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Kwanzaa: A Celebration of African American Family, Community and Culture
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The Founder's Message 1997

Professor Maulana Karenga


KWANZAA: CULTURAL AND MORAL GROUNDING
                 

Dr. Maulana Karenga
Founder of the Holiday of Kwanzaa; Professor and Chair, Department of Black Studies, California State University at Long Beach
Chairman of the organization Us; Director, African American Cultural Center

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December, 1994

  Kwanzaa is organized around five fundamental activities: 1)ingathering of the people which reaffirms the bonds between them; 2) special reverence for the Creator and creation which recognizes and reaffirms the bond of mutuality between the divine, social and the natural; 3) commemoration of the past which is directed toward honoring and emulating the ancestors and understanding the meaning and obligations of our history; 4) recommitment to our highest cultural values, especially our moral and spiritual ones; and 5) celebration of the Good of life, i.e., life itself, love, sisterhood/brotherhood, family, community, the earth and universe, the human person and human possibilities, our struggle, history and culture.   But of these five fundamental activities none is more important than our commemoration of our past. For in doing this, we not only honor the moral obligation to remember and raise up the name and legacy of our ancestors, but also we think seriously and deeply about our history and culture and ask ourselves what does it really mean to be an African in light of this. It is Fannie Lou Hamer who taught us that there are two things we should all care about, never to forget where we came from and always praise the bridges that carried us over. In practicing this morality of remembering, we reaffirm our location in the rich, varied and most ancient human tradition, the African tradition. And we give appropriate thanks and honor to those who gave their lives so that we might live fuller and more meaningful ones. But we also learn the lessons and meaning of their lives, identify and absorb a spirit of human possibility and begin to understand and accept the obligations of our history. For when Mary McLeod Bethune said that "we are heirs and custodians of a great legacy," she was both calling attention to our ancestors' legacy and challenging us to honor this great legacy by bearing the burden and glory of our history with strength, dignity and determination. And inherent in this statement and implicit challenge is a call to recognize who we are and act accordingly. In a word, it is a challenge to raise and respond effectively to the question of what it really means to be African.   The question of what it means to be African is a central question each day of Kwanzaa. But it has an even more special meaning when it is raised on the Day of Assessment, January 1st, the last day of Kwanzaa. Kwanzaa takes place during a time, as the Ashanti say, when the edges of the year meet, when the old year is going out and the new year is coming in. And for us as African people, this has historically been and remains a time of turning inward, sober assessment of ourselves and community and recommitment to our highest values in heart, mind and practice. During the Kwanzaa season, then, and especially on the Day of Assessment, we must raise the question of what it means to be African, and then ask ourselves in what way have we honored or failed to honor its meaning. This is such a central question for it is not only about what it means to be African but also in a real way what it means to be human in the most moral and meaningful sense.   It is Malcolm X, the moral teacher and martyr who offered his life as his most definitive lesson, who said that in order to be the African person and people we must be, we must wake up, clean up and then stand up. Saying this, he was in fact insisting on a cultural and moral definition of what it means to be African. By waking up, he meant coming into consciousness of one's self--that is to say, grounding oneself in knowledge of one's history and culture. This is why he said that "of all our studies history is best prepared to reward our research." By cleaning up, he meant spiritual and ethical grounding, that is to say, speaking truth, doing justice and walking in the way of righteousness. And by standing up, he meant self-consciously engaging in struggle to bring into being a just and good society and create the moral community we want and need to live in for maximum human flourishing. It is, then, in this ongoing three-dimensional process of cultural, moral grounding and practical engagement to create and sustain moral community, that we realize and reaffirm our Africanness. For we are not simply who we say we are, but who we are at the end of each day when we measure ourselves in the cultural and moral mirror of our history and current practice.   So Malcolm would not accept surface attributes to define our Africanness. He would not accept claims of natural rhythm, sexual power, athletic ability or any of the surface and stereotypical ways others define us, or we in our weaker moments define ourselves. In measuring the quality of a persons claim to be African, Malcolm would want to know what this person knows about her history, about his culture, whether or not he or she lives a moral life, speaking truth, doing justice and walking in the way of rightness, especially in relations with others. And he would want to know if and how they participate in our people's struggle for a just and good society. Thus, in measuring people's claim of commitment to Kwanzaa, Malcolm would want to know that the people who celebrate Kwanzaa know its roots and meaning; know the culture and history from which it comes and defend it against the process of commodification, commercialization, trivialization and empty routinization which substitutes as substantive engagement. And Malcolm would certainly want to know that these people share Kwanzaa's vision and practice its values daily, that they embrace and uphold these values which reaffirm and strengthen family, community and culture. Finally, he would want to know that they teach this vision and these values to their children and instruct them, as the ancient Egyptians said, to stand up and sit down by them and to see them as a rich and eternal legacy of their fathers and mothers.   Malcolm's teachings and expectations are good to raise at Kwanzaa, for they speak to the most definitive meaning of being African in terms of moral and cultural grounding. For Kwanzaa is also and above all about cultural and moral grounding, about reaffirming and strengthening family, community and culture; and enabling us to raise and answer Frantz Fanon's three questions: who am I; am I really who I am; and am I all I ought to be? These are questions of identity, authenticity, and moral obligation. The answers to them obligate us to see ourselves above all, as fathers and mothers of human civilization; sons and daughters of the Holocaust of Enslavement; and authors and heirs of the reaffirmation of the 60's. Moreover, each of these historical aspects of our identity obligates us to be morally and culturally grounded; to speak truth, to do justice, to oppose all forms of enslavement and oppression, and to constantly struggle for moral community and an ever-expanding realm of human freedom and flourishing. Thus, when the Hon. Marcus Garvey called for "community first," it was a moral call to give first consideration to the building and liberation of our community as our extended family, to prepare ourselves morally and culturally to carry out our tasks and then speak our own special cultural truth to the world and make our own unique contribution to the forward flow of human history. This was right and necessary. For we are our own liberators and a people that cannot save itself is lost forever. But a people who only wants to save itself can never be called great or truly moral. Afterall, the ancestors taught, "the wise are known by their wisdom, but the great are known by their good deeds." May we be blessed to be continually both wise and great as a people, strong enough to bear the burden and glory of our history and humble enough to know we must each day make ourselves worthy. ///////////////////// For more information on the vision, values and practice of Kwanzaa read:
  Maulana Karenga, The African American Holiday of Kwanzaa: A Celebration of Family, Community and Culture,
Los Angeles: University of Sankore Press, (323) 295-9799 For press information contact:
  African American Cultural Center, 2560 West 54th Street, Los Angeles, CA 90043, (323) 299-6124; FAX (323) 299-0261 _____________________________________________

  Dr. Maulana Karenga is the creator of the holiday of Kwanzaa; Professor and Chair of the Department of Black Studies, California State University at Long Beach; Chairman of The Organization Us and The National Association of Kawaida Organizations; and author of the African American Holiday of Kwanzaa: A Celebration of Family, Community and Culture, The Million Man March/Day of Absence Mission Statement and co-author of The Million Man March/Day of Absence: A Commemorative Anthology.