By Bashir Muhammad Akinyele – “Culture is a weapon in the face of our enemies” – Amílcar Cabral (He was one of Afrika’s foremost anti-colonial leaders)
On the Afrikan continent, Black people have been ravaged by hundreds of years of European and Arab enslavement. In some quarters of the Afrikan world now, Arab slavery is practice without a pause.
Mother Afrika has experienced centuries of invasions by European and Arab conquerers.
For nearly 100 years, Africa was subjugated to European colonialism.
Down in South Afrika, Europeans subdued our people into a vicious and violent racial caste system called apartheid. The apartheid system was created by White colonialists from Europe that racially separated Black people from all White people in Afrika.
All of this oppression has left continental Afrika deeply divided ethically and culturally disoriented. We as Black people on the Afrikan continent have been fighting for our humanity and fighting to rebuild a liberated Afrika for less than 100 years.
In the Western Hemisphere, Black people were, and have been, dominated culturally by Europeans for nearly 500 years.
In America, Afrikan Americans were brought to this part of the world 401 years ago. We were eneslaved for 250 years of those 401 years. White people made it illegal in the United States for Afrikan Americans to be a man, to be woman, to be a child, to be married, to have our own family structure, to practice democracy, to pursuit the spirit of happiness, to have a proper education, to possess our own Afrikan names, to speak our own Afrikan languages, to practice our own Afrikan faith traditions, and to embrace our own culture.
The US Civil War brought an end to American slavery in 1865. The 13th Amendment was passed that same year outlawing forced servitude in the United States.
But after our people endured the horrors of United States slavery, the Afrikan American community was reduced to a racial caste system.
As Black people waited for the United States government to determined whether or not to give us our citizenship and voting rights during the reconstruction period (the period after the US Civil War), racist Black codes were created to kept to us regulated to the lowest realms of society.
However, the 14th and 15th Amendments of 1868 and 1870 granted us citizenship and the voting franchise.
During this time reparations were considered, but never given to the Black community to repair the financial, psychological, and cultural damages done by United States slavery.
However, what we got in place of justice was more legal racial discrimination. The southern Whites within the former Confederated States (the states fighting against America to keep slavery in existence forever) were given back to racist White people. They, in turn, launched a political war in the United States government against some early freedoms Black people gained during reconstruction, such as citizenship and voting rights. Racist Whites, convinced the United Stated Government that it would be beneficial to separate Blacks from all White people. The government agreed. White people went on to create a racial policy that turned Afrikan Americans into second class citizens and limited the Black vote.
For nearly 100 years, Black people were under American segregation. United States segregation racially separated Black people from White people in every aspect of society. Segregation in America lasted from 1896 to 1965.
The affects of slavery and segregation left the Afrikan American community in search of ways to reconstruct our lives and our destroyed Afrkan cultural traditions.
Under slavery and segregation in America, we were forced to extol everything White. But made to hate everything Black as a direct result of systematic racism.
We as Afrikan people in the United States have been left in a protracted struggle for blackness ever since 1619.
We almost loss a complete knowledge of our own cultural traditions. However, we are thankful to the Creator and our ancestors for their divine intervention in our affairs by raising up Black leaders (i.e. Richard Allen, Paul Cuffe, Sojouner Truth, Denmark Vessey, Nat Turner, Gabrel Prosser, Fredrick Douglass, Harriet Tubman, David Walker, Martin Delaney, Booker T. Washington, Dr. W. E. B. DuBois, H. Sylvester Williams, George Padmore, Dr. Carter G. Woodson, Noble Drew Ali, the Honorable Marcus Mosiah Gavery, the Honorable Elijah Muhammad, Malcolm X, Kwame Nkrumah, the Honorable Minister Louis Farrakhan, Dr Khalid Abdul Muhammad, Huey P. Newton, Bobby Seale, Kathleen Cleaver, Fred Hampton, Dhoruba bin Wahad, Assata Shakur, Kwame Ture’, Imamu Amiri Baraka, Imari Obedele, Queen Mother Moore, Chockwe Lumumba, Arthur A. Schomburg, Dr. Chancellor Williams, Dr. John Henrick Clarke, Dr. Yosef Ben Jochannan, Dr. Jacob Carruthers, Dr. Asa Hilliard, Dr. Leonard Jeffries, Dr. Tony Browder, Dr. RKhty Amen, Dr. Charshee McIntyre, Dr. George G. M. James, Dr. Edward Scobie, Dr. Molefe Kete Asante, Dr. Cheikh Anta Diop, Theophile Obenga, Dr. Mario Beatty, Dr. Greg Carr, Sista Souljah, etc) that led liberation struggles against White cultural supremacy throughout our sojourn in America. One of those leaders that rose up to continuously wage a cultural war against the White domination of Black people in America is Dr. Maulana Karenga.
