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Celebrating Kwanzaa in a troubled time | Opinion

In 2019, we still have a climate of religious and cultural intolerance.

Dolores Streater-Logan adjusts candles that represent the seven Kwanzaa principles.
Dolores Streater-Logan adjusts candles that represent the seven Kwanzaa principles.Read more

This is an important anniversary year for black people in the United States. It’s been 400 years since the first enslaved African landed in Jamestown, Virginia, in 1619.

That’s something to keep in mind during what will be the 53rd celebration of Kwanzaa, Dec. 26 to Jan. 1. The holiday overlaps with Hanukkah (Dec. 22 to 30) and comes on the heels of the more popular December holiday of Christmas.

I celebrate Kwanzaa (from Swahili, meaning “first fruits”), a holiday that honors family, community, and culture. My family and I have done so for decades. But I will do so this year knowing that the bigotry that allowed for the enslavement of blacks remains a vital force in America.

In 2019, we still have a climate of religious and cultural intolerance. I can sympathize with many others here who feel like outsiders.

Black people in the United States are still subject to discrimination, police abuse, and disproportionate treatment in the criminal justice system. Churches and synagogues are being attacked and worshipers killed. On Dec. 10, a kosher deli in New Jersey was attacked in what is believed to be a hate crime.

Like other holidays that are celebrated predominantly by people of color — such as Ramadan, Juneteenth, Holi, and Hispanic Heritage Month — Kwanzaa is often misunderstood. Because of its Swahili name and because it begins the day after Christmas, many folks think Kwanzaa is a religious holiday. Some refer to it as the “black Christmas.”

But Kwanzaa is a seven-day, Pan-African, secular holiday with cultural roots. Its origins are in the civil rights movement of the 1960s. But because of founder Maulana Karenga’s former ties to the United Slaves Organization, a black nationalist group, Kwanzaa is often pegged as being separatist and black nationalist. It is neither.

Over the decades, there have been quite a few non-African Americans present at our gatherings, and the atmosphere has been celebratory. People who are not of African descent are happy to be included because they often have family members or friends who participate.

Kwanzaa’s seven principles — unity, self-determination, collective work and responsibility, cooperative economics, purpose, creativity, and faith — are ones that many people, irrespective of background, can appreciate.

Millions of people, regardless of race or religion, now celebrate Kwanzaa worldwide.

But even as our communities become increasingly multicultural and cross-cultural, acceptance has diminished for those who don’t follow mainstream traditions around this time of year.

In this age of terror, particularly in the current political climate, we would all benefit to learn more about one another and to embody Kwanzaa’s ideals of happiness, unity, and peace.

“Habari gani” (“What’s the news?”) is the greeting used to start the celebration.

The response, in Swahili, are the seven principles, in order: Umija, Kujichagulia, Ujima, Ujamaa, Nia, Kuumba, and Imani.

Harambee! (Let’s pull together).

Kiki Monifa of Oakland, Calif., is editor-in-chief of This column was produced for the Progressive Media Project, which is run by the Progressive magazine, and distributed by Tribune News Service.