Kwanzaa Turns 50: A Look at the History of the Holiday

By Maddie Orton
Arts Correspondent

How do you celebrate your cultural history when you can’t fully know what it is?  That’s the challenge many African-Americans face — and the idea from which Kwanzaa was born just 50 years ago.

Dr. James Conyers is the director of Africana Studies at Kean University. He says becoming “Americanized” and having no way to trace lineage has to led to the African piece of many people’s identities slipping away.

“‘African-American’ means that you are of African descent. You are an African,” explained Conyers. “The misunderstanding takes place when people who have been displaced from Africa for a long time and don’t have a consciousness of their historical roots, seem to think that — solely because they were born somewhere else — that they stop being what they were before.”

So in 1966, activist and Africana Studies Professor Dr. Maulana Karenga founded a new secular holiday on the seven days following Christmas: Kwanzaa.

“Kwanzaa’s origin really comes out of the movements of the 1960s,” said Conyers. “Dr. Karenga felt it was necessary to have a cultural celebration, a spiritual celebration, that would reaffirm African people in their rootedness in African history and African culture.”

A candle holder, called a kinara, is lit with seven candles — each representing a different principle.

“Beginning with the one in the center, the black candle, the black candle represents what we call ‘Umoja,’ which means ‘unity’ — that we should be unified as a people, we should be unified in everything that we do,” Conyers explained. “The next principle is called ‘Kujichagulia,’ which means ‘self-determination.'”

Then there’s: “Ujima,” meaning collective work and responsibility, “Ujamaa,” meaning cooperative economics, “Nia,” “Kuumba” and “Imani” — purpose, creativity and faith.

“I think because Kwanzaa comes at a similar time to Christmas and to Hanukkah,” I posited, “people assume that it’s a religious holiday, but it’s not.”

“Many people who really don’t know very much about Kwanzaa, always assume that Kwanzaa is — and I’ve actually heard this said on many occasion — Kwanzaa is ‘the black Christmas,'” shared Conyers. “Kwanzaa is totally a cultural, spiritual holiday. And by spiritual, I mean plugging into the African concept of spirituality — plugging into the African values.”

“How have you seen the holiday and its role in culture change over the last 50 years? Do you think it’s as important now as it was then?” I asked.

“I think it’s more important now than it was then,” said Conyers. “Kwanzaa has grown from 1966 to this particular period of time. Originally, Kwanzaa began as an African-American holiday. It is now an African-American holiday as well as a pan-African holiday. … Kwanzaa is celebrated around the world by all African people.”

Conyers explained that it’s like the saying goes: “A people who know where they’ve been, know where they’re going.”