Celebrating Kwanzaa: 7 Distinguished Women Share How They Live Out Its 7 Principles
By Leslie E. Royal
Do you celebrate Kwanzaa? I invite you to explore the possibility. This uplifting, mindful holiday can be a powerful way to end the old year and begin the next—and when celebrated intentionally, it can spur real growth at an individual, family and community level.
Created in 1966 by Maulana Karenga, Kwanzaa honors African American heritage and culture by focusing on 7 core principles. Each principle has one dedicated day—from December 26 through January 1. I reached out to seven distinguished women to find out what Kwanzaa means to them and how they will carry out its seven core tenets with their families. Please join me! But first, let’s learn about the seven core principles of Kwanzaa.
Nguzo Saba – The Seven Principles of Kwanzaa
- Umoja (Unity): To strive for and to maintain unity in the family, community, nation and race.
- Kujichagulia (Self-Determination): To define and name ourselves, as well as to create and speak for ourselves.
- Ujima (Collective Work and Responsibility): To build and maintain our community together, making our brothers’ and sisters’ problems our problems—and working to solve them together.
- Ujamaa (Cooperative Economics): To build and maintain our own stores, shops and businesses—and profit from them together.
- Nia (Purpose): To make our collective vocation the building and developing of our community in order to restore our people to their traditional greatness.
- Kuumba (Creativity): To do always as much as we can, in the way we can, in order to leave our community more beautiful and beneficial than it was when we inherited it.
- Imani (Faith): To believe with all our hearts in our people, our parents, our teachers, our leaders—and the righteousness and victory of our struggle.
Kwanzaa Principle #1: What does Umoja or Unity mean to me?
Tami Wells Thomas
Attorney and Owner of The Wells Thomas Law Firm
“All things work together… Romans 8:28. My family and I will continue to strive to embody this principle by being present with each other and know that we can accomplish so much more together than apart.”
Tami was introduced to Kwanzaa by her beloved mother, Doris K. Wells, in 1983. In fact, Ms. Wells began an awareness festival for Kwanzaa in South Dekalb County to introduce the celebration to the community and to dispel any myths about it being a substitute for Christmas. Christmas, for her, endures as a time to remember and celebrate the birth of Jesus Christ.
Tami was taught that Kwanzaa is an extension of seasonal celebrations—an extension that allows others to commemorate heritage, culture and values. She and her best friend continue the tradition with their families. As her mother did with her, she shares Kwanzaa with her husband Mark, daughter Grace, and son Nathan. She believes it is important to celebrate African American heritage and to remind herself and her children about their purpose and all of the principles of Kwanzaa. She thinks they are timeless reminders for us all.
Tami’s Kwanzaa Attire: “We typically have no special attire for our Karamu, just casual, but some do wear African-inspired attire.”
Kwanzaa Principle #2: What does Kujichagulia or Self-Determination mean to me?
“This principle is a powerful reminder that we now stand beside our ancestors who courageously fought for ownership of their identity and the destiny of their children.”
For Jane, Kwanzaa has long been a part of her family tradition. In the late 70’s, when her oldest son was about five years old and looked forward to Christmas, she and his Dad decided to include Kwanzaa as an extension of their holiday season. By the time their second son was born in 1978, Kwanzaa was an established tradition for the family. It continues to be a time for them to come together to give thanks for each other as they honor the past, celebrate the present and share hopes for the future of their family. As a foundation, they followed many of the ceremonial guidelines shared by Dr. Karenga.
Over the last 40 years, they adapted these guidelines to encourage the creativity of new voices. Jane shares that, for them, the focus on Black History and the seven principles of the Nguzo Saba enhanced the cultural and spiritual connections of their family. Their family along with friends would gather to light the candles and discuss the designated principle. Over the years, she found that Kuumba or Creativity was a positive and inclusive way to bring adults, teens, and children together to celebrate friendship and the beginning of a new year. They even started exchanging creative gifts (zawadis) such as coloring books, quotes or poems.
Jane’s Kwanzaa Attire: “I usually wear attire that aligns with the colors of the candles (red, black, and/or green). Some family members and friends wear traditional African dress.”
Kwanzaa Principle #3: What does Ujima or Collective Work & Responsibility mean to me?
“It is the importance of making the Black community stronger by supporting each other and sticking together. As a family, we encourage each other to support our HBCUs physically and monetarily. We also strive to purchase things and utilize services by Black providers.”
Beverly’s husband began celebrating Kwanzaa 40 years ago. She joined him 30 years ago. Having gone to celebrations at churches, community centers and the library…as well as commemorating in her own home, Beverly has come to realize that Kwanzaa reinforces values from an African perspective that we can exhibit in America.
Annually, they choose one of the principles of Kwanzaa and do activities based on that principle. They ensure children participate in lighting the candles. Others share talents like drumming, dancing, singing and poetry. Large feasts are enriched by guests making and exchanging gifts such as jewelry. Beverly and her family also celebrate Christmas, expressing that one celebration does not negate the other. In fact, she feels that Kwanzaa is more related to Thanksgiving since they break bread together, bring communities and families together and reinforce what they have done during the year.
Beverly’s Kwanzaa Attire: “The men typically wear traditional African attire such as Dashikis and kufi caps, while the women wear long dresses called Kaftans. Some people also wear outfits that correspond to the colors of Kwanzaa, which are red, black, and green. I like to wear kente cloth because I believe some of my ancestors may have come from Ghana, based on a mathematical symbol that has been passed from generation to generation through my family.”
