Los Angeles, CA (WGNO) — Kwanzaa was the direct answer to combat the over commercialization of the holiday season. During the time of the holiday’s conception, the African American community participated in fueling the economy economically, but received little monetary resources through government. In 1966, Maulana Karenga, created Kwanzaa in response to the Watts Riots and the outward turmoil of racism in the 1960’s.
While Kwanzaa is a relatively new holiday, it’s relevance is older than 1966. Cities like Charleston and New Orleans have unique cultural perspectives. They are part of a larger collection of global communities all around the world that are ancestrally part of the African Diaspora and the Trans-Atlantic Slave Trade.
The Amistad Research Center is a gem in the United States. It holds one of the largest collections of African American manuscripts and historical documents. It was founded in 1966 at Fisk University during the same year that Kwanzaa was founded by Mulana Karenga as the first pan-African holiday.
Phillip Cunningham is the Head of Research Services at the Amistad Research Center and says, “New Orleans still carries a lot of traditions and customs because of it’s connection with Africa. For a lot of Africans, this was the initial port of entry. We may of come from different places within Africa, we all have a shared cultural heritage and in some senses a shared struggle that unifies us.”
Asali DeVan Ecclesiastes is the Chief Equity Officer at the Ashé Cultural Arts Center and she knows the history of Kwanzaa well. While the holiday season is associated with adjectives that include “merry and bright,” during the years of American slavery, winter was especially difficult for enslaved individuals.
“The day after Christmas was an especially fraught time. People spent time with their families because between Christmas and New Years, families would be separated and children would be sold off. So that was the time to ground yourself in your principles, strength, spirituality. Kwanzaa is one of the many methods we created to lay claim to our ancestry, in the same tradition as Carnival and second lines here in New Orleans” says Ecclesiastes.
The Ashé Cultural Arts Center is perhaps the premiere Kwanzaa destination in the Big Easy, along with the Treme Center. Kwanza is a seven-day celebration festival that is rooted in Swahili principles that translate to: unity, self-determination, collective responsibility, cooperative economics, purpose, creativity and faith. During each day, homemade gifts are given and a candle is lit to reflect on a principle. At it’s heart, Kwanzaa is a nod to ancestral African celebrations that took place during harvest season. Kwanzaa begins the day after Christmas and ends at the first of the year.