Volume 91, Issue 54

Wednesday, December 3, 1997

Jack Frosh


Kwanzaa: a way of life

By Natalie Henry
Gazette Staff

Conjure up a celebratory image in which all of your family and closest friends, despite their faith, political affiliation or religion, reaffirm their culture and ancestry, exchange intricately homemade gifts and enjoy an elaborate feast to conclude the communal festivities.

Imagine a tradition which focuses upon traditional family values, self-improvement and determination, collective work and responsibility, creativity and faith – a tradition that not only lasts for seven days but is considered a way of life. This way of life is a reality for 20 million African-Americans and is slowly becoming popular for Canadians as well. This 30-year-old tradition is called Kwanzaa.

"Through Kwanzaa, African-Americans needed a celebration that didn't see European images during Christmas time," explains professor Pablo Idahosa, department head of African Studies at York University. "It gives them a sense of identity – to uplift them and give them the self-help and deliberation that was lacking in the '60s when it was developed."

Kwanzaa, derived from the Swahili word for 'first fruit' or 'first crop,' started in 1966 by Dr. Maulana Karenga, director of the Black Studies program at California State University and the African-American Cultural Centre in Los Angeles. The tradition was based on a forgotten African harvest festival and Karenga turned it into a commemorative holiday.

He added the extra 'a' to give the word a seventh letter to conform with seven basic principles that Kwanzaa celebrants honour: Umoja (unity), Kujichagulia (self-determination), Ujima (collective work), Ujamaa (cooperative economics), Nia (purpose), Kuumba (creativity) and Imani (faith).

"It's ironic how most of the words surrounding the tradition are linked to Swahili – during a period from East Africa for example, Kenya. However, Kwanzaa is celebrated by African-Americans and not so much in Africa," Idahosa says.

Each night of the holiday one of seven candles, placed in a candelabra called a kinara, is lit. The three red candles signify the blood of ancestors in their struggle for racial equality. The three green candles represent hope, youth and the colour of motherhood, while the one black candle stands as the face of black people.

The candelabra looks like a menorah from Judaism and there are other things influenced by Christianity and Islamic traditions, Idahosa adds.

Recently, the cultural tradition has expanded onto Western's campus with a Kwanzaa display in the University Community Centre's atrium created by the Black Students' Association. "The display is something we do that the BSA is known for," says Stephanie Cornish, political affairs officer for the BSA. "It's something we do every year. The mat and the candles were given from the community."

The growing popularity of the holiday flickered an idea in the eyes of many African-Americans who requested a commemorative holiday stamp series through the U.S. Postal Service.

Last year Postal Services recognized different cultural observances during the holiday period. This year Kwanzaa is observed by increasing numbers of African-Americans, says Monica Hand, Kwanzaa spokesperson for the Holiday Series.

"A group of the Citizen Stamp Advisory Committee decided last year to do a series," she explains. "To build awareness of other holiday celebrations observed by large groups of Americans. So, it's logical that we'd do a Kwanzaa series.

"Last year was the Hanukkah series. This year it was decided to do Kwanzaa: an African-American celebration of family, community and culture."

Tiamoyo, Karenga's assistant at California State, affirms that "postal services informed us two-and-a-half to three years ago that they got so many requests [for a Kwanzaa Holiday stamp series]. And they looked at it and decided to devote a Holiday series of stamps from African-Americans who wanted to honour their tradition.

"They found Synthia Saint James, the artist who designed the cover of Terry McMillan's novel [Waiting to Exhale], to do the Kwanzaa stamp and they contacted Dr. Karenga to see if it was authentic – to ensure the integrity of the holiday."

To Contact The Focus Department: gazfocus@julian.uwo.ca

Copyright The Gazette 1997