Cultural Resources



Sunday, December 28, 2008  (Kwanzaa is traditionally celebrated December 26 - January 1)

Bernice Johnson Reagon, Lectionary Team Cultural Resource Commentator

I. Introduction

Lection - Genesis 50:24-26  (New Revised Standard Version); Acts 7:2-16 (New International Version)
Genesis 50:24-26 (NRSV)
(v. 24) Then Joseph said to his brothers, “I am about to die; but God will surely come to you, and bring you up out of this land to the land that he swore to Abraham, to Isaac, and to Jacob.” (v. 25) So Joseph made the Israelites swear, saying, “When God comes to you, you shall carry up my bones from here.” (v. 26) And Joseph died, being one hundred and ten years old; he was embalmed and placed in a coffin in Egypt.

Acts 7:2-16 (NIV)
(v. 2) To this he replied: “Brothers and fathers, listen to me! The God of glory appeared to our father Abraham while he was still in Mesopotamia, before he lived in Haran. (v. 3) ‘Leave your country and your people,’ God said, ‘and go to the land I will show you.’
(v. 4) So he left the land of the Chaldeans and settled in Haran. After the death of his father, God sent him to this land where you are now living. (v. 5) He gave him no inheritance here, not even a foot of ground. But God promised him that he and his descendants after him would possess the land, even though at that time Abraham had no child. (v. 6) God spoke to him in this way: ‘Your descendants will be strangers in a country not their own, and they will be enslaved and mistreated four hundred years. (v. 7) But I will punish the nation they serve as slaves,’ God said, ‘and afterward they will come out of that country and worship me in this place.’ (v. 8) Then he gave Abraham the covenant of circumcision. And Abraham became the father of Isaac and circumcised him eight days after his birth. Later Isaac became the father of Jacob, and Jacob became the father of the twelve patriarchs.

(v. 9) “Because the patriarchs were jealous of Joseph, they sold him as a slave into Egypt. But God was with him (v. 10) and rescued him from all his troubles. He gave Joseph wisdom and enabled him to gain the goodwill of Pharaoh king of Egypt; so he made him ruler over Egypt and all his palace.

(v. 11) “Then a famine struck all Egypt and Canaan, bringing great suffering, and our fathers could not find food. (v. 12) When Jacob heard that there was grain in Egypt, he sent our fathers on their first visit. (v. 13) On their second visit, Joseph told his brothers who he was, and Pharaoh learned about Joseph’s family. (v. 14) After this, Joseph sent for his father Jacob and his whole family, seventy-five in all. (v. 15) Then Jacob went down to Egypt, where he and our fathers died. (v.16) Their bodies were brought back to Shechem and placed in the tomb that Abraham had bought from the sons of Hamor at Shechem for a certain sum of money.”  

The scriptural references for this lectionary moment provide us with images of a people and/or persons being taken or stolen or sold off to a strange land and having, in a new place and in spite of draconian conditions, to find a way forward to a future that was different. This is not quick work; it is long haul work where progress sometimes comes in pieces and across generations. And the motion is not always forward, but surging and sometimes slipping to get up and go on again. The African American legacy holds the story of a people stolen, sold, and who in the land of captivity began to carve and claw with their very lives a journey toward a future that forced internal transformation, even as it called the land of their birth to higher ground. And the journey was not easy, and it was not even, and it continues. It is a fascinating and often inspiring view of  internal creativity and struggle that provides many lessons for finding tomorrow’s freedom out of, and in spite of, yesterday’s bondage.

Our scriptures and the journey of African Americans in America remind me of a Jamaican spiritual from the Christian and Rastafarian sacred music traditions, drawn from the book of Psalms:

By the waters of Babylon, where we sat down
And there we wept, when we remembered Zion

Oh the wicked carried us away to captivity, required of us a song,
How can we sing our holy songs in a strange land?

So let the words of my mouth
And the meditation of my heart
Be acceptable in thy sight “Over I” (the “Almighty,” the “Most High)”1

Sometimes as we come to ourselves in a strange land we reach in and find home waiting to be uncovered, and then sometimes we have to reach outside of ourselves and pull in that which is missing, that which was left when we were pulled into this place.

