The value and practice of ingathering of the people is the first and foundational common aspect of African first-fruits celebrations which went into the development of Kwanzaa. Such an ingathering is not only of crops but also of people..
A profound reverence for Creator and Creation is a central focus for the ingathering of the people in African first-fruits celebrations and forms a second common aspect which contributed to the conception of Kwanzaa...
The roots of Kwanzaa, then, are in ancient and ongoing continental African first-fruits or first-harvest celebrations. They give Kwanzaa its model and shared values and practices, and its historical groundedness...
Secondly, Kwanzaa was created to serve as a regular communal celebration to reaffirm and reinforce the bonds between us as a people. It was designed to be an ingathering to strengthen community and reaffirm common identity, purpose and direction...
THE HOLIDAY KWANZAA is a product of creative cultural synthesis. That is to say, it is the product of critical selection and judicious mixture on several levels. First, Kwanzaa is a synthesis of both Continental African and Diasporanl African cultural elements. This means that it is rooted in both the cultural values and practice of Africans on the Continent and in the U.S. with strict attention to cultural authenticity and values for a meaningful, principled and productive life.
Secondly, the Continental African components of Kwanzaa are a synthesis of various cultural values and practices from different Continental African peoples. In a word, the values and practices of Kwanzaa are selected from peoples from all parts of Africa, south and north, west and east, in a true spirit of Pan_Africanism.
And finally, Kwanzaa is a synthesis in the sense that it is based, in both conception and self-conscious commitment, on tradition and reason. Kawaida, the philosophy out of which Kwanzaa is created, teaches that all we think and do should be based on tradition and reason which are in turn rooted in practice. Tradition is our grounding, our cultural anchor and therefore, our starting point. It is also cultural authority for any claims to cultural authenticity for anything we do and think as an African people. And reason is necessary critical thought about our tradition which enables us to select, preserve and build on the best of what we have achieved and produced, in the light of our knowledge and our needs born of experience. Through reason rooted in experience or practice, then, we keep our tradition as an African people from becoming stagnant, sterile convention or empty historical reference. Instead, our tradition becomes and remains a lived, living and constantly expanded and enriched experience.
From: "Kwanzaa: A Celebration of Family, Community and Culture - by Maulana Karenga / pp 15-16 / Los Angeles: University of Sankore Press (2008)
The origins of Kwanzaa on the African continent are in the agricultural celebrations called the first-fruits" celebrations and to a lesser degree the full or general harvest celebrations. It is from these first-fruits celebrations that Kwanzaa gets its name which comes from the Swahili phrase matunda ya lewanza. Here matunda means "fruits" and ya kwanza means "first." (The extra "a" at the end of Kwanzaa has become convention as a result of a particular history.) The first-fruits celebrations are recorded in African history as far back as ancient Egypt and Nubia and appear in ancient and modern times in other classical African civilizations such as Ashantiland and Yorubaland. These celebrations are also found in ancient and modern times among societies as large as empires (the Zulu) or kingdoms (Swaziland) or smaller societies and groups like the Matabele, Thonga and Lovedu, all of southeastern Africa.
Of course all of these societies have their own names for the first-fruits celebrations. Among the ancient Egyptians, the festival was called "Pert-en-Mm" (The Coming Forth of Mm); among the Zulu, Umkhosi; among the Swazi, Incwala; among the Matabele, Inxwala; among the Thonga, Luma; among the Lovedu, Thegula; among the Ashanti, various names, i.e., Afahye or Odwira; and among the Yoruba, various names also depending on the region, i.e., Eje, Oro Olofin or Odun Ijesu. The Ashanti and Yoruba festivals are usually referred to as the New Yam Festival, i.e., the time of harvesting the first yams.
The choice of African first-fruits celebrations as the focal point and foundation of a new African American holiday was based on several considerations. First, these celebrations were prevalent throughout Africa and thus had the Pan-African character necessary to be defined as African in general as distinct from simply ethnically specific. This was important to Us given its policy of making, whenever possible, a creative and useful synthesis from various African cultural sources rather than choosing only one culture for emulation. Secondly, the core common aspects of these festivals which were discussed above, i.e., ingathering, reverence, commemoration, recommitment and celebration were seen as very relevant to building family, community and culture. This is especially true in terms of their stress on bonding, reaffirmation, restoration, remembrance, spirituality and recommitment to ever higher levels of human life as well as celebration of the Good in general...
