Happy Kwanzaa!

kwanzaThe role of ceremony in preserving and strengthening communities and bringing friends together increasingly becomes a source of research and curiosity for me. I’ve written about this before. Earlier this year, the School of Life published a video on the history and importance of rituals. The Book of Community also explains the importance of rituals for small communities and their roles in preserving their narratives, which got me thinking about Confucian teachings and the Epicurean tradition of celebrating the Twentieth.

African Americans were stripped of their sense of history, of their native religions, of their native languages, and brought to another continent to work without pay for generations. This traumatic experience affected many generations and eventually led to struggles that culminated in the civil rights movement in the sixties and continue to this day. It was during that time that the solstice festival of Kwanzaa was invented in order to propose a non-consumerist, secular alternative to Christmas.

According to the inventor of the festival, Maulana Karenga, Kwanzaa is about ancestry. We really are, as natural beings, literally, branches of our ancestors. We emerge from the fertilized seeds of those who came before. It is entirely natural for us to yearn for connection with the people and things which are familiar to us and to our part of the tree of life. Ancestry is one of the few things that make up our real, irresistible, natural identity. It makes sense for African Americans to frame Kwanzaa as a celebration of ancestry so that ancestral narratives get reinforced and celebrated. It’s the most natural starting point to build community.

Some people call Kwanzaa the African American Hannukah because the kinara (lights) resembles the Jewish menorah. But the kinara is only one of many cultural symbols that define the festival. The seven-day festival dedicates each day to one of the seven principles that are enshrined in the Kwanzaa narratives, which is another reason why I’ve taken an interest in it. It produces a wisdom tradition, an organized educational curriculum that is renewed and nurtured every year in the new generations. The seven principles, or Nguzo Saba, are.

  1. Umoja / Unity: Kwanzaa celebrates non-violent conflict resolution and encourages reconciliation.
  2. Kujichagulia / Self-determination: This is the closest thing to autarchy in Kwanzaa. It is described as: “to define ourselves, name ourselves, create for ourselves, and speak for ourselves.”
  3. Ujima / Collective Work and Responsibility: Ujima helps to build future professionals by teaching them about building and maintaining community, learning team-work and collective problem solving.
  4. Ujamaa / Cooperative Economics: Kwanzaa participants are encouraged to engage in entrepreneurial projects, to support each other’s businesses, and to profit together. Communal business connections are strengthened via Kwanzaa.
  5. Nia / Purpose: Children are encouraged to plan for the future and set goals.
  6. Kuumba / Creativity: This is one of the coolest components of Kwanzaa for me. In seeking to compete against the more commercialized tradition of Christmas, the proponents of Kwanzaa decided that it is best to create the gifts we give each other during the solstice, or to at least acquire them within our communities from artists and keepers of traditional crafts. Children may get drums, or traditional sculptures. Books are frequently given. This encourages local and communal creation of cultural artifacts, and re-focuses the commercial activity that takes place during the holiday within the local communities. We live in an age where most toys and gifts we buy are made in China, or in sweatshops in Indonesia and other lands with little to no labor laws. Purchasing goods from big-business outlets perpetuates exploitation, in addition to draining capital from smaller communities.
  7. Imani / Faith: Kwanzaa is secular but religious communities are welcomed to adapt it. In its original spirit, imani is about at least having faith in one’s parents, teachers, leaders, and each other.

I love Kwanzaa. I’ve attended a couple of Kwanzaa celebrations, and greatly enjoyed them. They generally incorporate theater, music, and food. I think many good things come from it for the communities that celebrate Kwanzaa, and judging from the initial set of reasonings that I’ve already shared on this blog, I think that this is an absolutely necessary (and beautiful) feature of contemporary African American culture and that the people who criticize its celebration either have an agenda or a bias, or simply lack vision.

The idea for Kwanzaa is that communities need, from time to time, to mark a point in the year when family gatherings can happen, when enemies reconcile, when people exchange gifts as tokens of friendship, where the achievements of the previous year are revisited and new goals are set for the coming year, when intergenerational lore and knowledge is passed down, etc. Kwanzaa helps communities to have such useful milestones periodically. Also, African ancestors were tribal and collectivism was important for them: and this is a chance for Afro-diasporic people to experience some form of the continuity of their tribalness.

The following is my Kwanzaa gift to my readers: a sad, patriotic song about the ancestors from the island known in pre-colonial times as Borinquen. Campo (the title of the song) means “countryside” and refers to the rural parts of the island, but also may refer to a cemetery and to the place where we mourn our ancestors. It is a traditional bomba song, an Afro-Latin genre from the Caribbean.

About hiramcrespo

Hiram Crespo is the author of 'Tending the Epicurean Garden' (Humanist Press, 2014) and 'How to Live a Good Life' (Penguin Random House, 2020), and founder of societyofepicurus.com. He's also written for The Humanist, Eidolon, Occupy, The New Humanism, The Secular Web, Europa Laica, AteístasPR, and many other outlets.
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