This year, more than any other in my recent memory, folk have been talking about Kwanzaa. Some of the talk has been breezy and some contemplative. Either way, the talk has sparked some lively debate amongst my “fb fam” with passionate responses coming from both sides of the coin, but it has also prompted others to privately and publicly ask me general questions about the African-American holiday simply bc they don’t understand it. As old as the tradition is, it has only gained a larger mainstream following in the last maybe 10 years. Lots of folk who didn’t grow up with “progressive” parents or didn’t make a switch in college just don’t know. So I decided to break it down using a medium that my fellow bredren are most familiar with – movies.

See, Kwanzaa is all about African-Americans setting aside time to celebrate and uplift our own community. It was NEVER meant to be a Black Christmas. In fact, each principle and the activities attached to them are the antithesis of what America and most of the world have made of Christmas. Kwanzaa wasn’t created as a marketing ploy to get black people to keep shopping (yes, I’ve heard that one before), although like Christmas it is being commodified more and more each year.

However, the principles still stand for our community. They still represent our greatest aspirations for ourselves and our brothers and sisters.

So in the spirit of the Nguzo Saba, here is my attempt to make it plain:

Umoja – Unity:
To strive for and to maintain unity in the family, community, nation, and race.

This one is simple. It’s the first thing black folk say whenever something goes down whether it’s in the club or at the family reunion “black folk can’t never stick together.” Not true. As exhibited in this scene from the movie “Life” starring Martin Lawrence and Eddie Murphy. In this scene the white warden is trying to figure out which black inmate has “knocked up” his lily-white daughter as evidenced by the brown baby she gave birth to and each of the men take responsibility to protect the real father. If this ain’t unity…

Kujichagulia – Self Determination:
To define ourselves, name ourselves, create for ourselves, and speak for ourselves; to stand up.

Whenever I’m explaining Kwanzaa to someone I always wish I could make this one next to last. Like, day one, Umoja eases you in and then day two hits you over the head, BAM! But like my grandaddy used to admonish whenever he smelled procrastination or laziness in the air “you see what’s going on in the world? Ni&&as ain’t got time for games!” So, it’s pronounced Kuji-chag-ulia (or CoogiChug Aaliyah if that helps more.) And it’s my favorite principle actually. All broken down it means if you want to name your baby La’shaunt’quavia ZhaNashay Davis – do that. Although traditionally, Kwanzaa strongly embraces African centered practices, there is something to be said about the creativity and distinct nature of new black baby names – you know they are ours that’s for sure. The point is, they came from us, from our community. We created it and claim it, like jazz or hip-hop or afros or locs, no matter how it’s co-opted and manipulated at its core it’s from Us. No other scene in a black movie (except maybe this one) defines Kujichagulia as plainly as this one from Roots. It’s classic, but everyone, especially 80s babies, haven’t scene it. What’s happening here is Kunta Kinte, a central character in the movie, has been captured and enslaved and is now being “broken” and prepared for working on the plantation. His captor in this scene is attempting to give him a new name and take away his African identity altogether but Kunta is defiant:

Ujima – Collective Work & Responsibility:
To build and maintain our community together and make our brothers’ and sisters’ problems our problems, and to solve them together.

Am I my brother’s keeper?” – in a word, “yes.” (but not like in that clip) When I first started organizing one of my elders used to say to us all of the time (paraphrasing from Frantz Fanon) that you have to take folk from where they were. She would say, “If you have something to eat and your neighbor doesn’t – then it’s just like you don’t – our problems are all of ours together.” That is the core of collective work and responsibility. I also grew up singing a song that had these lyrics: “I want to lift my brother up he is not heavy, I want to lift my sister up she is not heavy, I want to lift my people up they are not heavy. If I don’t lift them up…I will fall down.” Again, that makes it plain. In this country that was built of the principle of “climbing ladders” but not “lifting as we climb” it’s very easy to get caught up in the competition of it all. But, it’s not in our tradition not to help each other. Philanthropy is ingrained in our DNA because of the times when “we” were all we had.
In one of my all time favorite movies, The Wiz, we see a great display of Ujima from beginning to end. Dorothy, played by Diana Ross picks up the Scarecrow, played by Michael Jackson and offers that the Wiz could likely help him find a brain, they go on to pick up the Tin Man, played by Nipsy Russell and bring him along to get a heart and round out the group with “the mean Ole’ Lion,” played by Ted Ross who needs some courage. They stick together until the end, they sacrifice for each other, when they have an out and a chance to separate they do not and in the end when each of the brothers get their individual needs satisfied they aren’t satisfied until Dorothy is also cared for. Her problems are their problems. There is no one clip that illustrates this most (that I could find on youtube) but this is a good one still. They don’t just share their new-found freedom with each other…they spread the joy with others who have been oppressed:

Ujamaa – Cooperative Economics
To build and maintain our own stores, shops, and other businesses and to profit from them together.