Continued on page 18 - "Kwanzaa: A Celebration of Family, Community and Culture - by Maulana Karenga / pp 15-16 / Los Angeles: University of Sankore Press (2008)
A profound reverence for Creator and Creation is a central focus for the ingathering of the people in African first-fruits celebrations and forms a second common aspect which contributed to the conception of Kwanzaa. It is an expression of African spirituality, which here means intense emotional and rational appreciation for the highest ideals and values of humankind, i.e., the transcendent and ultimate. Thus, the people gather together to give thanks to the Creator for a good harvest and a good life. They give praise and pray for the good and long life of all. As Awolalu says, "The people congratulate each other and the priest prays that the year may be peaceful and successful and that the year's celebration may usher in an era of joy, prosperity and longevity." Moreover, the people pray not simply for themselves but for others, for the strangers in the town, for the long life and the just rule of the king and that those present may return again next year. A beautiful prayer of reverence which reflects this is an Ashanti king's prayer at an Odwira or New Yam Festival. He says: "The edges of the year have met. I pray for the life of the people. May the nation prosper. May the children be many. May food come forth in abundance. May no illness come. May the people grow to become old men and women. And may no misfortune fall on the land." Awolalu adds to this prayer emphasis on request for a just as well as long rule for the king among the Yoruba and it is the same with the Ashanti and other societies.
Kwanzaa as an agricultural and harvest celebration stresses appreciation of and care for the earth and environment. The prayers and attitudes of thanks for the good harvests and the good earth that produced them are accompanied by prayerful commitments to appreciate, protect and preserve the earth. Thus, Kwanzaa is a time of celebration of the beauty and good of the creation; and commitment and recommitment to preserve and protect it, to cherish it and leave it as a legacy and focus of care and responsibility for the next generation. One is therefore encouraged to be profoundly appreciative of the beauty and goodness of the earth, its meaning to us and our obligations toward it and to organize and carry out activities which demonstrate this.
Inherent in African reverence for the Creator, then, is a profound respect for the creation. Therefore, a significant part of the prayers and other rituals is a constant concern to be in harmony with nature and the universe. This forms a central unit of the three-part concern to be in right relationship with the divine, the natural and the human or social. The first-fruits celebrations with their agricultural focus offered an excellent context for appreciation of nature in their thanksgiving and concern for continued fertility, natural abundance, rain, sun, plants, water and rich soil. The continuing belief is that these good things require right relationship with the Creator and the Creation (i.e., nature and humans). And rituals to renew and reinforce this rightness of relationship abound in African first-fruits festivals. In ancient Egypt, the first-fruits festival, "The Coming Forth of Min" was seen as a reaffirmation of the harmonious interrelatedness of the divine, natural and human or social. In this regard, the ancient Egyptian first-fruits celebration contained, as do other African first-fruits celebrations, the principle and process of restoration. Rituals were thus conducted to restore, renew, refresh, rejuvenate and reinforce the fertility of the earth, the life and strength of the people and the leader and the creative energy of the cosmos.
Continued on page 23 - "Kwanzaa: A Celebration of Family, Community and Culture - by Maulana Karenga / pp 15-16 / Los Angeles: University of Sankore Press (2008)
The value and practice of ingathering of the people is the first and foundational common aspect of African first-fruits celebrations which went into the development of Kwanzaa. Such an ingathering is not only of crops but also of people. It is a harvesting of the people; a bringing together of the most valuable fruit or product of the nation, its living human harvest, i.e., the people themselves. It is a kind of homecoming in the physical, communal and cultural sense. People away return; all ages, all faiths, all persons gather together in joyous celebration and practice of family, community and culture. The first-fruits celebrations are, then, a time for ingathering of the people, of renewing and strengthening the bonds between them. It promotes rituals of community, of sharing and renewal of peoplehood bonds which strengthen mutual concern and commitment. Thus, the ingathering of the crops become another occasion to pull the people together and to reaffirm and reinforce the bonds between them. This is done through collective work and responsibility (Ujima) for the harvest and through collective rituals which in addition to the bonding process of ingathering are reverential, commemorative, committing and celebratory.
In historical first-fruits celebrations, there was a collective emphasis on renewal and reinforcement of social relations through stress on spiritual and ethical values. This yielded a kind of spiritual healing of the people, a casting off the old and a commitment to the new, forgiving and forgetting past offenses and projecting and stressing the highest values of the community, i.e., love, brotherhood, sisterhood, truth, justice, harmony, reciprocity, peace, etc. Thus, even the soldiers (warriors) would uphold peace rather than war and stress community rather than conflict in the spirit of the celebrations. An example is the Thonga soldiers' prayer during Luma, the first-fruits celebration — "This is the new year. May we not quarrel or kill another. May we eat and drink together peacefully. Who would have thought we would have escaped the dangers of war and drunk from this cup again? May we go about the villages in peace, not quarreling even with the stranger." This, of course, is another example of the constant stress on practice in African spirituality and ethics which are always unavoidably translated in and directed toward quality human relations.