He came forward to establish Kwanzaa as a pathway to rebuild the Afrikan world community and create revolutionary Afrikan culture for Black liberation. Dr. Karenga is currently the Chair of the Afrikana Studies department at the California State University, Long Beach, the founder of a Black cultural nationalist organization called the Us Organization, and the co-founding member of ASCAC (the Study of Classical African civilizations).
In Los Angeles, California, Dr. Karenga became a respected community freedom fighter in the turbulent 1960s.
This was the era of a national Black Freedom struggle; which consisted of the civil rights and Black power movements. By 1966, the Black Power movement came on the scene capturing the imagination of the masses of Black people. It produced several leading organizations, such as the Original Black Panther Party and the Us organization.
The Original Black Panther Party was founded in Oakland, California on October 15, 1966 by Dr. Huey P. Newton and Bobby Seale. It’s political philosophy was rooted in revolutionary Black nationalism. The Original Black Panther Party organized our people for Black unity against racial and class oppression in the United States. Most importantly, this organization mobilized the Afrikan American community against the pervasive problems of police brutality.
But before the establishment of the Original Black Panther Party, a Black nationalist organization had already formed in Los Angeles, California. Dr. Karenga founded the Us Organization on September 7, 1965. It’s political philosophy was based upon cultural Black nationalism. The Us organization unified Black people against fight against the Eurocentric cultural and political hegemony of Afrikan American life in America.
As a advocate for pan Afrikan self -determination, Dr. Karenga created a Black nationalist political and cultural empowerment philosophy called Kawaida. It is a Kiswahili word meaning “tradition” or “reason,” pronounced ka-wa-EE-da. Dr. Karenga defines Kawiada as, “a communitarian African (Afrikan) philosophy created in the context of the African (Afrikan) American liberation struggle and developed as an ongoing synthesis of the best of African (Afrikan) thought and practice in constant exchange with the world.” Kwaida became the foundation for Kwanzaa – a non religious pan-Afrikan centered holiday celebrated from December 26 to January 1.
Amy Mckeever of the National Geographic Magazine published a history article on the American racist conditions that created Kwanzaa. Her article was printed on December 22, 2020. She writes, “Kwanzaa was founded in 1966, a year after a historic rebellion rocked the Watts neighborhood of Los Angeles, California. Frustrated by years of abuse at the hands of police and crushed by poverty, the community protested and rioted. The unrest lasted a week and left 34 people dead and 1,000 injured. In the weeks after the Watts rebellion, Maulanga Karenga—an activist and leader in the Black Power Movement—founded the Us Organization to rebuild the neighborhood and promote a Black cultural revolution that would inspire pride in Black history and achievements, long dismissed and suppressed by the dominant white culture. From the beginning, the plan was to create a holiday for African Americans to honor their African roots and reaffirm their cultural connections. Kwanzaa was also envisioned as a secular alternative to the holiday juggernaut that is Christmas. To establish the traditions of the new holiday, Karenga drew upon a pan-African set of cultural symbols and practices. In particular, he believed that the annual harvest festivals—in which communities came together to celebrate the fruits of their collective labor—were an apt model for building family, community, and culture.”(https://www.nationalgeographic.com/history/reference/holidays/kwanzaa-history-traditions-information/?fbclid=IwAR3Fvd6gGYfPoUD2faVKFHeHXoZWFHPa_mCUPHotyWzpcYAMjQxg23vau2s).
Dr. Karenga chose the pan Afrikan language of Kiswahili to connect and communicate Kwanzaa’s rituals and principles of the holiday nationalistically to the Afrika world.
In Kwanzaa, Mishumaa Saba (Kiswahili for seven candles) are used to represent the Nguzu Saba. Seven candles are placed in a Kinara (Kiswahili for candle holder). There must be three red candles, thee green candles, and one Black candle. The kinara is placed on top of the Mkeka (Kiswahili for a woven mat). The colors of the candles represent the colors of the Black liberation flag. Additionally, the Black liberation bandera (Kiswahili for flag) is placed by the Kwanzaa display. The Black liberation colors represents the following: red is for the innocent shedding of Afrikan blood, Black is for Afrikan people all over the world, and green is for mother Afrika. The Black Liberation Flag was created by the Honorable Marcus Mosiah Garvey in 1920. He was a legendary pan-Afrikan nationalist. Gavery established a Black nationalist organization called the U.N.I.A. (The Universal Negro Improvement Association). To this day, he orchestrated the largest back to Afrika movement in the history of the world. Unfortunately, Garvey’s movement was destroyed by the United States government. However, his legacy and ideology are found in contemporary Black nationalist circles and celebrations.
