Do we need another December holiday? I usually procrastinate thinking about this most commercial season, trying to postpone as long as possible the chaos that comes with it. However, this year, I'm excited about the prospect of working Kwanzaa into our family celebrations.
In the United States, we have borrowed Christmas traditions from many places – Saint Nicolas/Santa Claus and evergreen trees from Europe, the posada (Joseph and Mary going from house to house searching for shelter) from Latin America – why not add African elements, too? Especially when they correspond so well to Jesus' teachings about unity, faith, and helping each other.
During a LURE (Learning to Undue Racism Events) presentation in the Mennonite Church USA offices in Elkhart, Indiana, Craig Stephen Clark described Kwanzaa as a week-long secular festival that takes place Dec. 26-Jan.1, in which people of African descent celebrate their cultural values. The name, taken from the Swahili language, is often translated as "first fruits."
Maulana Karenga created Kwanzaa in the mid-1960s to help African Americans recover pride in their African roots in the aftermath of rioting in the Watts neighborhood of Los Angeles. Zawadi (Craig Stephen Clark's African name, meaning "gifts") said that Kwanzaa captured the worldview of his childhood.
"In my family, we practiced Kwanzaa before we had a name for it," Zawadi said. "After Christmas, we would always visit neighbors and family members, taking food and gifts. We also helped each other work."
Kwanzaa can be adapted to the needs of each community. Zawadi described the holiday as it is practiced in his home town of South Bend, Indiana. Elders come to the St. Joseph County library in African attire. True to the communitarian values of much of the African continent, all elders are considered to be the fathers and mothers of all the children gathered for the occasion. Out of respect for the elders, younger participants don't speak until an elder gives permission to speak.
Because Kwanzaa is based on cultural traditions rather than religious ones, people of all faiths can celebrate together. In South Bend, this means that atheists and Christians and Muslims can all come together without barriers.
Kwanzaa highlights Nguzo Saba, the "seven principles of African heritage," which Karenga described as the essence of African philosophy. Each day of the week of Kwanzaa focuses on one of the seven principles, and a corresponding candle is lit in the kinara, a candle-holder similar to the Jewish menorah. The seven principles, whose names are taken from diverse African languages, are:
- Umoja (unity) – The desire for harmony and solidarity among families, communities, nations and races. "My mother was swept away from me the day I was born due to TB [tuberculous]," Zawadi said. "A nurse named me. My grandmother and six cousins raised me."
- Kujichagulia (self-determination) – The right of a people to define themselves and speak for themselves. "I'm a good statistic from my neighborhood, my village. I could have been a different kind of statistic," Zawadi said, as he described a school where most of his teachers and classmates were Black. His teachers functioned as African elders. There were opportunities for band, swimming, Saturday make-up sessions if a student missed a lesson. Zawadi joined Notre Dame University's Upward Bound program and got a music scholarship from Purdue University.
- Ujima (collective work and responsibility) – The determination to build and care for the community together. "Our brothers' and sisters' problems become our problems, and we work to solve them together," Zawadi said.
- Ujamaa (cooperative economics) – The right of a people to profit from their own labor, to maintain their own stores and businesses. "Store owners would run a tab for us, write IOUs if we didn't have cash on a particular day," Zawadi said. He described a neighborhood with all the necessary services, including funeral homes, stores, and a commuter-train stop on the Chicago line.
- Nia (purpose) – The resolve to develop the African-American community and to restore pride in traditional greatness. "This is why I am active in community service," Zawadi said. "I want to continue my grandmother's work of keeping the family together and the community together."
- Kuumba (creativity) – The longing to make each community a beautiful and wholesome place. "In South Bend, we worked together with The Black Nation of Islam. They had an educational and recreational program for community youth, called Liberation School," Zawadi said. "They had a Black community newspaper and a fresh vegetable and fruit stand. I come from a family of quilters that got a contract from Sears and Roebuck to make beautiful car-seat covers."
- Imani (faith) – To believe with all our hearts in our people, our parents, our teachers, our leaders, and the righteousness and victory of our struggle. "We were in church all day on Sunday," Zawadi said. "We had a children's choir, the Sunshine Band. We also had a drill team that did dance steps. I continue to give back to my village through teaching vacation Bible school."
How will my family begin to incorporate Kwanzaa values into our Christmas this year? How will we reach out to all faith traditions in our "village?" How will we contribute to the beauty and health of our neighborhood? How will we encourage respect, and work to develop the African-American communities in our country? How will we nurture harmony and unity?
Please share your ideas. Let's learn from each other.
Craig Stephen Clark is an independent education consultant. He lives in South Bend, Indiana, where he leads the city's chapter of Indiana Black Expo, Inc., and is the IBE State Board Representative. He is also a Big Brother in the Big Brothers/Big Sisters of Saint Joseph County, and involved with numerous community programs in community education and health. Craig graduated from Purdue University in West Lafayette, Indiana, and earned a master of science degree at Indiana University in South Bend. He is a member of Greater Saint John Missionary Baptist Church. For more information about Kwanzaa, contact Clark at Zawadi_46628@yahoo.com.