Continued on page 21 - "Kwanzaa: A Celebration of Family, Community and Culture - by Maulana Karenga / pp 15-16 / Los Angeles: University of Sankore Press (2008)
A third common aspect of African first-fruits celebrations which contributed to the development of Kwanzaa is commemoration of the past, especially of the ancestors. Often this profound respect for the ancestors is called ancestor worship. But this is a misnomer, for Africans worship only God, the Creator, in his/her many manifestations. Thus, their profound respect for the ancestors, which admittedly has a spiritual dimension, is best called veneration. The ancestors are venerated because they are: 1) a source and symbol of lineage; 2) models of ethical life, service and social achievement to the community; and 3) spiritual intercessors between humans and the Creator.
To honor the ancestors then is to honor heritage, roots, and our lineage. This focus on lineage is key for it unites the community in a solidarity of past, present and future generations. As Mends states in discussing Akwasidae, the Day of Remembrance of the Ancestors, among the Ashanti, the ceremony focuses on "the concept of lineage which includes the dead (ancestors), the living and the yet unborn and is directed toward achieving unity among the (people)." By participating in the ceremony to honor the ancestors, the people "are infinitely reminded of the common bonds of kinship and association which make for solidarity among the people." Also, to honor the ancestors was/is to honor the best of what we are and can become in ethical living, service and social achievement. As the Yoruba teach, one is not simply an ancestor by dying but by deeds; that is to say, by living a long life of service, being righteous, and providing a model for those who come after. Thus, to honor the ancestors is to honor the blessed ones who have achieved immortality based on their good and righteous life on earth.
To commemorate the past is also to commemorate the struggles and deeds of the people, to honor the narrative of their struggle to shape their world in their own image and interest; that is to say, make it mirror their values and serve their basic and higher needs. Here, history as memory—both sacred and secular—is important and compelling. And one is morally compelled to remember the struggle and achievement of the ancestors. For it is they who paved the path for the living and the yet-unborn, who left the model and legacy of tradition; the tradition which grounds the people, provides cultural authority and measures the cultural authenticity of all that is thought or done. To remember, then, is to honor and preserve; to forget is to violate memory, dishonor the dead and deprive the living and the yet unborn of a rich and irreplaceable legacy. Thus, libation is performed for the ancestors, their intercession and blessings are invoked, their names are called out in a ritual of remembrance and they are given praise and thanks for their legacy and guidance.' It would not only be disrespectful then to begin a major celebration without paying homage to the ancestors; it would also be in a real sense a serious violation of both historical memory and cultural values.
From: "Kwanzaa: A Celebration of Family, Community and Culture - by Maulana Karenga / pp 24 - 25 / Los Angeles: University of Sankore Press (2008)
A fourth common aspect of African first-fruits celebrations which is integrated into the Kwanzaa celebration is recommitment to the highest cultural ideals of the community. By this is meant recommitment to its highest and most fundamental cultural values in both thought and practice. To say culture here is to suggest a total life pattern involving the spiritual, historical, social, economic, political, creative, psychological, etc. As indicated above, the first-fruits celebrations were times of spiritual, natural, social and cosmic renewal or restoration. This restoration through communal ritual always included recommitment to the way of the Creator, the way of the ancestors, in a word, to the Good or as one said in ancient Egypt to "that which man and woman love and things that are approved by God." Thus, whether it is Maat among the ancient Egyptians, Papa among the Ashanti, Ubuhle among the Zulu, Cieng among the Dinka, Ire among the Yoruba, it is the cultural and spiritual Good which benefits humans and satisfies the Creator. Therefore, recommitment involves a reaffirmation and rededication in thought and practice to cooperation, peace, truth, justice, righteousness, sisterhood, brotherhood, harmony, reciprocity, sharing, mutual care and confidence, the cultural integrity of the people, the Nguzo Saba (The Seven Principles - unity, self-determination, collective work and responsibility, cooperative economics, purpose, creativity and faith) and all other values which serve as grounding and social glue for the community. It is at the same time a recommitment to a higher level of life and achievement in the future.
This recommitment implied and required a process of reassessment, a solemn and serious examination of past practices and the state of things and then renewed promises for higher levels of social practice in the future. This reassessment was handled in different ways. For example among Southeastern African peoples like the Zulu and Swazi, it involved an institutionalized reassessment, even critique of leadership. This occurred within the councils of government as well as between the government and the people. Kwanzaa incorporates the idea of reassessment on both a personal and collective (family, community, nation) level and the practice of recommitment to moral and social excellence as evidenced in the Nguzo Saba (The Seven Principles) and other African communitarian values which promote truth, justice, caring, community, and ever higher levels of human life and achievement.