Kwanzaa Principle #4: What does Ujamaa or Cooperative Economics mean to me?
S. Kai Cameron
Retired Public School Administrator
“Cooperative economics has always been a thread in our family’s daily living. We are die-hard entrepreneurs. When we owned a general contracting business, we were purposeful in collaborating with other minority-owned businesses whenever possible. Today, even in retirement, we are still dedicated to doing business with folks “who look like us” – like at the corner store, the hair salon, the tailor shop, etc. And our children do the same.”
Having attended Howard University in the early 1970s, Kai was somewhat knowledgeable of the work of Dr. Maulana Karenga and his philosophy, but she was actually introduced to the inter-family celebration of Kwanzaa by her friend Jane over 30 years ago. To Kai, Kwanzaa is a way to reinforce, reinvest and revisit her African American heritage.
As a daughter, mother of four and grandmother of twelve, her hopes are that she has woven the rituals, principles and celebratory events into the memory and consciousness of her family. Her family celebrates Christmas as well. Christmas is rooted in their Christian upbringing. She views Kwanzaa as a ‘cultural family-focused tradition’ that brings in the new year and reminds them of their history, roots, goals and the power of self. According to Kai, Kwanzaa is a time to honor the past, share memories, enjoy family—and devour delicious dishes!
Kai’s Kwanzaa Attire: “My clothing is what I would wear on any normal day. We may travel to another home, and I would wear something considered ‘nice’ for visiting someone’s home.”
Kwanzaa Principle #5: What does Nia or Purpose mean to me?
“As a mother, wife, and supporter of my culture and community, the principle Nia pushes me to be involved in outreach. Having a daughter makes it far more important to show her the history of how when we work together as a people, nothing is impossible. I plan to be more intentional in pointing these things out.”
What Kwanzaa means to Kwai, in one simple word is PRIDE. Having celebrated Kwanzaa all of her life, she sees it as an opportunity to rejoice in the core components that make up African American culture. Her parents began the celebration the year after she was born, and she continues it with her children. Her mom really likes for the grandchildren to go over to her home and light the last candle. This brings back some warm memories from childhood. Sometimes her children go to the farmers’ market with their grandmother to select fruits and vegetables for the kinara set up.
When in Florida, there is generally a large gathering of friends and family. Close to midnight, they join hands and shares things they are grateful for and pray in the New Year. Kwai’s family recognizes and celebrates the birth of Jesus Christ in Christmas commemorations as well.
Kwai’s Kwanzaa Attire: “I typically wear casual clothing or sometimes I might wear a Dashiki.”
Kwanzaa Principle #6: What does Kuumba or Creativity mean to me?
Petronia Perrimon Martin
Retired Social Worker and Co-Owner of Photography By Walter
“It is the service of beautifying our community. As I look at the image of three generations: my daughter, granddaughter and me, I think of performing acts of service in our community and metro Atlanta. Making it more beautiful helps others benefit from the inheritance of a better world.”
As a Christian, Petronia is a firm believer that Jesus is the reason for the season. She added Kwanzaa to her holiday season in 1993 when the wife of the mayor of Atlanta invited her to an event at the historic Herndon House. Her husband, a photographer, snapped many photos of her daughter and godson at the event.
She has a particular affinity for principle six: Kuumba or creativity. Her daughter is an educator who encourages creativity in young minds every day, encouraging them to appreciate the beauty of Atlanta and the world. Her granddaughter is taught that to whom much is given, much must be returned in creative community service to the world. And, as for Petronia, she follows the lead of her own beloved mother by being creative in providing a workshop on Medicare for senior citizens in metro Atlanta.
Petronia’s Kwanzaa Attire:“I was with 25 persons for Kwanzaa this year. We wore Kente of our different Greekdoms. If they were not Greek, they wore a plain orange and black outfit.”
Kwanzaa Principle #7: What does Imani or Faith mean to me?
Fiber Artist and Author
“Imani speaks directly to the way my husband and I live our lives daily. We have faith in our Blackness, in our ability to create a better life for ourselves and for our people in the United States. We have faith that we will live our lives to show that our ancestors’ acts of bravery and sustainability were not in vain.”
Having celebrated Kwanzaa for more than 40 years, Aisha feels it means African American people have their very only holiday in which to celebrate their history, ancestry and greatness. In contrast to some individuals who celebrate both Christmas and Kwanzaa, she only celebrates the latter in her home.
She began celebrating the tradition in her home 20 years ago. In fact, her three daughters have known the joy of the holidays since they were little girls. She believes that it is important to pass on this event and other designated holidays for African Americans to their children and grandchildren. Understanding the heritage and customs sacred to Black people is paramount.
Aisha’s Kwanzaa Attire: “I wear traditional African dress to our Kwanzaa affairs.”
A big thank you to the women who have shared their Kwanzaa traditions and profound perspectives with us! As you plan your various holiday events and festivities, if you don’t celebrate already, I invite you to consider Kwanzaa as an opportunity for you and your family to become more in tune with your African ancestry and culture—as well as celebrate the enormous gains of African American people.
Still curious? Explore the websites below to learn more about the seven potent and powerful principles of Kwanzaa.
Links to Understanding and Celebrating Kwanzaa:
Ashro Brand Ambassador Leslie E. Royal is also an author, international freelance writer, product review expert, and global travel journalist. Her articles have appeared in numerous publications including: Medium, ESSENCE, Black Enterprise, FORTUNE.com, AAA Southern Traveler, Upscale, Upscale Living, and The Ashro Blog. She is the creator of the Leslie’s Lane consumer information blog and author of two books.