II. Personal Note One

Fall 1962, I cut my hair, washed it and did not straighten it. I wore it in what became known several years later as an afro. I had seen and heard the singer Odetta the spring before, and I had heard and seen Miriam Makeba. They were both powerful black women singers at the height of their careers, and they wore their hair natural, creating one of the paths I traveled as I began to reach for Africa. In this case, it was not an issue of distance; I found that it was a journey of courage. With my hair, my skin, my nose, my legs, my hips, my body build, I carried Africa within myself. I was nudged into this action because of a close friend in the movement who was not black who asked again and again why black women straighten our hair. I began to wonder what it would be like to wear my hair in a style that did not change the texture after I washed it. Straightening the hair was a coming of age event for young black girls. Somewhere between the ages of five and seven, my mom began to “run a warm comb” through my hair for special events such as Easter, and Homecoming at our church. Ninety-eight percent of the time I wore my hair natural until I was in junior high school nearing puberty. From then until Fall 1962, I wore my hair in a style that changed the texture of my hair. Fall 1962, I cut my hair and washed it and went out into the world. By the end of the year, still involved in the Civil Rights Movement, singing with the SNCC Freedom Singers, I continued to wear my hair natural. I began to get company as other women began to move forward by crossing the line back to a part of ourselves.

The cry for Black Power came out of a 1966 Civil Rights Movement “March Against Fear” in Mississippi. James Meredith, who had, with the support of 5,000 troops, enrolled in the University of Mississippi in 1962, was shot when he initiated the March. The cry gave voice to a growing tension within the activist community. There was also a slogan floating around which said: “No Vietcong ever called me N-----r!” Malcolm X and the Nation of Islam were creating a wide swath through our culture, saying that we should not hate ourselves. We should not be happy in the face of the way we were being treated. I did not agree with Malcolm’s notion that non-violence was evidence of weakness. I knew better.  However, we were listening to a sharper-edged tone, suggesting that it was also natural and healthy to honor and find expression for that part of our spirit that was angry -- it was dangerous, but so was confronting racism non-violently.

There was a growing overt awareness that black people were not the problem, we were not racist, we were seeking ways to challenge and destroy that system. In Alabama 1964-65, looking for a symbol that could be used by new black voters as they went to the polls for the first time (the democrats and republicans used symbols), a black panther was used as a symbol of the project directed by Stokely Carmichael. It was a time of cross-fertilization among activist African Americans. In California, inspired by the work and image of the Alabama voter registration project, a new organization used the same symbol and name for their organization, the Black Panther Party. The organization Us was also organized in Los Angeles in 1965. These new groups would have transformative ramifications for African American culture, from the organization Us, would come a new holiday observance, Kwanzaa, celebrating the presence of African Americans in America.

III. The Beginning of Kwanzaa

Kwanzaa comes from a massive effort to change the cultural framework from which we viewed ourselves as a people. The innovator was Maulana Karenga,2  who created an organized community that defined itself by a different structure. Karenga looked to Africa and progressive systems for the source of his formulations. Initially Kwanzaa was a call for black families to honor the period before the beginning of the new year in a way that was different from the way Christmas was celebrated. There are seven principles (the Nguzo Saba), one principle for each day between December 26 and January 1.

  • December 26 - Umoja (oo-MO-jah) Unity - stresses the importance of togetherness within the family and within the community, which is reflected in the African saying, “I am We,” or “I am because We are.”
  • December 27 - Kuujichagulia (koo-gee-cha-goo-LEE-yah) Self-Determination - requires that we define our common interests and make decisions that are in the best interest of our family and community.
  • December 28 - Ujima (oo-GEE-mah) Collective Work and Responsibility -  reminds us of our obligation to the past, present and future and that we have a role not just as individuals but also as members of a larger body -- the community, society, and the world.
  • December 29 - Ujamaa (oo-JAH-mah) Cooperative Economics - emphasizes that we should pay attention to the resources that come through us and that we should constantly monitor how we use and share our resources for the collective strength to meet common needs through mutual effort and aid.
  • December 30 - Nia (NEE-yah) Purpose - encourages us to look within ourselves and to set personal goals to benefit the one and the many for the good of the community.
  • December 31 - Kuumba (koo-OOM-bah) Creativity -  is an affirmation of our ability to create and make what we do and how we do it beautiful and transcendent and distinguishes our culture as one of great power and energy without end.
  • January 1 - Imani (ee-MAH-nee) Faith - this principle requires that we believe in our own self worth, have confidence in our ability and capacity to excel, honoring the best of our traditions, while drawing upon the best in ourselves to succeed in building a better future.