From: "Kwanzaa: A Celebration of Family, Community and Culture - by Maulana Karenga / pp 25 - 27 / Los Angeles: University of Sankore Press (2008)
Finally, a fifth common aspect of African first-fruits celebrations which is contributive to the conception and practice of Kwanzaa is celebration of the Good. The first-fruits celebration is a celebration in the various and many senses of the words, i.e., a ritual, a ceremony, a commemoration, an observance, a respectful marking, an honoring and praising, and a rejoicing. It is thus occasioned by the solemn aspects above as well as the joyful aspects of ingathering and rejoicing through renewing acquaintances, lively dialog, narratives, poetry, dancing, singing, drumming and other music and feasting. The celebration is of Creator and creation, of life, of the people, of their history and culture, of a good harvest and the promise of the next year. In a word, it is a celebration of all that is Good in the widest sense of the word, i.e., divine, natural, social. Thus, Awolalu has summed up the festival as one of thanksgiving, jubilation and communion, thanks and rejoicing for life and its goodness and communion with the Creator and creation, with the ancestors and the past and among the simple themselves. In this way their families, community and culture are preserved, reaffirmed and renewed. It is for this reason that first-fruits celebrations with their ingathering, reverence, commemoration, recommitment and celebration can be called a celebration of family, community and culture. And it is in the context of this understanding that Kwanzaa was given its form and content.
From: "Kwanzaa: A Celebration of Family, Community and Culture - by Maulana Karenga / p 27 / Los Angeles: University of Sankore Press (2008)
The roots of Kwanzaa, then, are in ancient and ongoing continental African first-fruits or first-harvest celebrations. They give Kwanzaa its model and shared values and practices, and its historical groundedness. Rooted in this ancient history and culture, Kwanzaa develops as a flourishing branch of the African cultural tree. It emerges in the context of African American life and struggle as a recreated and expanded ancient tradition. Thus, it bears special characteristics and meaning for African American people. But it is not only an African American holiday but also a Pan-African one. For it draws from the cultures of various African peoples, and is celebrated by millions of Africans throughout the world African community. Moreover, these various African peoples celebrate Kwanzaa because it speaks not only to African Americans in a special way, but also to Africans as a whole, in its stress on history, values, family, community and culture.
Kwanzaa was established in 1966 in the midst of the Black Freedom Movement and thus reflects its concern for cultural groundedness in thought and practice, and the unity and self-determination associated with this. It was conceived and established to serve several functions.
From: "Kwanzaa: A Celebration of Family, Community and Culture - by Maulana Karenga / p 28 / Los Angeles: University of Sankore Press (2008)
First, Kwanzaa was created to reaffirm and restore our rootedness in African culture. It is, therefore, an expression of recovery and reconstruction of African culture which was being conducted in the general context of the Black Liberation Movement of the 60's and in the specific context of The Organization Us. In the 60's the Black Movement after 1965 was defined by its thrust to "return to the source," to go "Back to Black." It stressed the rescue and reconstruction of African history and culture, redefinition of ourselves and our culture and a restructuring of the goals and purpose of our struggle for liberation and a higher level of human life based on an Afrocentric model. This stress on restoration was evidenced in cultural practices such as renaming of oneself and one's children with African names, wearing the Natural or Afro hair style and African clothes, relearning African languages, especially Swahili, and reviving African life-cycle ceremonies such as naming, nationalization, rites of passage (Akika and Majando), wedding (Arusi) and funeral (Maziko).
This restorative thrust also involved the struggle for an establishment of Black Studies in the academy and the building of community institutions which restored and reintroduced African culture, i.e., cultural centers, theaters, art galleries, independent schools, etc. Moreover, there was an emphasis on returning to the African continent physically, culturally and spiritually for cultural revitalization, to reestablish links and build ongoing mutually beneficial and reinforcing relationships. And finally, there was the attempt to recover and begin to live, even relive, African values in the family and community as a way to rebuild and reinforce family, community and culture.
Continued on page 30 - "Kwanzaa: A Celebration of Family, Community and Culture - by Maulana Karenga / pp 15-16 / Los Angeles: University of Sankore Press (2008)
Secondly, Kwanzaa was created to serve as a regular communal celebration to reaffirm and reinforce the bonds between us as a people. It was designed to be an ingathering to strengthen community and reaffirm common identity, purpose and direction. Kwanzaa was created to reaffirm and reinforce the bonds between us as a people in both the national and Pan-African sense...
