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By: Darwin Campbell

“Kwanzaa affirms that mothers and fathers of previous generations transmitted African-Americans’ existence and persistence to the mothers and fathers of today. Pass it on.” — Dorothy Winbush Riley

HOUSTON – This year marks the 50th anniversary of Kwanzaa.

Kwanzaa, or “First Fruits of the Harvest,” is an African-American and Pan-Africian holiday which celebrates and strengthens community, family and culture over a period of seven days.

Kwanzaa begins December 26th and each day, a principle of Kwanzaa is celebrated.

The first day of Kwanzaa in Houston is being celebrated at the Third Ward Multi-Service Center at 3611 Ennis, Houston, Tx. 77004 on Monday.

The celebration of family, community and culture is being sponsored here by the Greater Houston Area Kwanzaa Planning Committee.

It all begins at 5 p.m. when the market opens and celebrations begin promptly at 7 p.m. and will include Kwanzaa demonstrations, several guest speakers to be determined and numerous local vendors.

A complete list of scheduled events for each day is available online and brochure.

Eric V. Copage described the holiday in a unique and special way stating. “Kwanzaa does not replace Christmas and is not a religious holiday. It is a time to focus on Africa and African-inspired culture and to reinforce a value system that goes back for generations.”



Dr. Maulana Karenga, professor and chairman of Black Studies at California State University, Long Beach, created Kwanzaa in 1966.

Dr. Karenga is known internationally and created the observance as an African American and Pan-African holiday.

According to Karenga’s Kwanzaa website, after the Watts riots in Los Angeles, Dr. Karenga searched for ways to bring African-Americans together as a community.

He founded US, a cultural organization, and started to research African “first fruit” (harvest) celebrations. 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.

Kwanzaa is now celebrated throughout the world African community on every continent in the world.

He also is the author of the authoritative book on the subject: Kwanzaa: A Celebration of Family, Community and Culture and lectures regularly and extensively on the vision and values of Kwanzaa, especially the Nguzo Saba (The Seven Principles), in various national and international venues.

He holds two Ph.D.’s; his first in political science with focus on the theory and practice of nationalism (United States International University) and his second in social ethics with a focus on the classical African ethics of ancient Egypt (University of Southern California).

Karenga is the foremost exponent of Maatian ethical thought, having developed over the last three decades, a creative and scholarly Kawaida interpretation of ancient Egyptian ethical thought as a living tradition and a useful philosophical option for critical reflection on the urgent issues of our time.

Ties to Black History

As an activist-scholar of national and international recognition, Dr. Karenga has had a far-reaching effect on Black intellectual and political culture since the 1960s.

Through his organizational and intellectual work, and his philosophy, Kawaida, he has played a vanguard role in shaping the Black Arts Movement, Black Studies, the Black Power Movement, the Black Student Union Movement, Afrocentri­city, ancient Egyptian studies and the study of ancient Egyptian culture as an essential part of Black Studies, Ifa ethical studies, rites of passage programs, the Independent Black School Movement, African life-cycle ceremonies, the Simba Wachanga Youth Movement, Black theological and ethical discourse, and the Reparations Movement.

Understanding Kwanzza

Kwanzaa is derived from the phrase “matunda ya kwanza” which means “first fruits” in Swahili.images

Each family celebrates Kwanzaa in its own way, but celebrations often include songs and dances, African drums, storytelling, poetry reading, and a large traditional meal.

Each of the seven nights, the family gathers and a child lights one of the candles on the Kinara (candleholder), then one of the seven principles is discussed.

The principles, called the Nguzo Saba (seven principles in Swahili) are values of African culture which contribute to building and reinforcing community among African-Americans.

The Seven Basic Principles

The seven principles, or Nguzo Saba are a set of ideals created by Dr. Karenga.

Each day of Kwanzaa emphasizes a different principle.

The candle-lighting ceremony each evening provides the opportunity to gather and discuss the meaning of Kwanzaa.

The first night, the black candle in the center is lit (and the principle of umoja/unity is discussed). One candle is lit each evening and the appropriate principle is discussed.

The seven principles, or Nguzo Saba are a set of ideals also created by Dr. Karenga.

Each day of Kwanzaa emphasizes a different themed principle.

* Unity: Umoja (oo–MO–jah)                                          

To strive for and maintain unity in the family, community, nation, and race.

* Self-determination: Kujichagulia (koo–gee–cha–goo–LEE–yah)                                                 

To define ourselves, name ourselves, create for ourselves, and speak for ourselves.

* Collective Work and Responsibility: Ujima (oo–GEE–mah)              

To build and maintain our community together and make our brother’s and sister’s problems our problems and to solve them together.

* Cooperative Economics: Ujamaa (oo–JAH–mah)

To build and maintain our own stores, shops, and other businesses and to profit from them together.

* Purpose: Nia (nee–YAH)  

To make our collective vocation the building and developing of our community in order to restore our people to their traditional greatness.

* Creativity: Kuumba (koo–OOM–bah) 

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.

* Faith: Imani (ee–MAH–nee)

To believe with all our heart in our people, our parents, our teachers, our leaders, and the righteousness and victory of our struggle.

The Seven Symbols

Kwanzaa also has seven basic symbols which represent values and concepts reflective of African culture. An African feast, called a Karamu, is held on December 31.

Mkeka: a mat.

Mazao: fruits and vegetables.

Muhindi: ears of corn.

Kinara: a candleholder.

Mishumaa saba: the seven candles.

Kikombe cha umoja: the unity cup.

Zawadi: the gifts.

Kwanzaa brings a cultural message which speaks to the best of what it means to be African and human in the fullest sense.

Former United States President Bill Clinton said these comments about Kwanzaa.

“The seven principles of Kwanzaa — unity, self-determination, collective work and responsibility, cooperative economics, purpose, creativity and faith — teach us that when we come together to strengthen our families and communities and honor the lesson of the past, we can face the future with joy and optimism.”

According to Karenga’s website, the central interest of the website is to provide the best information which reveals and reaffirms the integrity, beauty and expansive meaning of the holiday and aid in our approaching it with the depth of thought, dignity, and sense of specialness it deserves.

The holiday, then will of necessity, be engaged as an ancient and living cultural tradition which reflects the best of African thought and practice in its reaffirmation of the dignity of the human person in community and culture, the well-being of family and community, the integrity of the environment and our kinship wivth it, and the rich resource and meaning of a people’s culture.

Malcolm X once said. “We cannot think of uniting with others, until we have first united amongst ourselves.  We cannot think of being acceptable to others until we have first proven acceptable to ourselves.”

May Kwanzaa remind not only of our past greatness, but also connect us and show us the serious responsibility we have to teach future generations.

For more information on Kwanzaa or the Houston celebration of events, call the S.H.A.P.E. at 713-521-0629 or 719-521-0641. or email the center at You can also visit the website at

Photo: Yi-Chin Lee, Houston Chronicle Staff
Delayed Parker of S.H.A.P.E. Community Center Photo: Yi-Chin Lee, Houston Chronicle Staff

Cited Sources:

-Founder’s Kwanzaa website:


– Excerpts from the book: The Complete Kwanzaa Celebrating Our Cultural Harvest, Copyright 1995 by Dorothy Winbush Riley.