IV. Most Commonly Asked Questions about Kwanzaa3

Question: What is Kwanzaa?
Answer: Kwanzaa is a unique African American celebration with focus on the traditional African values of family, community responsibility, commerce, and self-improvement. Kwanzaa is neither political nor religious and, despite some misconceptions, is not a substitute for Christmas. It is a time of reaffirming African-American people, their ancestors and culture.

Question: What is the meaning of the word Kwanzaa?
Answer: The name Kwanzaa is derived from the phrase “matunda ya kwanza” which means “first fruits” in the African language, Kiswahili, also commonly called Swahili. Dr. Karenga, creator of Kwanzaa, added the second “a” to have seven letters in the name, correlating with the seven days the holiday is observed and the seven principles that guide each of the seven days. The second “a” also distinguishes this term from the Kiswahili spelling of the kwanza meaning “first.”

Question: When is Kwanzaa observed?
Answer: Kwanzaa is observed from December 26th through January 1st.

Question: What is the origin of Kwanzaa?
Answer: Kwanzaa as an African American holiday was the innovation of Dr. Maulana Karenga in 1966. It was a cultural concept and a collective community expression of the Us organization which he founded.  The Us organization is based in Los Angeles, California.

Question: Is Kwanzaa a religious holiday?
Answer: Kwanzaa is a cultural observance; it is neither religious nor political in expression. It is a time in the annual cycle structure for the African American family and the community to come together around several principles that help to prepare them to move forward into the next phase of the life cycle. Some do consider this sacred work.

Question: What is Kwanzaa based upon?
Answer: Kwanzaa is based on seven fundamental principles which are referred to as the Nguzo Saba.

Question: What are those principles?
Answer: Unity, Umoja (U-mo-ja); Self-Determination, Kuujichagulia (Ku-ji-cha-gu-li-a); Collective Work and Responsibility, Ujima; Cooperative Economics, Ujamaa (U-ja-ma); Purpose, Nia(Ni-a); Creativity, Kuumba (Kuumba); and Faith, Imani (I-man-I).

Question: Is Kwanzaa a Christmas substitute?
Answer: No. Initially, the founder, Dr. Karenga expressed Kwanzaa as oppositional to the practices of Christmas, and the commercial hardship brought about by the contemporary practice of this holiday for those least able to financially carry that burden. As the practice of Kwanzaa began to increase it evolved and many who observed Kwanzaa also observed Christmas. Kwanzaa centers on the relationships within the family and community learning and sharing the lessons of it seven principles.

Question: Is gift-giving essential to Kwanzaa?
Answer: There is gift-giving, but it is encouraged that gift-giving have minimum fiscal impact on the giver and the receiver of the gifts. When gifts are given, it is suggested that they be creative, that they be made, or be a small gift, such as a book, or a something that is essential to everyday usage, a pair of socks, a new toothbrush, etc.

Question: How is Kwanzaa celebrated?
Answer: Kwanzaa can be celebrated in a number of ways: as a family observance in the home and/or as a community or organizational observance.

MKEKA—you need a straw mat on which all other items are placed. If a mat is not available a cloth can be used. What is important is that this mat or cloth should be traditional in pattern or should become traditional in its use, representing the foundation which supports all that is to come.

KINARA—is a candle holder which holds seven candles representing the seven principles and seven days of Kwanzaa. (In early descriptions of the Kinara, it was stated that it represented the stalk (father of the house) from which comes the corn or the children. There was no mention of the mother.)

MSHUMAA—refers to the seven candles (the black candle is the center candle and there are three red and three green candles) representing the Seven Principles (Nguzo Saba) and the seven days of Kwanzaa. The candles are placed in the Kinara. Each day of Kwanzaa, a candle should be lit, beginning with the center candle. Candles are lit alternately, with the recitation of the principle that guides that day.

MUHINDI—refers to an ear of corn for each child in the family or one ear of corn for the child to come.

