2021 has clearly been a challenging year for every member of the African diaspora around the world. From the January 6th insurrection to the resurgence of voter suppression in America, as well as the seemingly endless ensuing waves of COVID variants, everywhere, it seemed, were obstacles against the proper enjoyment of life. But as challenging as life may seem, Kwanzaa reminds us to look at the durability of the earth to which we are all precariously tethered. And at year’s end, reflecting on the wisdom and the ethical principles of Kwanzaa, helps inform us on how to process the past in order to powerfully face 2022.
Kwanzaa comes out of the Black Liberation Movement of the 1960s. Dr. Maulana Karenga, who currently chairs the Africana Studies Department at California State University, Long Beach, founded the holiday over five decades ago as a way to connect African Americans in the U.S.A with traditional culture and values. The son of a tenant farmer and sharecropper, the 55-year old holiday is rooted in not just African traditions, but in the hearty endurance of Nature herself. This inextricable connection is essential to understanding Kwanzaa. In his annual Founder’s Kwanzaa Message, Dr. Karenga writes:
“As a Pan African holiday with ancient agricultural origins, Kwanzaa celebrates the good of the earth and carries within it a commitment to protect, preserve and share this good. And Kwanzaa’s modern origins in the Black Freedom Movement commits it to the achievement of liberation and social justice. Thus, in Kawaida philosophy, out of which Kwanzaa and the Nguzo Saba were created, environmental justice and social justice are inseparably linked in the moral imperative to achieve and ensure African and human good and the well-being of the world.”
First celebrated in 1966, after the Watts riots, Kwanzaa links the rich African harvest traditions to character. The holiday is a celebration of the African diaspora, with seven candles in a candleholder called a Kinara representing the moral and foundational principles of our people. The Swahili phrase Matunda ya Kwanza, from which Kwanzaa originates, refers to “first fruits.” And the seven candles of Kwanzaa are the Mishumaa Saba, our seven common beliefs. But it is the final principle — Imani, or Faith — that resonates so sonorously as we close out this most difficult year.
The seven principles of Kwanzaa operate in a continuum, borrowing and sharing. Each moral lesson draws upon the previous. Umoja, the first principle of Kwanzaa, celebrated on the 26th of December, is a call for Unity. Following that is Kujichagulia, or Self Determination, which asks us to do the work and think deeply about the future of the world and our people in it. The third principle, Ujima, is Collective Work and Responsibility. Ujima reminds us to ask ourselves this holiday season and every day: How can I work with my community to make the world better? The fourth, Ujamaa, similar to the previous principle, is Cooperative Economics, which urges the importance of a robust economy and the right of everyone to a life of dignity. The fifth, Nia, is Purpose or Aim. This comes from the Yoruba tradition that human beings were divinely created to bring good into the world, that our fundamental mission is to be a vehicle for the divine. The sixth, Kuumba, is Creativity, something that we as an improvisatory people have never lacked for. And the last principle, the one that concerns us most here is Imani, or Faith. In Imani, we believe in ourselves as the children of the diaspora and in the good that we strive towards.
The seventh and most powerful principle of Kwanzaa is that of Imani. It is best construed as the endpoint or bookend to the first principle, Umoja, or Unity — which lies at the beginning of the endeavor. If the journey of Kwanzaa begins with a call to Unity, the omega endpoint leads to Imani, or Faith. Faith is our north star and unity our strength. To believe with all our hearts in our people, our parents, our teachers, our leaders, and the righteousness and victory of our struggle is at the core of the principle of Imani. The lighting of the candle on the final day of Kwanzaa — Friday — is a celebration of the faith of our journey as a people. We honor in the lighting of the final candle the best traditions of our community. And we remind ourselves of all the hardships we have overcome to get to where we are today.
Finally, we must always remember that Imani, the principle, should not be celebrated only on the 1st of January. Imani should be celebrated each and every day.
Kwanzaa Yenu Iwe Na Heri. Happy Kwanzaa.
Ron Mwangaguhunga is a Brooklyn based writer on media, culture and politics. His work has appeared within Huffington Post, IFC and Tribeca Film Festival, Kenneth Cole AWEARNESS, NY Magazine, Paper Magazine, CBS News.com and National Review online to name a few. He is currently the editor of the Corsair