Jessica B. Harris on the Meaning and Principles of Kwanzaa

For many African Americans, this is a time to honor the past, look toward the future, and feast with loved ones. 

Jessica B. Harris's Kwanza Table with Pecan-Coated Pork Loin Roast and Any-Season Succotash
Photo: Victor Protasio; Food Styling: Emily Nabors Hall; Prop Styling: Audrey Davis

I came late to Kwanzaa, celebrating it first in the 1980s. I remember the effect it had on the starry-eyed children present, who watched the ceremony with rapt interest. In 1995, I wrote a book about the holiday, A Kwanzaa Keepsake, which presented it in the context of the African diaspora.

Most people are astonished to learn that Kwanzaa was established only recently, in 1966, by African American activist and professor Maulana Karenga. It was created to counteract the commercialization of Christmas and the year-end holidays and to provide a way to celebrate African cultural values.

Kwanzaa, which runs from the day after Christmas through New Year's, uses Swahili as its language. Seven is an important number for the holiday, with seven days, seven principles, and seven symbols that are used on the centerpiece for Kwanzaa. Those symbolic items include the mat on which the centerpiece is built; the ears of corn, which symbolize the children in the household; the arrangement of fruit; the chalice of unity; the seven-branched kinara, or candleholder; the red, black, and green candles; and the gifts, which should be handmade or educational and (if purchased) obtained from African American or African diaspora sources.

I led Kwanzaa ceremonies for almost two decades at the university where I taught. Over the years, the college events grew in importance and came to include things such as African fashion shows, dance performances, poetry readings, choral singing, drumming, and more. There was always a groaning board buffet that was loaded with foods from the African diaspora. It featured everything from American fried chicken and collard greens to Jamaican jerk chicken and rice and peas to Trinidadian curries and rotis.

I reveled in all of the drumming, dancing, and feasting, and I was always moved by watching how the holiday, the ceremony, and its celebration of our cultural heritage helped empower the African American faculty and students. We left with our spines straighter, minds clearer, and hearts lighter for having shared a bit of ourselves with all.

The Seven Nights

The meaning behind the holiday, from Harris' book A Kwanzaa Keepsake.

December 26

Celebrates Umoja, or Unity: "to strive for and maintain unity in the family, community, nation, and race."

December 27

Celebrates Kujichagulia, or Self-Determination: "to define ourselves, name ourselves, create for ourselves, speak for ourselves..."

December 28

Celebrates Ujima, or Collective Work and Responsibility: "to build and maintain our community together..."

December 29

Celebrates Ujamaa, or Cooperative Economics: "to build and maintain our own…businesses and to profit from them together."

December 30

Celebrates Nia, or Purpose: "to make our collective vocation the building and developing of our community in order to restore our people to their traditional greatness."

December 31

Celebrates Kuumba, or Creativity: "to do always as much as we can, in the way we can…to leave our community more beautiful and beneficial than we inherited it."

January 1

Celebrates Imani, or Faith: "to believe…in our people, our parents, our teachers, our leaders, and the righteousness and victory of our struggle."

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