In 1966, Ron Karenga (also known as Ron Everett and
as Maulana Karenga) created Kwanzaa as the first specifically African American
holiday. Although the historical Juneteenth African American holiday had been
celebrated since 1867, Karenga said his goal was to "give Blacks an alternative
to the existing holiday and give Blacks an opportunity to celebrate themselves
and history, rather than simply imitate the practice of the dominant society."
The name Kwanzaa derives from the Swahili phrase matunda ya kwanza, meaning
first fruits of the harvest. The choice of Swahili, an East African language,
reflects its status as a symbol of Pan-Africanism, especially in the 1960s.
Kwanzaa is a celebration that has its
roots in the black nationalist movement of the 1960s, and was established as
a means to help African Americans reconnect with their African cultural and
historical heritage by uniting in meditation and study of African traditions
and common humanist principles.
Kwanzaa was first celebrated in December
1966 and January 1967. The holiday was proposed by Maulana Karenga to give those
of African descent a holiday to celebrate their own cultural heritage and the
key values of family and community. Although seen as an alternative to Christmas
and thus possibly anti-Christian in the early years, many people now observe
aspects of both festivals.
In 1997 and 2004, the United States Postal
Service honored Kwanzaa by issuing stamps depicting an aspect of the festival.
In 1997, the stamp was designed by Synthia Saint James and showed an African-American
family observing the celebrations. In 2004, the stamp was designed by Daniel
Minter and shows seven figures representing the seven principles of Kwanzaa.
Kwanzaa gained popularity quite quickly. It is now estimated that about 13 percent
of African-Americans (nearly five million people) celebrate the festival in
The first Kwanzaa stamp was issued by
the United States Postal Service on October 22, 1997, with artwork by Synthia
Saint James. In 2004, a second Kwanzaa stamp, designed by Daniel Minter, was
issued; this has seven figures in colorful robes symbolizing the seven principles.
During the early years of Kwanzaa, Karenga
said that it was meant to be an alternative to Christmas, that Jesus was psychotic,
and that Christianity was a white religion that black people should shun. However,
as Kwanzaa gained mainstream adherents, Karenga altered his position so that
practicing Christians would not be alienated, then stating in the 1997 Kwanzaa:
A Celebration of Family, Community, and Culture, "Kwanzaa was not created
to give people an alternative to their own religion or religious holiday."
The origins of Kwanzaa are not secret
and are openly acknowledged by those promoting the holiday. Many Christian African
Americans who celebrate Kwanzaa do so in addition to observing Christmas.