Maulana Karenga


In 1965, a riot broke out in the predominantly black neighborhood of Watts in Los Angeles, California. It left 34 people dead, 1,000 injured, and $40 million worth of property destroyed. Maulana Karenga, activist and the chair of Black Studies at California State University at Long Beach, was deeply disturbed by the devastation as well as the deep despair that gripped the African American community.

Karenga looked to Africa in search of practices and concepts that might restore confidence to the community. Inspired by Africa’s harvest celebrations, he decided to develop a nonreligious holiday that would stress the importance of family and community while giving African Americans an opportunity to explore their ancestral identities.

The result: Kwanzaa, a word derived from the phrase matunda ya kwanza, which means “first fruits” in Swahili. The first Kwanzaa celebration kicked off in Los Angeles on 26 December 1966.

On each of the seven nights of Kwanzaa, family members gather and a child lights one of the candles on the kinara, or candleholder, then one of seven principles is discussed. Called the Nguzo Saba, they are values of African culture that contribute to building and reinforcing community: unity, self-determination, collective work and responsibility, economic cooperation, purpose, creativity, and faith. A feast, called a Karamu, is held on the 6th night, December 31st.

Today, Kwanzaa is celebrated by millions of people of African descent all across the United States and Canada. And all because Maulana Karenga sought to rekindle the pride he felt in his community’s cultural legacy — and feared was under threat of loss.

If you want to quickly, go alone. If you want to go far, go together.
— African Proverb

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