An ethical philosopher, author, holder of two PhDs, and professor and chair of the Department of Africana Studies at California State University, Long Beach, Maulana Karenga (File Photo)

There is a period during the holiday season dedicated to African Americans; Kwanzaa—defined as “first” in Swahili— is known among all ethnicities. Highlighting African heritage, Kwanzaa carries the salt of a culture unearthed and conditioned, allowing new thoughts of deep reflection on the origins of the collective community.

Dr. Maulana Karenga— professor and chair of the department of Africana Studies at California State University—in Long Beach, California, created Kwanzaa. For a brief moment, people all over the world grow familiar with the name Kwanzaa and what it stands for.

“I created Kwanzaa in the midst of the Black Freedom Movement, in the wake of the assassination and martyrdom of Haji Malcolm X and the Watts Revolt, and in the supportive context of my organization, Us, a vanguard organization of the Movement dedicated to cultural revolution, community self-determination and radical social change …” said Karenga.

He continued, “Kwanzaa was conceived, created and developed, then, in the context of the Black Freedom Movement and was understood as part and parcel of a two-fold liberation struggle to be ourselves and free ourselves. It was a struggle to be Black, to be African without penalty, punishment, or oppression, to be free from domination, deprivation, and degradation and to be free to live good, meaningful lives, bring good in the world and come into the fullness of ourselves as persons and a people.”

Dr. Karenga brought Swahili words to the eyes of many, who may have never seen letters strung together in that form; words such as Umoja, Kujichagulia, Ujima, Ujamaa, Nia, Kuumba, and Imani.

According to the official Kwanzaa website, the meaning behind the seven principles is the following:

  • Umoja: to strive for and maintain unity in the family, community, nation, and race.
  • Kujichagulia: to define ourselves, name ourselves, create for ourselves and speak for ourselves.
  • Ujima: build and maintain our community together and make our brother’s and sisters’ problems our problems and solve them together.
  • Ujamaa: to build and maintain our stores, shops, and other businesses and to profit from them together.
  • Nia: To make our collective vocation the building and developing of our community to restore our people to their traditional greatness.
  • Kuumba: to do always as much as we can, in the way we can, to leave our community more beautiful and beneficial than we inherited it
  • Imani: to believe with all our heart in our people, our parents, our teachers, our leaders, and the righteousness and victory of our struggle.

“It speaks both to particular African people in the context of their country and also to all of us collectively as a world community of various African peoples, “Dr. Karenga began to explain the core values and practices of Kwanzaa, he continued, “Therefore, it has core practices, but they are also enriched by the particular ways each family and people engage these core practices.”

Dr. Karenga went into depth about the ritual of the holiday, “These core practices are ingathering of the people to reinforce the bonds between them; special thanks for the harvests of good from the earth and renewed commitment to care for, protect and preserve it; commemoration of the past and honoring the ancestors whose teachings and lives are our lessons; a recommitment to our highest values, especially the Nguzo Saba; and celebration of the good, the good of life, the struggle and the world and a future forged in freedom, anchored in justice and rooted in mutual respect and shared good of and in the world,” Dr. Karenga stated.

Dr. Maulana Karenga and Mrs. Tiamoyo Karenga pouring tambiko (libation) (Photo Credit: Us Archives)

Kwanzaa was created in the wake of Haji Malcolm X and the Watts Revolt. Its birth represents the struggle to rise above conditioning thoughts of oppression. Dr. Karenga enlisted three reasons for the existence of Kwanzaa, one being a “practical and promising way to reaffirm our Africanness,” this holiday sets the tone to reflect on the cultural home base of the African American community.

The first Kwanzaa was celebrated in a house, among the first members who accepted the seven principles. Dr. Karenga described joyous energy with laughter, songs, motivation, and warmth. Kwanzaa, much like other nationally celebrated times, provides a moment of bliss and togetherness.

Dr. Karenga reflected on his gratitude for the people who walked next to him during the growth of Kwanzaa, singling out his family, organization, and the first members of the celebration.

According to the Annual Founders’ Kwanzaa Message published in the Los Angeles Sentinel on Dec. 23, 2021, the “Practice of Kwanzaa and the Seven Principles” focused on “Ensuring the Well-Being of the World.” It recited words celebrating the 55th anniversary of Kwanzaa.

The segment dissects Kawaida; the philosophy that fuels Kwanzaa and Nguzo Saba. In the practice of this holiday, Dr. Karenga expresses the call to “walk gently and humbly on earth.” According to the National Geographic website, the physical practice of Kwanzaa includes the following: From Dec. 26- Jan. 1, each of the seven principles is celebrated.

To prepare the tone of the holiday, one would decorate their table with a straw mat and place meaningful items that include assorted fruits and vegetables. This symbolizes collective labor and harvest, with ears of corn representing children and a candle holder that holds seven candles

During the holiday season, due to the work of Dr. Karenga,  African Americans are seen through Kwanzaa. It’s observed by people of various nationalities. For more information on how to celebrate Kwanzaa, please visit


updated 12/19/22 by Sentinel Staff