Arts All for one

Kwanzaa is a pan-African-American celebration, but Africa is a panoply

Kwanzaa has gained prominence among the multi-cultural holiday expressions and greetings circulating in recent years. It’s not difficult to find “Happy Kwanzaa” cards at your local Hallmark store, and most bookstores carry at least a few titles on the subject. With the release of the official Kwanzaa U.S. postage stamp in 1997, the secular, pan-African celebration of family, community, and culture joined ranks with Islam’s Eid and Judaism’s Hanukkah as a significant, legitimate cultural holiday in the eyes of the Postal Service. As dubious an affirmation as that may be, it does bring cursory awareness to a celebration little-known outside of the African-American community, especially in places like San Antonio with relatively small African-American populations. Still, the question remains: What exactly is Kwanzaa?

The Chuck Davis and the African American Dance Ensemble performance was energetic, even downright athletic at points, and filled with good wishes and positive messages.

Simply stated, Kwanzaa is a celebration of African roots and identity that takes place December 26-January 1. During the seven days of Kwanzaa, people gather, typically in the home, to recommit themselves to the values of family, community, and cultural awareness. The essence of Kwanzaa is embodied in seven principles—the Nguzo Saba—which create a paradigm for positive, culturally minded, conscious living. The principles are Umoja (unity), Kujichagulia (self-determination), Ujima (collective work and responsibility), Ujama (cooperative economics), Nia (purpose), Kuumba (creativity), and Imani (faith). The personal and collective aspects of these principles are observed as each is discussed in turn over the seven days of Kwanzaa.

Symbolic objects serve as a focal point for the celebration, such as candles representing each principle, ears of corn for each child in the household, a communal libation cup, and a special candleholder. There are specific greetings for each day, and gifts are given, especially to children, to reinforce the seven principles. Part of the celebration involves honoring elders, and a special effort is made to engage children in the celebrations to learn about their African roots, their history, their ancestors, and the positive impact they can and should carry in the community.

The non-religious ritual was developed and first observed in 1966 by scholar and activist Dr. Maulana Karenga, previously known as Ron Everett, one of the leaders of the 1960s militant Black Power movement. After serving time in prison in the late 1960s, by 1980 Karenga had joined the faculty of the Department of Black Studies at California State University, Long Beach, a position he still holds while maintaining an active role in numerous social and academic movements and liberation fronts.

Karenga created Kwanzaa from an amalgam of African harvest festivals, distilling what he considered the core values into a coherent philosophy. Two of his books, Kwanzaa: A Celebration of Family, Community and Culture, and Kawaida: A Communitarian African Philosophy, deal specifically with the philosophy and practice of the Nguzo Saba. Despite his checkered past, Karenga is “an author and scholar-activist who stresses the indispensable need to preserve, continually revitalize and promote African-American culture,” according to the In keeping with that positive impulse, Kwanzaa maintains an active following by African Americans intent on keeping true to their roots and inspiring their children to become active, creative, fully aware and conscientious members of the community.

But what exactly is African-American culture? Indeed, what is African culture?

These are important questions for Kwanzaa, and they were called into question at the Carver’s pre-Kwanzaa performance and workshop with Chuck Davis and the African American Dance Ensemble. The Friday evening performance was energetic, even downright athletic at points, and filled with good wishes and positive messages. With the long-standing Company motto “Peace, love, respect for everybody,” the Saturday dance and drumming workshop reinforced Kwanzaa principles beautifully.

Davis, founder of the Chuck Davis Dance Company, considered one of the nation’s leading Afro-American dance companies, is respected as a dancer and choreographer. As a character, he’s irresistible. Funny, charming, and a stranger to no one, he’s traveled to Africa every year since 1977 to study the traditional music and dance styles of the world’s second-largest continent. With all due respect for his knowledge and experience, I must admit I expected more from the program.

Much of the performance was a hodge-podge of elements from various traditions, presented as authentic, traditional African dance. As someone who has studied a bit of African music and culture, I question the value of an African amalgam. One can only hear the phrase “in African tradition” so many times before asking, “WHICH African tradition?” Africa is a vast continent, with innumerable ethnic, linguistic, and cultural distinctions. Perhaps I’m too sensitive, but the indiscriminate blending of dance styles, costumes, and traditions left me with the same uneasy feeling of watching staged “African rituals” in early Hollywood jungle movies. Incorporating traditional elements into a larger, contemporary dance context is one thing. Presenting an amalgam as “tradition,” without reference to the specific components, just feels synthetic.

Is the whole notion of Kwanzaa synthetic? Yes, it was contrived by an individual from an amalgam of various, culturally specific tenets. It was not an organic, traditional practice. However, the sentiment and values promoted by Kwanzaa are particularly relevant in today’s multi-cultural and fragmented society. Public Kwanzaa celebrations are not a big part of San Antonio’s cultural scene and, frankly, not particularly relevant to the personal, family-oriented observance of Kwanzaa. Ultimately, it is in the homes and hearts of its practitioners that Kwanzaa finds its organic logic and meaning.

By Diana Roberts


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