Also in Kwanzaa, two other symbols are used to complete the holiday ceremony. The mazao (Kiswahili for crops) represents the harvest and Muhindi (Kiswahili for corn) represents children and the future.
On first day of Kwanzaa, the black candle is lit first. Then, the green candle to the left is lit on day two. Next, the red candle is lit on day three. The rest of candles are lit for each principle of that day until all seven are complete.
In Kwanzaa, each day represents a principle of the Nguzu Saba (Kiswahili for seven principles). For example, day 1 of Kwanzaa, one says Habari Gani (Kiswahili for what’s the news). The response must be Umoja (Kiswahili) for unity-to strive for and maintain unity in the family, community, nation, and race. But on the first day of Kwanzaa, family and community gather to pay homage to our Afrikan ancestors. We pass the kikombe cha umoja (Kiswahili for unity cup) around to everyone. Participates can literally or symbolical drink from the cup. Then, we take the remains of the water to pour libation (water) into a plant or on the earth. As the names of our ancestors are called, the person designated to lead the liberation will say Ibaye (Yoruba for blessings to the ancestors). The audience’s response is Ase (Yoruba for so be it). Day 2 of Kwanzaa, one says Harbari Gani. The response must be Kujichagulia (Kiswahili) for self-determination-to define ourselves, name ourselves, create for ourselves and speak for ourselves instead of being, name, created for and spoken for by others. Day 3 of Kwanzaa, one says Harbari Gani. The response must be Ujima (Kiswahili) for collective work and responsibility- to build and maintain our community together and make our sister’s and brother’s problems our problems and to solve them together. Day 4 of Kwanzaa, one says Habari Gani. The response must be Ujamaa (Kiswahili) for cooperative economics-to build and maintain our own stores, shop and other businesses and to profit from them together. Day 5 of Kwanzaa, one says Habari Gani. The response must be Nia (Kiswahili) for purpose-to make our collective vocation the building and developing our community in order to restore our people to their traditional greatness. Day 6 of Kwanzaa, one says Habari Gani. The response must be Kuumba (Kiswahili) for creativity-to do always as much as we can, in the way we can, in order to leave our community more beautiful and beneficial than we inherited it. Also on the sixth day, the Karamu (Kiswahili for feast) takes place and zawadi (Kiswahili for gifts) are exchanged. Day 7 of Kwanzaa, one says Habari Gani. The response must be Imani (Kiswahili) for faith-to believe with all our heart in our people, our parents, our teachers, our leaders, and the righteousness and victory of our struggle. Additionally, on the last day of Kwanzaa, a farewell address is read. Then, the family and community perform seven harambe (Kiswahili for people pulling together).
In my home, the Akinyele family has celebrated and practice Kwanzaa for 26 years. I have personally practice and celebrated Kwanzaa for 30 years. Out of respect for my people, I say Merry Christmas. But I do not celebrate nor practice any European and Arab holidays. There are other Black people in world, like me in America, who celebrate Kwanzaa every year. Although they may not celebrate European and Arab holidays, they are respectfull to our people that do. This is because the very first principle of Kwanzaa teaches us all to struggle for Umoja (Kiswahili for unity) in the Afrikan world community as a priority. As time moves forward, with a correct understanding of the importance of Kwanzaa to Black liberation, I believe millions more will embrace our own holiday.
Kwanzaa yenu iwe na heri (Kiswahili for Happy Kwanzaa)!!!
Hotep (An Ancient Afrikan Word for Peace)!!!
-Bashir Muhammad Akinyele is a History and Afrikana Studies teacher at Weequahic High School in Newark, NJ. He is also the co-coordinator for ASCAC’s (the Association for Study of Classical African Civilizations) Study Group Chapter in Newark, NJ. (https://ascac.org/)
Note: Spelling Afrika with a k is not a typo. Using the k in Afrika is the Kiswahili way of writing Africa. Kiswahili is a Pan -Afrikan language. It is spoken in many countries in Afrika. Kiswahili is the language used in Kwanzaa. The holiday of Kwanzaa is celebrated from December 26 to January 1.
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