Kwanzaa offers guidance to steer through adversity

As Americans begin the final week of a particularly troubling year, all of us can take some degree of comfort in embracing the principles that define the traditional African-American holiday of Kwanzaa, which begins today and runs through New Year’s Day 2013.

As we struggle to make sense of the horrid massacre of 20 young children and six protective adults in Newtown, Conn., as we take stock of the massive destruction and death wrought by superstorm Sandy, as we look back on one of the most nasty and divisive American presidential elections in modern times, and as we continue to struggle to recover from the Great Recession while stumbling closer and closer to a frightening fiscal cliff, the ideals of Kwanzaa can be both instructive and consoling.

Many of the seven guiding principles of Kwanzaa create a framework for individual and collective problem-solving and growth. Among them are unity, faith, collective work and responsibility.

But unfortunately, today, 46 years after its first observance in California, the weeklong African American cultural holiday of Kwanzaa remains steeped in misunderstanding and mystery. In some circles, it still struggles to achieve legitimacy, and as such, many miss out on its potential as a viable tool to work through personal and collective challenges and struggles.

As the Mahoning Valley joins the rest of the nation in marking the start of the holiday at 7 tonight at New Bethel Baptist Church on Hillman Street in Youngstown, it is an opportune time to demystify the festival, debunk myths surrounding it and reinforce its legitimacy as an observance that black Americans — and all Americans — can appreciate.

Coming as it does during the heart of Christianity’s most hallowed season, it is easy for some to perceive Kwanzaa as a religious celebration. Targeted as it is toward black Americans, it is easy for other ethnic groups to simply ignore.

Kwanzaa, however, is neither religious in its foundation nor exclusionary in its message. It is not America’s “black Christmas,” as some have misrepresented it over the years.

Dr. Maulana Karenga, who organized the first Kwanzaa in the United States in 1966, clearly states in his Kwanzaa message to the nation the purpose of the holiday:

“In its most essential understanding and expression, Kwanzaa is a celebration of family, community and culture with each providing a context and commitment of common ground, cooperative practice and shared good. Kwanzaa is a celebration of the family, which first forms us, names, nurtures and sustains us, and teaches us upright and uplifting ways to understand and assert our- selves in the world.”

Of course, the cultural message is aimed primarily at blacks. Kwanzaa, which in Swahili means the celebration of first fruits, accentuates values that reinforce African family, community and cultural values.

Kwanzaa is inclusive

But as Karenga points out, people of other cultures and ethnicities can and do celebrate Kwanzaa, just as people of all cultures mark Cinco de Mayo, St. Patrick’s Day, Italian-American heritage festivals and other ethnic-specific observances throughout the year.

Indeed, some of the seven guiding principles, or “Nguzo Saba,” of Kwanzaa transcend racial and ethnic boundaries. Those values, one of which is celebrated during each day of Kwanzaa, include Umoja (unity), Kujichagulia (self-determination), Ujima (collective work and responsibility), Ujamaa (cooperative economics), Nia (purpose), Kuumba (creativity) and Imani (faith).

When we shed Kwanzaa off the misconceptions and fallacies surrounding it, what remains are the core ideals that offer black Americans and all Americans guidance to lead productive, fulfilling and honorable lives. It also provides direction to navigate through some of life’s most troubling times, such as those that Americans have endured over the past 12 months.

Don't Miss a Story

Sign up for our newsletter to receive daily news directly in your inbox.