Kwanzaa: Conveying Cultural Heartbeats

By Bakari Sanyu

Letter to the Editor

Kwanzaa is first and foremost a cultural tradition which emphasizes that our intertwined and cherished core values of family, community, and culture are indivisible. The December 26th to January 1st Kwanzaa season provides a designated time to collectively celebrate and visibly resonate the beauty of African heritage and culture, its values, insights, and instructive practices, so that we can deeply rejuvenate our lives and extended community for mutual flourishing and benefit. And it coincides with a time for introspection where we can reflect and reminisce on whether our own actions have consistently benefited, strengthened, and affirmed purposeful bonding and productivity with, for, and between our family and community.

Kwanzaa reminds our community to remain rooted in a dignity-affirming collective cultural tradition, because this is the key to molding the concept of an interconnected family, community and cultural lineage. Tradition links our youth with the elders so that the widespread generation gap that is frequently publicized can be eradicated.

Tradition teaches our youth that the living, the accumulated experience and knowledge possessed by our elders, the departed and the yet unborn, encompass an unbroken culturally grounded circle that must be vitalized in practiced protocol, ritual, reciprocity, and historical remembrance. Celebrating our cultural tradition is essential to renewing a cohesive collective identity and self-empowering purpose.

Since the 1960’s, African American families and communities with all of our historical, geographical, and current diversity, have continued to present and circulate the

Kwanzaa tradition to address a widespread need to rescue, reconstruct, restore, and reinforce rootedness in self-sustaining cultural values. Kwanzaa conveys the best of tradition to renew and strengthen our cultural heartbeats in a rich and meaningful way.

It is a time for our families to come together in community to collectively indulge in the richness and festive cultural ambiance of ethnic art, dance, poetry, drumming, folktales, music, literature, and the beauty of heritage clothing, jewelry, heirlooms, hairstyles, and. Tt creative productions.

The cultural tradition of Kwanzaa was created in 1966 by Dr. Maulana Karenga in Los Angeles, California within the midst and context of the 1960’s African American Freedom Movement. Its foundational message is to honor the moral responsibility and obligation we have, to always remember our Ancestors who through their love, labor, and struggle, laid the foundation for us and pushed our lives and history forward, and on whose shoulders we now stand. Kwanzaa provides an avenue for African Americans to collectively express our ethnicity as a people of African descent and it emphasizes respect for the dignity and wellbeing of our families and communities.

The name Kwanzaa comes from the Swahili phrase, “matunda ya kwanza”, where matunda means “fruits”, and ya kwanza means “first”. Dr. Karenga added the extra “a” to the Swahili word kwanza, to distinguish its name and convey a distinct African cultural identity for the cultural tradition. The language of Swahili was chosen for the name Kwanzaa, and all of its accompanying phrases, because it is a widespread trade language used by multiple African countries. Kwanzaa is celebrated at year-end because this cultural expression is derived from the African continent’s traditional yearend agricultural harvest celebrations.

The cultural celebration of Kwanzaa is anchored in value-rootedness that provide key categories of priorities by which our community can self-consciously rescue and reconstruct our history, heritage, and culture in our own image and interests and uniquely contribute to the forward flow of human development. Tradition conveys a “point of view” to inspire us to refocus, recommit, and appreciate the work and struggle that are necessary, and are a priority to uplift and propel our collective community forward. Accordingly, the unified cultural heartbeats of community togetherness are indispensable for nurturing self-healing and maintaining harmonious living with one another. Cultural heartbeats are also vibrant, and they give our community the vigorous energy and collaborating wherewithal to embody our collective memory, an African cultural aesthetic, self-validation, and to manifest our intrinsic tenacity, dignity, beauty, and self-worth.

The heart and soul of Kwanzaa revolves around Seven Principles. The Swahili term for all Seven Principles is the Nguzo Saba. There is one principle to focus on during each day of the cultural tradition. The Nguzo Saba in Swahili and English with a brief explanation are:

 Umoja (Unity) – stresses the necessity to concentrate on and embrace togetherness in the family and in the community.

 Kujichagulia (Self-Determination) – stresses that family members define and develop common dignity-affirming interests and make mutually beneficial decisions that sustain the family and uplift our community.

 Ujima (Collective Work and Responsibility) – stresses the obligation to selfconsciously commit time and finances to harmoniously work together and use our minds and hands to build a flourishing community.

 Ujamaa (Cooperative Economics) – stresses the obligation to commit to create goods and services, pool resources, and establish businesses and companies to develop an economic base for wealth expansion in our community.

 Nia (Purpose) – stresses introspect for setting personal goals that are beneficial to building and maintaining cohesive families, a productive community, and a strong cultural foundation.

 Kuumba (Creativity) – stresses consistent use of our creative energies to generate dignified cultural expressions and to build infrastructure that serve and uplift the family and community.

 Imani (Faith) – stresses the obligation to honor the best of our sacred traditions for a better world by persistently performing good deeds that model cooperation in expanding care, support, and responsibility of our community’s well-being.

The Nguzo Saba is a collective statement about how to successfully deal with the challenges facing our community’s conception of itself, historically and culturally. Frantz

Fanon has said that each person must ask three culturally-rooted questions:

1. Who am I?

2. Am I really who I say I am?

3. Am I all that I ought to be?

Our cultural heartbeats will convey the collective answers to these deep questions. And consistent practice of the Nguzo Saba determines the extent of how each of us functions throughout the year as a cultural ambassador. Know that we are obligated by duty and destiny to create a better and more beautiful world than what we have inherited. Resolve to invigorate the Nguzo Saba in words and deeds by continually dedicating time and resources to our community-based institutions.

On Kujichagulia Day, Friday, December 27, 2019, there will be a Citywide Kwanzaa Celebration at the Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. Community Center, located at 1000 S. Owens Street, Bakersfield, California, from 1 pm until 5 pm. African heritage attire is strongly emphasized by our community to proudly portray, elevate, support, and honor the essence, ambiance, purpose, and imagery of the cultural tradition. Public admission is FREE, and our entire community is cordially invited.

SOURCE: “Kwanzaa: A Celebration of Family Community & Culture” by Maulana Karenga, University of Sankore Press, Los Angeles, California, 2008,

ISBN 978-0943412-27-6 hardback
978-0943412-28-3 paperback

Bakari Sanyu
Director, The Sankofa Collective
A community-based cultural education organization
Telephone Number: (661) 319-7611
email: bakari.sanyu@sbcglobal.net