December 13, 2021
Many holidays are celebrated across the U.S. in December. Two of the most prominent ones are Christmas and Hanukkah. Another holiday celebrated by millions in the U.S. and around the world is Kwanzaa, a weeklong celebration of Black and African American culture and community. Despite being a mainstream holiday, its traditions have slowly faded over the years. However, some people are looking to revive the holiday and spread its history for others to understand and even celebrate. One of those people is Lawrielle West, a Black Detroiter who founded KwanzaaMe, a one-stop-shop for all things Kwanzaa.
Kwanzaa was first celebrated in 1966 following racial unrest in Los Angeles, California, where a community protested police brutality and poverty. According to National Geographic, an activist and leader in the social justice movement, Maulanga Karenga, founded the US Organization to help rebuild the California neighborhood and “promote a Black cultural revolution that would inspire pride in Black history and achievements.” Out of that community restoration and collaboration came the desire to create a holiday for Black and African Americans to honor their African roots and get closer to their culture.
Thus, came Kwanza. Its name is derived from the Swahili word that means “first.” It was inspired by the annual December harvests in Africa when communities come together to celebrate their hard work and celebrate family, community, and culture. Kwanzaa is celebrated from Dec. 26 to Jan. 1, and typically includes gift exchanges, feasts, and candle lightings to honor ancestors of the African Diaspora and their hopes for the future.
It has several symbols, including:
Three red, one black, and three green candles, or Mishumaa Saba, are also a symbol of Kwanzaa as they represent various elements of the African diaspora, as well as the seven holiday principles, including unity (Umoja), self-determination (Kujichagulia), collective work and responsibility (Ujima), cooperative economics (Ujamaa), purpose (Nia), creativity (Kuumba), and faith (Imani).
The black candle represents people of all African descent; the red candles represent the blood of African Diaspora ancestors; and the green candles represent Earth, life, and the promise of the future. According to the official Kwanzaa website, the candles are lit in the order of black first, then alternating red and green to indicate that “the people come first, then the struggle, and then the hope that comes from the struggle.”
On each day of Kwanzaa, before lighting the candle, celebrants greet one another with “Habari Gani,” a Swahili phrase that means “What’s the news?” and respond with the principal of the day.
Today, many people still celebrate Kwanzaa. According to USA Today, in 2019, 2.9% of people who planned to celebrate a winter holiday also said they would celebrate it. This number is anticipated to increase following the racial unrest over the past couple of years, with more people anticipated to reconnect to the Black and African American weeklong celebration.
West’s online shop, KwanzaaMe, will help Detroiters and others across the country do that. She hopes her shop makes it easy for them to reconnect with Kwanzaa by providing custom and traditional Kwanzaa kits for first-time and recurring celebrators, full of everything one needs to celebrate.
Providing easy access to Kwanzaa items is important for West because she understands the frustration of being unable to find them. Her difficult experience finding a kinara inspired her to open KwanzaaMe. So instead of continuing to struggle, West decided to combine her background in community organizing and skills in woodworking to make and sell custom kinaras to Detroiters who were also looking to celebrate the winter holiday.
“KwanzaaMe is a way for me to shift my passion about uniting people, but just in a different way,” West said in an interview with Detroit Metro Times. “Struggling and fighting for our freedom doesn’t always have to include struggling, but also celebration and joy, and other ways that we can be committed to each other and our growth.”
Although KwanzaaMe has expanded to provide Kwanzaa essentials to anyone who wants it across the country, West keeps the shop’s Detroit roots by merging the common Detroiter greeter with the Swahili greeting: Habari Gani, Waddup Doe. The KwanzaaMe site states this “unique KwanzaaMe phrase [reflects] our Detroit and African roots.”
All KwanzaaMe items are handmade, ranging from individual candles to Kwanzaa Kits, including a kinara, candles, unity cup, and celebration guide. Learn more and order your Kwanzaa items on kwanzaame.com/shop.
Written by Krishaun Burns, Let’s Detroit