Kwanzaa, a nonreligious wintertime holiday, began in the tumultuous late 20th century. It is dedicated to unifying African Americans under their shared roots and has cultivated a large following within the last few decades.
On August 11, 1965, the arrest of young African motorist escalated into one of the worst episodes of civil unrest in United States history. Marquette Frye was detained by the white highway patrolman Lee W. Minikus on suspicions of driving while intoxicated. A crowd of onlookers on the scene quickly became entangled in an aggressive exchange with the police. In an eruption of the longstanding frustration on unemployment, housing, and failing public education, the conflict escalated into a large-scale riot in the commercial center of Los Angeles. A team of 14,000 coast guard members eventually suppressed the riot after six days of terror, 34 dead, and $40 million worth of destructed property, now known as the Watts Riots.
A year later, Dr. Maulana “Ron” Karenga, a professor of Black Studies, conceived Kwanzaa. He realized that African Americans needed to be brought together after the horrors of the Watts Riots. Deriving the name Kwanzaa from the Swahili phrase “matunda ya kwanza” or “first fruits of the harvest,” he created the holiday with the intent of integrating African harvest traditions into a joyous celebration.
This year, the seven nights of Kwanzaa occur between Wednesday, December 26 and Tuesday, January 1, 2019. Families light a candle on the Kinara and discuss a central principle for each day of the celebration. These include unity (umoja), self-determination (Kujichagulia), collective responsibility (ujima), cooperative economics (ujamaa), purpose (nia), creativity (kuumba) and faith (imani). Throughout Kwanzaa, people also exchange gifts, perform traditional songs and dances, and showcase their cultural prowess through the Karamu feast. They honor cultural traditions by learning the significance of seven symbols, which attest to the companionship of a village and the achievements of ancestors.
From its practices to origins, Kwanzaa evokes themes of preservation of the African identity throughout a turbulent history. To African American families who choose to observe it, it provides an opportunity to incorporate their ethnic heritage into mainstream celebrations of Christmas time.