By Bakari Sanyu, Director, The Sankofa Collective 

This year has been particularly demanding with the ongoing coronavirus pandemic.  Many are experiencing economic challenges, health hardships, and family deaths throughout widespread areas.  These uneasy conditions were further impacted with simultaneously occurring massive and expansive demands for systemic racial justice.  Now the December 26th to January 1st designated Kwanzaa season has arrived within the midst of the pandemic.  Our large community in-gatherings that normally finds us physically assembled together from various countries, classes, ages, generations, religious traditions, and political persuasions to focus on, renew, and recommit to collective cultural uplift will have to be deferred because of the current coronavirus pandemic. Nevertheless, the enthusiastic diligence to develop, enrich, contribute to, share, and preserve the Kwanzaa cultural tradition for future generations continues to expand each successive year. 

 Our families and communities wherever we are located around the world, remain committed to present and celebrate Kwanzaa, albeit restricted to small safe family settings.  The cultural tradition in this pandemic is especially propelling action to seek out more creative ways to strengthen the intertwined, cherished, and indivisible values of family, community, and culture.  And our Kwanzaa task remains to innovatively practice the beauty of culture for mutual benefit and to reinforce rootedness in African heritage, culture, and consciousness.  Likewise, care and concern for personal safety and the wellbeing of others are essential considerations.  Therefore, it is important that we wear our nose and mouth facial covering and pursue physical 6 feet distancing protocols while navigating in public settings.  

 However, technology has created expansive ways to electronically reaffirm our family, community and cultural bonds during this Kwanzaa season.  There are numerous expressions of virtual Kwanzaa affirmations available in various Zoom computer presentations and throughout social media platforms.  Virtual Kwanzaa practices invite our community to safely indulge in the richness and festive cultural ambiance of ethnic art, dance, poetry, folktales, music, literature, and the elegance of heritage clothing, jewelry, heirlooms, hairstyles, and creative productions.  There are also opportunities to remotely embrace various virtual African art carving demonstrations, heritage clothing sewing, ethnic cuisine recipes, and continental African languages during this challenging Kwanzaa season.  

Take time to learn and relearn more information about Kwanzaa, and then share the beauty of its values, insights and instructive practices.  The cultural tradition of Kwanzaa was founded and framed by Dr. Maulana Karenga in Los Angeles, California within the midst and context of the 1960’s African American Freedom Movement.  And as the creator of Kwanzaa, Dr. Maulana Karenga is the author of the definitive text on its origins, principles, practices, symbols, and meaning.  The book is readily available at and a comprehensive reading will provide detailed explanations. 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 the cultural tradition’s name.  The language of Swahili was chosen for the name Kwanzaa and the accompanying phrases, because it is the most widely spoken trade language officially used by multiple African countries.  The year-end observance of Kwanzaa occurs because this cultural expression is derived from the African continent’s traditional year-end agricultural harvest celebrations. 

Kwanzaa honors the moral responsibility and obligation to 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.   The thrust of the cultural celebration is to continually strive to build, strengthen, maintain, and reaffirm family, community, and cultural bonds through deliberate actions that expand progress, trust, productivity, cooperation, and empowerment.  Kwanzaa reminds our community in its historical, geographical, and current diversity to continue to affirm, embrace, maintain, and expand a dignity-affirming cultural legacy as a way of life.   

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 addresses the cultural challenges we face, and how to successfully deal with the challenges. 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 the community. 

• Ujima (Collective Work and Responsibility) – stresses the obligation to self-consciously 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 a dignified family, vibrant community, and 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 as a way of life to show care, support, and responsibility for our community’s well-being and to expand trust and widespread cooperation.     

Our esteemed Ancestor Dr. Frantz Fanon has said that we must ask ourselves three culturally-rooted questions:

• Who Am I?

• Am I Really Who I Say I Am?

• Am I All That I Ought To Be? 

The collective answers to these questions will determine the extent of how each of us choose to function as a cultural representative of our people throughout the year.  Cultural tradition has, and will continue to be, a source of African American identity, purpose and direction.  This was emphasized by our honored Ancestor, Mrs. Fannie Lou Hamer who taught, “there are two things we should always care about, never to forget where we came from and always praise the bridges that carried us over”.  The message and meaning of Kwanzaa are intended to continually invigorate and preserve a cultural foundation for uplifting our family and community with self-defining and self-confirming bedrock principles derived from tradition, reason, and history.  And practicing our cultural tradition year-round requires sustaining a profound sense of kinship with each other.  

Our challenges as we celebrate Kwanzaa in this pandemic are to exert care, operate safely as we work together, persistently show concern for others, and be the model of excellence and unlimited possibility we so fervently seek elsewhere.  Work to apply our ethical cultural values, tell our unique complex narrative, present uplifting dignified imagery, promote positive social cohesion, and continually reject, challenge, and eliminate self-destructive, self-debasing, and self-erasure behaviors which result from cultural alienation and historical amnesia. Know that change in our social conditions begins first with the individual’s actions, Struggle, and sacrifices, and it then radiates outward to the family and to our community-at-large.  Our overall condition will change when enough individuals and families embrace more cultural self-knowledge restoration, community bonding, and focused independent institution building to expand,  practice, and embody our ethical cultural values.  

Kwanzaa compels us to strive for more collective cultural reaffirmation as a mentally emancipated way of life.  Develop cultural priorities which include restoring cultural names for ourselves, our children, grandchildren, and great-grandchildren.  Be surrounded with heritage images that reflect ourselves.  Patronize the local Black-owned newspaper, stores, restaurants, shops, contractors, and vendor services to build a sustainable economic base.  Study our collective history to remember and honor our esteemed Ancestors, as well as to apply its endless lessons of dignity, self-agency, self-initiative, self-determination and Struggle.  We are our own Cultural Liberators, Ambassadors, and Advocates!  Heri za Kwanzaa (Happy Kwanzaa).    


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

Bakari Sanyu

Director, The Sankofa Collective 

A community-based cultural education organization

Telephone Number: (661) 319-7611