ZAWADI—refers to the gifts that are given to children on the last day of Kwanzaa on Imani or during the time when the major feast is held. Zawadi represents the fruits of labor of the parents, and the rewards of seeds sown through good deeds and work by the children.

Question: Why did Dr. Karenga use Kiswahili in naming the seven principles?
Answer: Kiswahili was chosen because it is a non-tribal African language that is used across a large number of African peoples across tribal boundaries in East Africa. Swahili pronunciation is easy, vowels are like those in Spanish and consonants, with few exceptions, are like those in English.
A - ah as in ‘father’
E - a as in ‘day’
I - ee as in ‘free’
O - as in ‘too’
The accent is almost always on the next to the last syllable.

Question: Are there a people called Swahili?
Answer: Yes.
The Swahili people, who call themselves Waswahili, numbering half a million, have lived and worked along the coastal land extending from the north coast of Kenya to Dar es Salaam (the capital of Tanzania), for more than a thousand years. They also live on nearby Indian Ocean islands, including Zanzibar, Lamu, and Pate. Their mother tongue is Swahili tongue, structurally a Bantu language with borrowings from Arabic. The name Swahili is derived from an Arabic word meaning “coast;” their culture, trading economy, and language developed with the spread of Islam after Arab traders arrived among them about AD 500. The language is a lingua franca (means of communication between peoples of different languages) across East Africa to Zambia and the Congo and in places as distinct as South Arabia, the Persian Gulf, and even the coast of Pakistan.4

Historical evidence shows clearly that the Swahili are “African” in origin, even though many aspects of their civilization have been borrowed from Arabia and even India. The Swahili see themselves as neither “African” nor “Asian,” but as having their own unique civilization, different from both those of Arabia or of their African neighbors.5

Over the past few hundred years, the coastal area has repeatedly been conquered and colonized -- by the Portuguese in the sixteenth century, by Middle Eastern Arabs who ran a slave trade in the nineteenth century, and by the British in the twentieth century. Swahili people are Muslims, and hundreds of Swahili people left for the Middle East after the Zanzibar Revolution in 1964. Over the past several decades, thousands have migrated to the Middle East, Europe, and North America largely for economic reasons.

Kiswahili, the Swahili language, is widely spoken across East Africa. For most Kenyans and Tanzanians, KiSwahili is learned as a second language. Swahili people speak KiSwahili as their “mother tongue,” and it reflects their mixed origins and complex history. The language includes many words borrowed from Arabic (and other languages), yet its grammar and syntax place it in the Bantu language family, which has roots on the African continent. Like many Kenyans, Swahili people also use English in their daily interactions, particularly in schools, government offices, and the tourist industry.6  

When Julius Nyerere became the first president of Tanzania in 1962, he took a major step by creating a national identity for a country that was made up of many different tribal groups. He called for Swahili to be the national language of Tanzania. He also called for education and literacy to be major initiatives of the new nation, and he required that education not be organized along tribal groupings. In the 1960s and 1970s, Swahili also became the most popular African language studied in the United States of America, and African Americans began to study Africa and to reclaim and reform the place of African culture within their lives. Almost all Black Studies and African Studies programs created during the Black Power/Black Consciousness period offered courses in Swahili.

Question: Who is Dr. Karenga?
Answer: Dr. Maulana Karenga is professor of Africana Studies at California State University Long Beach. He holds a doctorate degree in political science and another in social ethics. His fields of teaching and research within Africana/Black Studies are: ancient Egyptian (Maatian) ethics; ancient Yoruba (Ifa) ethics; Africana/Black Studies theory and history, Africana/Black (continental and diasporan) philosophy; African American intellectual history; ethnic relations and the socio-ethical thought of Malcolm X. Karenga is also the author of numerous scholarly articles and books including the following: Maat, The Moral Ideal in Ancient Egypt: A Study in Classical African Ethics; Selections From the Husia: Sacred Wisdom of Ancient Egypt; The Book of Coming Forth By Day: The Ethics of the Declarations of Innocence; Odu Ifa: The Ethical Teachings; Introduction to Black Studies; and The Million Man March/Day of Absence: A Commemorative Anthology. Karenga is the creator of the pan-African cultural holiday Kwanzaa and the Nguzo Saba (the Seven Principles) and author of the authoritative text on Kwanzaa titled Kwanzaa: A Celebration of Family, Community and Culture.

