What is Kwanzaa? Austin author sheds light on an often-misunderstood holiday

Austin

AUSTIN (KXAN) — Kwanzaa is not Black Christmas.

“Really, Kwanzaa is closer to Thanksgiving,” Austin author Angela Shelf Medearis said.

But the week-long celebration goes beyond what that holiday represents.

“It’s a way to show thanks and appreciation for the blessings that you have, for the family that you have, to teach the history of Black culture and to also find a way to support Black businesses and to bring a more positive outlook for the coming year,” she said.

Dr. Karenga added an “a” to the end of the Swahili word Kwanza meaning “first fruits,” Medearis said (KXAN Photo/Todd Bailey)

Medearis’ first book “The Seven Days of Kwanzaa,” originally published in 1994, focuses on the holiday born out of the aftermath of the 1965 Watts riots, which sparked after a scuffle broke out during a traffic stop.

“The Watts Rebellion lasted for six days, resulting in 34 deaths, 1,032 injuries and 4,000 arrests, involving 34,000 people and ending in the destruction of 1,000 buildings, totaling $40 million in damages,” according to History.com.

The book is Medearis’ way of explaining the complexity of the Kwanzaa celebration to kids.

Dr. Maulana Karenga, now 79, created Kwanzaa the year following the Watts riots, modeling African harvest festivals’ traditions. Of those, seven principles, one for each candle and day, are demonstrated:

  1. Umoja (Unity)
  2. Kujichagulia (Self-Determination)
  3. Ujima (Collective Work and Responsibility)
  4. Ujamaa (Cooperative economics)
  5. Nia (Purpose)
  6. Kuumba (Creativity)
  7. Imani (Faith)

The Austin author wrote another published book, the original folktale “Seven Spools of Thread” in 2000, providing a metaphor for the holiday’s principles.

Angela Shelf Medearis holding a copy of her book “Seven Spools of Thread” (KXAN Photo/Todd Bailey)

It focuses on seven brothers who can’t get along but learn to help themselves and their community by creating a cloth that is worn by the kings called “kente cloth.”

There’s a bigger message woven into the story, Medearis said.

“It’s a way to explain Kwanzaa as a unifying community experience rather than something that just goes for Black people. It’s meant to be able to teach people about Black and African culture and that’s the bottom line of it. To have a community celebration that anybody can join in on to give a better understanding of that culture.”

Dr. Karenga wanted the Kwanzaa celebration to provide a unique way for all Americans to discover and celebrate African-American history and culture, she said. He also hoped the principles of the holiday would inspire African-Americans to work, support, celebrate and believe in each other throughout the year.

A new year of understanding

The last principle of Kwanzaa, Imani (faith), is celebrated on the first day of the New Year. This coincides with lighting the last candle on the kinara, symbolically lighting the way for the New Year, Medearis said.

She hopes 2021 brings understanding for our country.

Wood carving created by Daniel Minter who illustrated Seven Spools of Thread (KXAN Photo/Todd Bailey)

“Most of the misunderstandings in America is because we don’t understand each other’s culture. We don’t understand each other. Opportunities like Kwanzaa give you a chance to understand somebody’s history and culture, where you came from, what you ate, what you believed in and you find it’s not too much different than what you eat, what you do with your family, what you believe in,” she said. “But, it just takes a little research and a little education and the world would be a better place if people just took a little time to sort of say, ‘Hey, I’d like to join in.'”

To close out Kwanzaa ceremonies, everyone together shouts “Harambee” — a Swahili word that means “let’s pull together.”

Medearis hopes the country follows that message, now more than ever, after what she calls a “turbulent” year.

“It‘s just like anything else in America,” she said. “Once you understand each other, there’s a lot of easier paths to bringing the kind of peace that we long for … America’s a wonderful country filled with all kinds of diverse cultures and once we learn how to really work together, to unify and to celebrate the freedoms that we have, to worship, to love — that would be the best gift ever coming out of celebrations like this.”

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