1966: The First Kwanzaa Is Celebrated In Long Beach, California

Culture | December 26, 2019

Left: On August 16, 1965, two African-American men hold their hands up against the wall of a dry cleaners while being arrested by Caucasian state troopers during the Watts race riots. Right: Fruits and vegetables in a Kwanzaa celebration. Sources: Hulton

Where did Kwanzaa come from? In 1965, while black Americans' struggle for Civil Rights was front page news, race riots broke out in the Los Angeles neighborhood of Watts. Dr. Maulana Karenga was troubled by Watts; he saw that, despite the progress being made by Martin Luther King, Jr., many black Americans were in a deep despair. Looting your own neighborhood and stealing from your neighbors is a nihilistic act. Karenga devised a holiday based on pan-African harvest festivals, and it was first celebrated on December 26, 1966, in Long Beach, California.

More About Those Riots

Atermath of the Watts riots, which helped to incite the creation of Kwanzaa. Source: (wikipedia)

On August 11, 1965, police pulled over an African American driver for reckless driving, Marquette Frye. An argument ensued with the driver, who was on parole for robbery, and during the argument, a pregnant woman was injured. This incited the Watts riots, six days of unrest in Watts, a predominantly African American neighborhood in Los Angeles. To quell the riots, the Los Angeles police chief called in the National Guard, and they instituted a curfew and a policy of mass arrest. By the time the riots had ended on August 16, 34 people were dead, 1,000 people were injured, and there was $40 million worth of property damage.

Healing After The Riots

The candles of Kwanzaa. Source: (metroweekly.com)

Dr. Maulana Karenga, a former black activist and chair of African studies at California State University at Long Beach, was deeply disturbed by the aftermath and the racial tension during that time; he wanted to find a way to bring healing to the community. He founded Us (short for "Us black people") and started to explore African culture to find practices that may help to empower the African American community. He developed Kwanzaa as a nonreligious holiday to celebrate family and community. To create Kwanzaa, Karenga drew on elements from African harvest celebrations. The name of the holiday comes from the Swahili phrase, matunda ya kwanzaa, meaning “first fruits.”

Elements Of The Celebration

Dancing at the American Museum of Natural History. Source: (6sqft.com)

While each family celebrates the holiday in different ways, each celebration has common elements, including songs, dancing, African drums, poetry, and storytelling. The holiday lasts seven days, and on each night, a child lights one of the candles on the kinara, a candleholder. One of the seven principles is discussed. Each day, participants greet each other with “habari gani?” and the answer is in Swahili, a specific word referring to the principle being discussed that day. These principles or values are called the Nguzo Saba and include unity, self-determination, collective work and responsibility, economic cooperation, purpose, creativity, and faith. On December 31, a Karamu, an African feast, is held. It ends on the first day of the new year, a day for looking back at the difficulties and triumphs of the past year and forward to the next.

Symbols, Colors, And The Number Seven

The Unity cup. Source: (HGTV)

The official colors of Kwanzaa have symbolic meaning: black for the people, red for their noble blood uniting all people of African ancestry, and green for Africa. The number seven is also significant in the celebration. The name of the holiday is spelled with seven letters, the holiday is celebrated for seven days, there are seven principles, and seven symbols. The symbols are Mazao, the crops, Mkeka (the mat), Kinara (the candle holder), Mishuma (the seven candles), Kikombe cha Umoja (the unity cup), Muhindi (the corn), and Zawadi (the gifts). The gifts are one of the symbols of Kwanzaa and they are given mainly to children. They must include a book and a heritage symbol. These gifts emphasize a commitment to learning and a connection to the traditions and history of Africa.

Kwanzaa Becomes A More Widespread Celebration

Source: (charlestoncitypaper)

While it has its roots in African culture, everyone is invited to join in and it has been celebrated by people like Angelina Jolie. While the holiday is mostly an American holiday, it is also celebrated in Canada and the Caribbean.

The Postal Service Recognizes The Holiday

The first Kwanzaa stamp. Source: (mysticstampcompany.com)

The US Postal Service issued its first stamp commemorating Kwanzaa in 1997, designed by Synthia Saint James. A total of 133 million stamps with this design were produced that year.

Tags: Kwanzaa | Maulana Karenga | The Civil Rights Movement | Watts

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Cyn Felthousen-Post


Cyn loves history, music, Irish dancing, college football and nature. Social media is also her thing, keeping up with trends and celebrities with positive news. She can be found outside walking or hiking with her son when she's not working. Carpe diem is her fave quote, get out there and seize the day!