An activist-scholar of national and international recognition, Karenga has played a formative role in black political and intellectual culture since the 1960s. He, along with his organization Us, intellectually and organizationally had an important presence in the development of initiatives such as: Black Power (black political power), Black Arts, Black Studies, the Independent Schools, Afrocentricity, Ancient Egyptian Studies, the Million Man March, and the Reparations Movement. Dr. Karenga is chair of the organization Us, and the National Association of Kawaida Organizations, and executive director of the African American Cultural Center and the Kawaida Institute of Pan-African Studies.7 Maulana Karenga’s legacy as the leader of Us also includes an extended period of hostilities which expressed itself occasionally in armed violence against the Black Panther Party. Women were very strong in both organizations in terms of building and executing the educational, social and economic fabric of these communal groups. However, Us was very patriarchal and for a period experimented with polygamy. Then a period of decline occurred in the organization when Karenga was convicted of assaulting two women within the organization, a charge for which he served four years in prison. Since his release in the 1970s, he has moved most of his energies into his studies and teaching.

V. Personal Note Two

I moved to Washington, DC in 1971 with my two children, Toshi and Kwan, to attend graduate school at Howard University. That first year in November, I got a call from the Tanzanian Embassy asking me if I had any information about the Kwanzaa holiday. I had been practicing Kwanzaa with my children since 1967; I was doing my own adaptation and, until I moved to Washington, I had never participated in a community expression of the holiday. The caller said that African Americans were calling the Embassy asking about an African holiday called Kwanzaa, and that there was no such holiday practiced in Tanzania or East Africa nor had their research turned up any festival in any African tribe or nation. I informed them that Kwanzaa was an African American holiday and gave them the basic structure and dates. Because I was practicing my own adaptation of the observance, I did not agree to be a source.

I was introduced to Dr. Karenga in Atlanta by James Forman of the Student Non-Violent Coordinating Committee. I had become active as a student leader in the Civil Rights Movement in 1961 in my hometown of Albany, Georgia. In December 1963, I went on tour with the SNCC Freedom Singers. At the time of his visit, I was a founding member of an a capella ensemble of African American women called The Harambee Singers. We were then five members and had begun singing in 1966.

Karenga spoke then about an African American holiday that would have black people celebrating family and community in a way that avoided the excessive and corruptive commercialism of Christmas. I took a pamphlet for my family; I was eager to find something that would be useful and not filled with commercialism. I read the pamphlet and, in those days, it did feel oppositional to Christmas. My first decision as I tried to understand how to go about introducing Kwanzaa into my family practice was that I would continue my Christmas rituals.

My practice of Christmas came from my family, and I wanted to pass that on to my children. The essential elements were that my mother, who worked as a domestic, would never work on Christmas. She felt that that was a day for her to be with her family. My mother also said that Christmas was the celebration of children. Jesus came into the world as a baby, and grew up in a family, and Christmas was a time when the birth of children should be the focus. Our family was cash poor; my parents, especially my mother, made us feel that the family existed for us. We prepared for Christmas by cleaning the house, the yard, and under the house. I remember my mother giving us the iron pots to scrub with sand from the yard. Each night for several nights, we helped my mother bake cakes and pies. The cake that was different was the one she was taught to bake by my father’s mother -- it was an orange cake. Each child on Christmas morning would receive one gift. The smell in the house that signaled the day was fruit. During the year, the only fruit we had were oranges. The only candy was peppermint candy. But, when I woke on Christmas morning, I smelled tangerines and apples. It was December 25, and the big feast was coming.

I decided that my Kwanzaa table would be in the same room as my Christmas celebration. I also decided to have one day before the season that would be devoted to learning about the new holiday. So at midnight on the longest night of the year, my children and I gathered and prepared the Kwanzaa table; we lit each candle and reviewed the meaning of each principle and shared what we were bringing to the table. One year when my daughter Toshi was in high school, she asked that we have a place for a candle for those who had passed the year before. She had had a close friend killed in an accident. This was the first season since that tragedy, and she wanted a way to remember her friend. Toshi asked that the candle be white because she had learned from DaDa Barbara (her teacher who founded a school in Atlanta) that, in Africa, white was a symbol of death. To this day, we have a separate place and space for remembering in our Kwanzaa observances those who have died, and that candle is lit every day.

