Returning to racially integrated communities in Kansas City’s urban core this year, I also attempt to return to cultural rituals and inspiring traditions different from those around which I grew up. One that gets hidden amidst Christmas, Hanukkah, Saturnalia, New Year’s, and other festivities of the winter solstice is the African American festival of Kwanzaa. For over fifty years this weeklong celebration has been ritualized across our nation but only by about 2% of the population. Yet its principles, which grew from values and traditions from across Africa and various harvest festivities, have great value for 100% of us.
“Kwanzaa” is a Swahili word meaning first; it refers to the first fruits of the annual harvest. It points to the final day of this holiday feast which is the first of our new year; on that day, we present the infant moments of our annual new beginning to God for blessing. In exchange, we accept the seven principles, called Nguzo Saba, to which we commit our time, efforts, and energy in the twelve months ahead. The seven principles are Umoja (unity), Kujichagulia (self-determination), Ujima (collective responsibility), Ujamaa (cooperative economics), Nia (purpose), Kuumba (creativity), and Imani (faith). Each is the focus on one of the days between Christmas and New Year’s.
They are valuable principles for any community. Umoja highlights the African saying, “I am We” or “I am because We are.” In other words, we cannot exist but for one another. Following unity is self-determination, Kujichagulia. It stresses the importance of being the unique person God created each of us to be so that we, understanding our identity as co-creators of a better existence, can make decisions that positively impact our surroundings. Ujima’s collective responsibility and Ujamaa’s cooperative economics remind us of our obligation to share with one another, help others in their labors, and build upon the sacrifices and struggles of ancestors; though the work of every generation is incomplete, we hope to pass on to the one that follows us a better world. Nia is about having a purpose-driven life; it encourages us to look within and set personal goals that benefit our community. Kuumba reminds us that the greatest honor we, creatures, can give our Creator is to use our own creativity for the good of others and glory of God. Finally, Imani calls us to strive to higher levels of belief and deeper levels of faith so that we can aspire to the victory we were put on earth to achieve.
Kwanzaa celebrations began after the Watts Riots in Los Angeles in the mid-1960s as African Americans sought greater identity and direction. Seven years later, in Chicago, it spread beyond the black community to emphasize Karamu (or Karamu Ya Imani, a feast of faith), which had a comical edge that included the airing of grievances, like Seinfeld’s Festivus episode. More importantly, however, after expressing the desire to expel what is wrong from our society, it incorporated drummers drumming in a way that sought to rediscover the heartbeat of God and reunite it with the beat of our human soul. This annual festival is essentially a ritual for us to get back in sync with the rhythm of God’s creation, union with us, hope for us, desire that we will be restored to our true nature and one day reunited fully with the Lord. If you can, embrace and integrate these valued principles in the time ahead, for they apply to every culture, tradition, and calendar year.