Kwanzaa and the Black Church

More and more Black people celebrate Kwanzaa instead of Christmas. Rev Ronald Nathan explains the African origins of this festival and explores why Black churches have ignored it

Fifty-seven years after its creation, Kwanzaa, the seven-day festival inspired by the harvest celebrations of Africa, has 40 million celebrants yet it is almost totally unknown in the Black Church in the Caribbean, United States of America and the United Kingdom. Amidst the commercialisation of Kwanzaa – with greeting cards, videos, films and music available at High Street stores – the Black Church has almost entirely ignored this festival. 

Some Black Church leaders have voiced four prominent objections to Christian involvement with Kwanzaa celebrations. First, that Kwanzaa is anti-Christian. Second, that it is socialist. 

Third, that Kwanzaa draws upon African cultural motifs and practices that are spiritually questionable, and fourth, that its founder, Maulana Karenga, was in prison at the time of its creation. 

So how should the Black Church address events of an Africentric nature, such as Kwanzaa celebrations? It calls for an honest recognition that the Black Church is a conservative institution with its own traditions, including a Eurocentric affinity. Once we are willing to see that this affinity makes us highly suspicious of things African, we can then take action to orientate our programmes and activities to engage Africentric communities and their events. 

Take, for example, in the study of Christian missions, it informs us that if we wish to communicate the Gospel to any ethnic or social group effectively, we must find a way of doing so within the cultural ways, spaces and places they occupy. So, it means we have to move out of our comfort zone if we wish to engage persons who don’t attend our churches. Kwanzaa provides just such a cultural space. 

Kwanzaa’s activities also take us out of our comfort zone because it offers a deep theological, philosophical and psychological critique of the Black Church, and questions why it is so accommodating of Eurocentric values and models which are reflected in a hostility to its own African-ness.

The teachings of Kwanzaa are not an anti-Christian religious substitute; they are an African re-education programme. The teachings of Kwanzaa are not an anti-white project; they are an anti-inferiority programme. The teachings of Kwanzaa are not a socialist experiment; they are a community development strategy. The teachings of Kwanzaa are not a revenge initiative; they are a Pan African re-orientation to Africa’s history, cultures and prosperity.

Local churches therefore need to prayerfully consider whether they wish to incorporate Kwanzaa as part of their programme of cultural engagement and prophetic outreach to the Black and African community.

So, whether we celebrate Kwanzaa or stand on the sidelines of African cultural practices, we should not be surprised when our communities critique our relevance and our youths challenge our legitimacy by leaving our churches. If, however, we hold to the idea that the Gospel of Jesus Christ has the capacity to redeem and transform culture, surely this includes our African-inspired cultural forms and institutions, such as Kwanzaa?

The Elements of the Kwanzaa Festival

Kwanzaa is a festival held annually between December 26 and January 1. It has seven principles (called ngozu saba) and seven symbols that are highlighted during its celebrations. The Swahili language is used to name its seven principles and symbols, which represent a process of values reinforcement drawn from the traditional African family and community.

The seven principles and their meaning are as follows:

·      Umoja Unity
·      Kujichagulia Self-determination
·      Ujima Collective Work and Responsibility
·      Ujamaa Cooperative Economics 
·      Nia Purpose
·      Kuumba Creativity
·      Imani Faith

Each of the above seven principles are spoken of, in the above order, and illustrated on each day of the festival.

The seven symbols are the adornments of the festival:

·      Mkeka – The decorative mat represents the foundation of African traditions and history
·      Mazao – This assortment of crops, fruits and vegetables shows respect for those who laboured in the fields.
·      Kinara – The seven-branched candle holder represents the origin from which all Africans came.
·      Mishumaa – The seven candles represent one of each of the seven principles and is lit during the celebrations, starting with the black candle which represents Umoja (unity).
·      Muhindi – The corn represents Africa’s children and their future.
·      Kikombe cha Umoja – The Cup of Unity, out of which the libation is poured and the ancestors are honoured.
·      Zawadi – The gifts represent the labour of the parents and the rewards of the children.

These symbols are laid out in an area or platform and is visible for all to see. Each day of Kwanzaa there is a programme of activities around the principles and symbols, involving members of the African family and community. Celebrations are encouraged in the home and also in the community. Some of the largest gatherings attract thousands of people.

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