What Kwanzaa Means to Black Americans—Now & Always

The weeklong holiday originated in the 1960s to celebrate the African diaspora in America, but has evolved from its origins as different Black communities embrace it.

December 21, 2021
Photo by Star Tribune via Getty Images / Contributor

When National Museum of African American History and Culture oral history museum specialist Kelly Elaine Navies celebrated Kwanzaa while growing up in the Bay Area, food was always the center of the celebration.

“Having a feast—you're celebrating the culture and the diversity of African culture throughout the world,” said Navies.

Her memories ring true of the estimated millions of people who celebrate Kwanzaa in the United States and around the world. An American holiday in its origins, Kwanzaa is a celebration of African American history and heritage, celebrated through gift-giving, nightly candle lighting, and, of course, food.

“I always saw Kwanzaa celebrations as really warm, love-filled celebrations of African community and culture,” said Navies. “I have a lot of warm memories of visiting people for Kwanzaa, and large gatherings, delicious food—always delicious food—music, and poetry.”

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“I like the seven principles of Kwanzaa—Umoja (Unity); Kujichagulia (Self-Determination); Ujima (Collective Work and Responsibility); Ujamaa (Cooperative Economics); Nia (Purpose); Kuumba (Creativity); and Imani (Faith). America is a melting pot of ethnicity, my dream is some day all will be honored. ”
— barbiek

A secular holiday in its nature, Kwanzaa welcomes Black Americans from all religious beliefs, and is represented by pan-African colors: green, black, and red. With roots in California, Kwanzaa is deeply intertwined in ideas of Black liberation. Many people involved in the Black consciousness movement of the 1960s and 1970s, like Navies’ father, an African American Studies professor, fashioned and developed celebrations within their communities. The holiday begins on December 26 and culminates in the communal feast called Karamu, a potluck dinner that Navies says features various dishes of the African diaspora. But food is an integral part of every day of the celebration.

“One of the ideas of Kwanzaa is to celebrate the African diaspora and the culture of the African diaspora, so food, of course, is a feature of that celebration,” said Navies. “Primarily, you would see food from West Africa, not necessarily the entire continent, although food from the entire continent would be welcomed. I think because of our orientation here in America, we tend to identify most strongly with West Africa.”

Because most African Americans have ancestral roots in West and Central Africa, African American foodways have strong ties to West African culinary traditions. These roots show up in one-pot rice dishes like red rice and jambalaya, which are connected to West African jollof rice, and in soups and stews, like okra stew. Author and historian Dr. Jessica B. Harris was one of the first major food scholars to examine the role of food in Kwanzaa celebrations, and how it can be a tool for Black Americans to connect with their African heritage and reimagine their future in the United States. Her book, A Kwanzaa Keepsake: Celebrating the Holiday with New Traditions and Feasts, published in 1998, was a foremost text for Black Americans seeking to craft their own traditions and memories. In it, Dr. Harris provides a guidebook for those interested in developing more culturally rooted holiday celebrations, and recipes for each day of the week. Recipes like red snapper fillets in Creole court bouillon, carrots with ginger, and Moroccan-style grilled pepper salad speak to diversity of food within the African diaspora, while holiday gingerbread with molasses whipped cream, caramelized ripe plantains, and deep-dish apple cobbler add to the sweetness of the holiday season. The cookbook serves as a tool to ground African Americans in their unchosen home.

“I think that by sharing who we [African Americans] are, by sharing our festivities, we're talking about a reality that's very different from other realities,” said Dr. Harris. “Whatever we might think, this is it. This is what we got. This is home. Kwanzaa becomes a way of anchoring ourselves, of settling, celebrating ourselves, and connecting ourselves within this strange place that is home.”

Kwanzaa, a term derived from the Swahili word kwanza, which means “first,” was initially celebrated in 1966. The holiday is rooted in a recognition of the beginning of West and Southeast Africa’s harvest season, when the first group of crops are gathered. The holiday was also created during the aftermath of the Watts riots in Los Angeles, one of many uprisings aimed at speaking out against racial injustice during the Civil Rights Movement. It is, according to Navies, a unique opportunity for reflection, love, and celebration of the heart and soul of the Black American community.

“Food represents when you come together and you eat in community,” said Navies. “You're celebrating that you're there, that you have survived. You're celebrating abundance, the fact that you have food to eat. You're giving yourself space to give thanks for those that came before, and to look ahead to the future.”

To this day, the seven-day holiday, which honors the seven principles of Kwanzaa—Umoja (Unity); Kujichagulia (Self-Determination); Ujima (Collective Work and Responsibility); Ujamaa (Cooperative Economics); Nia (Purpose); Kuumba (Creativity); and Imani (Faith)—takes on many forms, many of which become apparent through food.