I also wrote several songs for Kwanzaa. “We’ve Come a Long Way” was first sung by the Harambee Singers, and I also brought it to Washington. The lyrics give tribute to journeying through struggle and loss in joined company.

We’ve Come a Long Way to Be Together
We’ve come a long way to be together, you and me. [2x]
It’s been a mighty distance, dangerous journey to be here. [2x]
It’s taken sacrifice, for so many of us to be one. [2x]

And we’ll stay holding to each other
Fighting and trusting as we grow.
We’ve come a long way to be together you and me…

We’ve come a long way to be together, you and me.

I also wrote the song “Seven Principles” expressing my understanding of the Ngusa Saba.

Seven Principles
1. Umoja --  Unity that brings us together (3x)
2. Kujichagulia --  Kujichagulia – Kujichagulia
Kujichagulia (5x) (chant beginning with the third Kujichagulia) We will determine who we are! (3x)
3. Ujima  -- Working and building our union (3x)
4. Ujamaa --  We’ll spend our money wisely (3x)
5. Nia – We know the purpose of our lives (3x)
6. Kuumba – All that we touch is more beautiful (3x)
7. Imani  -- We believe that we can! We know that we can! We will any way--- that we can!!!

As I learned more about how Dr. Karenga articulated the principle of Ujamaa -- collective economics, and the fact that President Julius Nyerere articulated this principle as a major effort to reorganize economic production in Tanzania, I understood that I had taken my embedded text on economics from my family’s teachings. My mother taught us through demonstrations and her practice with commentary about how careful and intentional we had to be with the funds that came into our family. It required commitment and wisdom to decide the best way to use the resources: what to buy and what not to buy, being extremely careful about debt and saving as much as possible for the future.

When I moved to Washington DC in 1971, I was invited to join a small collection of families from Howard University and the University of the District of Columbia (UDC). Once a month on Saturdays, we gathered and spent the day together with our children. I was one of only two single parent families invited in, and my children and I were blessed to be in the number. It was with this group that I had my first communal Kwanzaa gathering. On Imani (the last night of Kwanzaa), we gathered and shared a feast and had a wonderful time as a gathered community of African American families. One year we created a larger community program of our Kwanzaa celebration at the DC Black Repertory Theatre, and the program was incredible in its inventiveness. The focus of the evening was the seven principles of Kwanzaa. As each person came in, they received a principle printed on a card. We divided into seven groups. Each group included parents and children, and each group got together in a huddle and, in an allotted amount of time, created a way to dramatize a principle using all members of the group. It was incredible!  Each family also had to make and present an offering. I wrote a song about Kujichagulia that I performed with my children, who played drums and sang the chant which ran under the verses.

VI. Poetry   

Kwanzaa Time
I thought of yesterday and brought my family.

I thought of the day before and brought my ancestors.

I thought of tomorrow and brought my children.


They all brought their wealth and their love into today.

These seven days we are dining as one.

--Julee Dickerson


1. As I began writing this cultural resource unit, I pulled a folder that I began when I started practicing Kwanzaa. Much of the information comes from the writings of Maulana Karenga.  However, there were  quick  innovations to Kwanzaa: an IPE pamphlet  “Kwanza-The First Fruits an African Holiday.” The Institute of Positive Education. Chicago;   “Kwanzaa, It’s Political Significance.”The United Black Community Newsletter; Karenga, Maulana Ron. KWANZAA: BSHA NEWS (Black Studies Health Alliance), U.C. San Francisco, 1973; and  Eclipse. University of Maryland Black Studies, 1992.
2. For an excellent study on Maulana Karenga and the Us organization, see Brown, Scot Fighting for US: Maulana Karenga, The Us Organization and Black Cultural Nationalism.  New York University Press, 2003. Also see, The History Makers online location:
3. The Official Kwanzaa website, online location: http.//
4. Groliers Encyclopedia. CD. William E. Welmer, ed. Scholastic Library Publishing, 1994.
5. John Middleton. Online location:
6. Allen, James de Vere. Swahili Origins. London, England: James Currey Pub., 1993.
7. Kaula, Edna Mason. The Land and People of Tanzania. Philadelphia: Lippincott, 1972.


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