by Teresa Jennings

Kwanzaa is an African-American holiday that honors black people and their history. It was created in 1966 by Dr. Maulana Karenga to remind his people of their African beginnings. In creating it, he hoped to fashion a celebration that would teach history as it explored values and traditions that were important to the African-American people. The celebration is rich in symbols that help reinforce these values and traditions.

The celebration itself lasts from December 26 to January 1. Like Christmas and sometimes Hanukkah, Kwanzaa is celebrated at a time when your school will probably not be in session, so you will be sharing this tradition with your students before they actually celebrate it.

Just after the turn of the century, Marcus Garvey, an influential African-American leader, created a special flag called the bendera as a unifying symbol for black Americans. It consisted of three equal horizontal stripes: red, black and green (from top to bottom.) The red symbolized the long struggle for freedom and justice. The black in the center symbolized unity for black people, and the green symbolized the future. The bendera was an important influence on Dr. Karenga as he shaped the Kwanzaa celebration.

You will want to gather, purchase or make several of the symbols of Kwanzaa as you prepare to study and celebrate this holiday. They include:

  • - the mkeka (mm-KEH-kah), a woven place mat. It can be made from strips of paper or cloth in the Kwanzaa colors.
  • - the kikombe cha umoja (kee-KOM-beh chah oo-MOH-jah), or unity cup. In the traditional celebration, everyone drinks juice or other liquid from one large cup to symbolize staying together. School policies may require an adaptation of this practice.
  • - mazao (mah-ZAH-oh), the fruits and vegetables that symbolize the harvest, and in turn, all work
  • - muhindi (moo-HIN-dee), the corn, which represents children. You will need one ear of corn for each child.
  • - the kinara (kee-NAH-rah), or candle holder is at the heart of Kwanzaa. It holds seven candles. These are often made of wood or clay, and may be decorated with African designs or with other expressions of the craftsperson's creativity.
  • - mishumaa saba (mee-shoo-MAH SAH-bah), are the seven candles. From left to right there are three red candles, one black candle, and three green candles.
  • - zawadi (zah-WAH-dee), are the gifts for children. They are rewards for promises kept in the preceding year.

Many of the words tied to the Kwanzaa celebration are Swahili (swah-HEE-lee.) This special language is not native to any one ethnic group in Africa. Rather, it has become a common "trade language" and is often a second language spoken by many Africans all over the continent. It is basically a phonetic language, and it should be fairly easy to teach.

During the Kwanzaa celebration, one candle is lit each day, starting with the black candle, then the red and green candles closest to the center. With the lighting of each candle, the principle or goal for that day is discussed. (The Seven Principles are discussed in detail on the next page.)

So, how do you bring Kwanzaa to your students? Work with classroom and specialty teachers including your art teacher to decorate a part of the school or your classroom with the symbols of Kwanzaa. Start with a bulletin board, or with a table set with the symbols combined with a bulletin board that explains the principles and goals. If the holiday is new to your school (and administrators) you may need to point out that this is a secular holiday, and that the lessons taught are positive ones for children of all races and cultures.

Musically, you will want to use this new Kwanzaa song by Teresa Jennings. You can sing and play along with the authentic African percussion found on the tape, or use your own instruments to accompany this song. (See more suggestions on page 3.) In addition, you may wish to sing African folk songs (like "A Ram Sam Sam" in Music K-8 Vol. 4, No. 3), spirituals, and other songs tied to the heritage of African-Americans. Another programming approach may be to look for songs tied to the principles. For example, a song like "Together" (Music K-8 Vol. 5, No. 1) would be great to accompany your discussions of Unity.

Text is taken from Music K-8 magazine.