles and the Kwanzaa Ritual? Kwanzaa was begun in 1966 by Ron Karenga as a way “to reconnect Black America to their African roots and recognize their struggle as a people by building community,” according to the DuSable. It draws on traditional African harvest celebrations, as its name attests: in Swahili, “matunda ya kwanza” means “first fruits.” (Swahili was chosen as a gesture towards Pan-Africanism and African unity, since it is an East African language but many African Americans trace their ancestry to West Africans who were brought to this country as slaves.)

Kwanzaa is celebrated for seven days, from December 26 to January 1. Each day, a new candle in the kinara (a candle holder) is lit, and each candle also corresponds to one of the seven principles known as the Nguzo Saba. Those principles emphasize community and family: umoja (unity), kujichagulia (self-determination), ujima (collective work and responsibility), ujamaa (cooperative economics), nia (purpose), kuumba (creativity), and imani (faith).

“Kwanzaa helps to instill those important principles,” says Griffin. “It is a stabilizing agent for the community. It instills the concept of family in younger generations, and teaches who we as African Americans were, what we went through, and what we have achieved.” That emphasis on history is as important as the Nguzo Saba, she says: “First and foremost, it is about remembering our ancestors. For so long African Americans were systematically diminished so that they as a people could be kept under control and in fear while working the plantations. So it is important to focus on and build family and community.”

If you want to learn more about Kwanzaa, the seven principles, and African American history, you can join in the celebration at the DuSable on December 26 and 27; Griffin emphasizes that all are welcome, regardless of background.