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KWANZAA 2020: Unpacking the Principles, History and Cultural Relevance

Donney Rose
Dec 26, 2020 - 10:00

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The year 2020 has been one of the Blackest years in American culture. The horrendous killing of George Floyd in May created a cosmic shift in how the Black American experience was discussed, theorized, understood and positioned within the larger context of American history. Floyd’s death, at the behest of the state by way of Derek Chauvin, was an eye-opening reality for many Americans who live outside of Black identity.

Americans, specifically white Americans, witnessed the dehumanization Black people have endured throughout our American journey explicitly when the video of Chauvin siphoning the life out of Floyd made its rounds around the world.  It’s a world that was suspended in its movement by a once-in-a-generation pandemic, a world that did not have the luxury or an excuse to look away.

What came on the other side of the unimaginable 21st-century lynching of George Floyd was an enhanced curiosity around the nuances of Black life and Black culture. As individual outliers and formerly indifferent corporate entities began speaking out and mobilizing under the mantra of Black Lives Matter, the nation began to display a deeper investment in Blackness as an identity marker.

After a year’s worth of crash course learning about the inequities and systemic hardships Black Americans face, there are some newly converted allies that are deeply curious about customs and cultural traditions that are native to the Black experience. And as we pivot towards the close of this very unique year, The North Star is unpacking the principles and impact of Kwanzaa, a nearly 60-year cultural celebration of Black heritage that bridges the conclusion of the current year with the beginning of the new year.

Kwanzaa Origins

The celebration of Kwanzaa was the creation of Dr. Maulana Karenga, a professor and chairman of Black Studies at California State University Long Beach, in 1966. Dr. Karenga was looking for a way to unify the Black community after the tumultuous Watts riots of 1965, a six-day rebellion resulting in 34 deaths, thousands of injuries and the destruction of 1,000 buildings, totaling $40 million in damages.

Kwanzaa, which derives from the Swahili phrase “matunda ya kwanza,” meaning “first fruits,” is a seven-day observation beginning December 26 and concluding January 1 that incorporates seven principles emblematic of African culture. Kwanzaa is observed by millions annually and is not meant to function as a “Black alternative” to Christmas, rather a cultural holiday with “inherent spiritual quality.”

The seven principles of Kwanzaa and its relevance in 2020

For the past 53 years, Kwanzaa celebrations have been a staple in Black communities across the nation. Churches, community centers, banquet halls all over America have been filled with generations of Black folks adorned in colorful African garb, fellowshipping around the ideals of heritage, unity and culture.

Kwanzaa principles, intended to honor Black American ancestral roots, are the bedrock of the annual celebration. At the height of its popularity in the 1980s and 1990s, Kwanzaa was considered a cultivated extension of the Black Power movement of the late 1960s and 1970s. 

In the current era of heightened awareness regarding the plight of Black Americans, the self-affirming principles of Kwanzaa serve not only as a reminder to Black folks about the strength in working as a collective but also as a prerequisite to non-Black allies in understanding that the vitality of Black folks.

Black culture cannot be merely reduced to its ability to survive. When America is treating us the fairest, it is giving reverence to the offerings Black people have provided this country, and acknowledging the unified effort it takes for us to spin gold from the ruins of oppressed humanity.

About the Author

Donney Rose is a poet, essayist, Kennedy Center Citizen Artist Fellow, advocate, and Chief Content Editor at The North Star. He believes in telling how it is and how it should be

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