Thirdly, Kwanzaa was created to introduce and reinforce the Nguzo Saba (the Seven Principles). These values were and are a self-conscious contribution to the general Movement call and the specific Us call and struggle for an African (African American) value system. These seven communitarian African values are: Umoja (Unity), Kujichagulia (Self-Determination), Ujima (Collective Work and Responsibility), Ujamaa (Cooperative Economics), Nia (Purpose), Kuumba (Creativity), and Imani (Faith) (see Chapter 3). Their communitarian character was viewed as especially important because of their collective emphasis, positive composition and their rootedness and prevalence in African culture. The Nguzo Saba were thus projected as the moral minimum set of African values that African Americans needed in order to rebuild and strengthen family, community and culture and become a self-conscious social force in the struggle to control their destiny and daily life. This stress on the Nguzo Saba was at the same time an emphasis on the importance of African communitarian values in general. And Kwanzaa was conceived as a fundamental and important way to introduce and reinforce these values and cultivate appreciation for them.
From: "Kwanzaa: A Celebration of Family, Community and Culture - by Maulana Karenga / p 31 / Los Angeles: University of Sankore Press (2008)
And finally, Kwanzaa was created as an act of cultural self-determination, as a self-conscious statement of our cultural truth as an African people. It was an important way and expression of being African in a context in which African identity and culture had been devalued and denied. But it was and remains also an important way we as African people speak our special cultural truth in a multicultural world. The first act of a self-conscious, self-determining people, Us contended, is to redefine and reshape their world in their own image and interest. This, as stated above, is a cultural project in the full sense of the word, i.e., is a total project involving restructuring thought and practice on every level. Moreover, it is a project which requires recovering lost models and memory, suppressed principles and practices of African culture, and putting these in the service of African people in their struggle to free themselves and realize their highest aspirations.
From: "Kwanzaa: A Celebration of Family, Community and Culture - by Maulana Karenga / p 32 / Los Angeles: University of Sankore Press (2008)
One of the most important and meaningful ways to see and approach Kwanzaa is as a self-conscious cultural choice. Some celebrants see Kwanzaa as an alternative to the sentiments and practices of other holidays which stress the commercial or faddish or lack an African character or aspect. But they realize this is not Kwanzaa's true function or meaning. For Kwanzaa is not a reaction or substitute for anything. In fact, it offers a clear and self-conscious option, opportunity and chance to make a proactive choice, a self-affirming and positive choice as distinct from a reactive one.
Likewise, Kwanzaa is a cultural choice as distinct from a religious one. This point is important because when the question arises as to the relation between choosing Kwanzaa or/and Christmas, this distinction is not always made. This failure to make this distinction causes confusion, for it appears to suggest one must give up one's religion to practice one's culture. Whereas this might be true in other cases, it is not so in this case. For here, one can and should make a distinction between one's specific religion and one's general culture in which that religion is practiced. On one hand, Christmas is a religious holiday for Christians, but it is also a cultural holiday for Europeans. Thus, one can accept and revere the religious message and meaning but reject its European cultural accretions of Santa Claus, reindeer, mistletoe, frantic shopping, alienated gift-giving, etc.
This point can be made by citing two of the most frequent reasons Christian celebrants of Kwanzaa give for turning to Kwanzaa. The first reason is that it provides them with cultural grounding and reaffirmation as African Americans. The other reason is that it gives them a spiritual alternative to the commercialization of Christmas and the resultant move away from its original spiritual values and message. Here it is of value to note that there is a real and important difference between spirituality as a general appreciation for and commitment to the transcendent, and religion which suggests formal structures and doctrines. Kwanzaa is not a religious holiday, but a cultural one with an inherent spiritual quality as with all major African celebrations. This inherent spiritual quality is respect for the Transcendent, the Sacred, the Good, the Right. Thus, Africans of all faiths can and do celebrate Kwanzaa, i.e., Muslims, Christians, Black Hebrews, Jews, Buddhists, Bahai and Hindus as well as those who follow the ancient traditions of Maat, Yoruba, Ashanti, Dogon, etc. For what Kwanzaa offers is not an alternative to their religion or faith but a common ground of African culture which they all share and cherish. It is this common ground of culture on which they all meet, find ancient and enduring meaning and by which they are thus reaffirmed and reinforced.
From: "Kwanzaa: A Celebration of Family, Community and Culture - by Maulana Karenga / pp 32 - 33 / Los Angeles: University of Sankore Press (2008)