“Breaking bread in community is a very important feature of Kwanzaa; it reinforces the seven principles of Kwanzaa,” said Navies. “That’s why it's so important that you sit and share food with your community, to reinforce whichever principle you're highlighting on that particular evening. But also the food itself represents the work that people have put in to bring prosperity to the table, and the work that needs to be done.”

For Navies, childhood memories included enjoying traditional foods like collard greens, a staple dish in Black American foodways. They also gave Navies a chance to engage with West African food traditions. The first time she tried jollof rice and fufu was during a Kwanzaa celebration. “This was the first time I was ever exposed to those particular dishes,” Navies recalled. “That was significant for me.”

Dr. Harris, who first started celebrating Kwanzaa during the 1990s, played a key role in bringing Kwanzaa to her New York community.

“In the 90s, when I was teaching, I, for a decade or more, was the officiant at the Kwanzaa that was held for faculty at my school. I was very much involved in an annual Kwanzaa celebration with the community that was not only the African American community, but the faculty and staff at large of Queens College CUNY in New York.”

Since the holiday is just over 50 years old, there’s no one way to celebrate. As Kwanzaa resurges in popularity amid a growing desire to more deeply connect with Black heritage among African Americans, families and youth are finding their own ways to approach the holiday—a reality that keeps Dr. Harris hopeful.

“I think one of the things that has happened, and that is more than likely going to continue to happen is, as we find a generation of young people who are crafting a new aesthetic, a new way of being African American," Dr. Harris said. "The whole idea of a search for a creation of places, whether they be real or imagined—I think Kwanzaa is becoming a part of that or has the potential to become a part of that, because it allows us to express our ourselves, our ‘otherness,’ and to celebrate ourselves and our otherness in other kinds of ways.”

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Kayla Stewart

Written by: Kayla Stewart

Kayla Stewart is an award-winning food and travel writer.


Solar A. December 26, 2021
I too am of mixed heritage, by way of my paternal Sicilian ancestors, from the Moors of Northern Africa to those Early Christians, Jews, Islamists from East Africa from what is now Kenya, Ethiopia, Eritrea, parts of the Sudan and Somalia. I take great pride in my diverse and culturally-mixed heritage, instead of feeling ashamed or embarrassed. My father and mother always instilled in us to be proud of not just who we are as a people, but where we came from to start with. Before the pandemic of 2020, I had the opportunity to visit both Italy and Sicily, chatting away in Sicilianu to some of the Arabs who worked along the docks over a cup of tea and a local pastry bread. Most of them worked alongside as fishermen, dockworkers, etc. I felt in some way a strong connection with these people and it made me feel good inside. I imagine what a thrill I might have should I visit some of the countries of my African ancestors; eating, dancing, singing. I'm not afraid to call them and other peoples of various nations, tribes, etc. as my brothers and sisters. I've sampled some African-styled and influenced cooking and I must say I loved it! If I were to be invited by one of my neighbors to celebrate Kwanzaa, I would find that a great honor and a means to tap even further of my African roots.
Diana K. December 26, 2021
We are a mixed race family. Does this holiday only focus on Afro Americans?
CAndreaW December 28, 2021
It focuses on African peoples and Africa as a whole, but practice of the 7 principles can apply to everyone. Anyone can and should observe this holiday as it is very introspective…
Cindy G. December 26, 2021
What a talented author Ms. Stewart is! I learned a lot, and would be glad to read more of her work! She is respectful and insightful in her approach to explaining this rich celebration!
Jacqueline December 26, 2021
Thank you so much for this thoughtful article. I’ve been exploring ways food connects us to our ancestors and to imagining liberative futures. This article was so beautiful and heartening. Thank you! <3
Gypzi December 26, 2021
What a great article. I often feel disconnected from my heritage and out-of-place, culturally, as a mixed race American. Reconnecting thru food makes a holiday I'd be thrilled to celebrate.
lianifoster December 24, 2021
Hello all: It is my understanding as young man from the 60s-70s Ron Kaginga created the holiday. What is your understanding?
barbiek December 23, 2021
What a great way to keep the holidays going. America is a melting pot of ethnicity, all should be celebrated! My family roots go back to immigration in the 1930's from Central Europe. My grandfathers both came to America then, we have few relatives to celebrate with. I feel connected to others through other nationalities ethnic celebrations. I like the seven principles of Kwanzaa—Umoja (Unity); Kujichagulia (Self-Determination); Ujima (Collective Work and Responsibility); Ujamaa (Cooperative Economics); Nia (Purpose); Kuumba (Creativity); and Imani (Faith). America is a melting pot of ethnicity, my dream is some day all will be honored.
Caitlin G. December 22, 2021
Great story. Dreaming about gingerbread with molasses whipped cream...