Last December, almost five hundred black men, women, and children met on Jekyll Island, Georgia, for the first National Kwanzaa Celebration. No whites were allowed. Solemnized with what the Atlanta Constitution called “none of the usual holiday hype,” Kwanzaa is a week-long black religious festival founded in 1966 by Maulana Karenga, a professor of black studies at Cal State Long Beach. Kwanzaa—Swahili for “first fruits”—is “a holiday created by Africans for Africans,” said Karenga, and it ran from December 26th to January 1st.
The sponsor of the Jekyll Island program was the National Black Wholistic Society, an organization that, in the words of its founder. Professor Haki Madhubuh of Chicago, seeks “to introduce our people to a way of life that’s not conflictual with the way of nature.” The society made sure, for example, that every meal had a vegetarian entree such as akara, mashed black-eyed peas baked in a patty, and that foods were cooked in the “way of nature,” such as sauteing collard greens in olive oil rather than salt pork. Speakers at the gathering, in addition to Karenga, included Professor Nain Akbar of Florida State University on “Spirit, Water: The Healing of Our African Souls” and psychiatrist Frances Cress Welsing of Washington, D.C., on “Building Families to Destroy White World Supremacy.”
The highlight was the “African Spiritual Reclamation Service,” an outdoor candlelight ceremony in honor of African ancestors. Participants asked the spirits of the dead “to feed us today,” said celebrant Chester Grundy, head of minority affairs at the University of Kentucky.
In Atlanta, there was a Kwanzaa parade through downtown and “standing-room only” for the celebrations, said Akbar Imohotep, director of the Metro-Atlanta Kwanzaa Association. At high schools, community centers, and churches, blacks celebrated the seven principles of Kwanzaa: umoja, racial unity; kujichagulia, racial self-determination; ujima, racial responsibility; ujamaa, racial economics; nia, racial restoration; kuumba, racial neighborhoods; and imani, ancestor worship.
The Kwanzaa creche, used for public and private devotions, has seven items: mazao, crops produced by collective agriculture; muhindi, an ear of corn for each child in the family; kikombe cha umoja, the “cup of racial unity” from which libations are poured for the ancestors; mkeka, a mat representing African traditions; kinara, a seven-branched candelabrum symbolizing ancestral Africans; mishumaa saha, seven candles for the seven principles of Kwanzaa; and zawadi, handmade gifts exchanged between parents and children.
Kwanzaa “should not be seen as a rejection of Christmas or Christianity,” said Professor Karenga. Rather, it makes sure that blacks “don’t have to adjust to a white man in a red suit or a white child in a manger.”