The first day of the first Kwanzaa is celebrated in Los Angeles under the direction of Maulana Karenga, the chair of Black Studies at California State University at Long Beach. The seven-day holiday, which has strong African roots, was designed by Dr. Karenga as a celebration of African American family, community, and culture.
In 1965, a deadly riot broke out in the predominantly black Watts neighborhood of Los Angeles, leaving 34 people dead, 1,000 injured, and $40 million worth of property destroyed. Karenga, a former black activist, was deeply disturbed by the devastation and searched for a way to overcome the despair he felt had gripped the African American community in the riot’s aftermath. He founded Us, a black cultural organization, and looked to Africa in search of practices and concepts that might empower and unite the nation’s African American community. Inspired by Africa’s harvest celebrations, he decided to develop a nonreligious holiday that would stress the importance of family and community while giving African Americans an opportunity to explore their African identities.
Karenga combined aspects of several different harvest celebrations, such as those of the Ashanti and those of the Zulu, to form the basis of Kwanzaa. The name Kwanzaa is derived from the phrase matunda ya kwanza, which means “first fruits” in Swahili. Each family celebrates Kwanzaa in its own way, but celebrations often include songs and dances, African drums, storytelling, poetry readings, and a large traditional meal. On each of the seven nights, the family gathers and a child lights one of the candles on the kinara, or candleholder, then one of the seven principles is discussed. The principles, called the Nguzo Saba, are values of African culture that contribute to building and reinforcing community among African Americans. These values include unity, self-determination, collective work and responsibility, economic cooperation, purpose, creativity, and faith. An African feast, called a Karamu, is held on December 31. Today, Kwanzaa is celebrated by millions of people of African descent all across the United States and Canada.