This could be simplified as “Buy Black” but it’s more than that. Go out of your way to support black businesses. Help to bring Black businesses into your community. Do not support businesses that are not in the best interest of the black community. And, help support cooperative businesses that uplift and support the people with the least in our communities.
People, Black folk more specifically, always wrinkle their noses or roll their eyes when I start talking about finding black businesses. I don’t care it’s important to me. My doctors are black, my dentist is black, my dry cleaner (was black, my bad I’ve been lazy about finding a black one in Philly), my mechanic, etc…

When I moved to Philly it took me about two months to find all of the services I needed from Black people – but I did for the most part and THAT’S what Ujamaa is all about. I thought about using this other movie at first but figured it wasn’t really appropriate. Then I thought about “Do the Right Thing” and this scene where Buggin’ Out asks Sal the owner of the pizza shop why there aren’t brothas on the wall and Sal explains in great detail why he decidedly does not and WILL NOT put any up. The gist of what Buggin’ Out is talking about is exactly why we need to practice Cooperative Economics. Waaaaaaaaake Up!!!!!

Nia – Purpose
To make our collective vocation the building and developing of our community in order to restore our people to their traditional greatness.

So this one is a bit broad, but in a good way. We have a lot of things in our community that need to be rebuilt, repaired or renewed. And if the last three years under our first Black president have shown us anything – it’s definitely that we are on our own out here. As the great June Jordan (not Barack Obama) famously said “We are the ones we’ve been waiting for.” That means that our purpose, as a people, regardless of what path your life takes you on personally, has to be rooted in uplifting our community — more specifically to making the lives of Black people better in some way. So be a teacher or be a farmer; be a dancer or be a phlebotomist – but either directly through your career or some how in your life – work toward making the lives of Black people (and other people of color) better. Is it hard? Could be. Or it could be simple. Your contribution is your decision. But have one.

I chose this scene from “The Color Purple” my all time favorite movie. I could really pull every single principle out of this one movie – and I actually started to. I hope most of you have seen this movie so I don’t have to go into too much detail, but in this scene Celie, played by Whoopie Goldberg is reunited with her sister Nettie, played by Akosua Busia after many, many years and after thinking that she would never see her again. Their reunion is only able to happen because of the work of Celie’s ex-husband, Mister, played by Danny Glover, who was responsible for their separation in the first place and who had beaten and tormented Celie for years. I feel like this contribution from Mister was the defining moment in his life – he had found his purpose. You might think it’s a stretch, but I think it’s an example of the best way for us to build real community – with intention, one person at a time.

Kuumba – Creativity
To do always as much as we can, in the way we can, in order to leave our community more beautiful and beneficial than we inherited it.

This is probably the most often misunderstood of all of the principles and that’s understandable. While it does mean that we should be creative in the traditional sense of arts and culture. It also means that we have to be creative in the ways in which we problem solve and deal with the challenges we face in our community (at least that’s what I was taught.) As a people, we exhibit a lot of ingenuity in our day-to-day lives. From “robbing peter to pay paul” to inventing things to make our lives easier.

This principle always reminds me to celebrates not just the genius and cleverness in our community, but the ways in which we come together to “take what we have and make what we need” which is another one of my “elder-isms.” My disclaimer here is that the two scenes I wanted to show I just couldn’t find. The first was the picnic scene from the movie “Uptown Saturday Night” with Bill Cosby, Sidney Poitier and Harry Belafonte among a number of our favorite black actors and the second was the social worker scene from “Claudine” starring Dianne Carroll and James Earl Jones. If you haven’t seen either – make a point to – they are both GREAT films. In the end it was either the scene from Sister Act where the kids clean up the neighborhood or this one from The Women of Brewster’s Place – it is a TERRIBLE copy – but, either way, I think you all get it, right?

Imani – Faith
To believe with all our heart in our people, our parents, our teachers, our leaders, and the righteousness and victory of our struggle.

Contrary to popular belief, this principle is not so much about believing in God as it about us believing in each other. But, we are a spiritual, not religious, people by nature. For many African-Americans our faith in God is what fuels our faith in each other and mankind for that matter. This principle is about what our faith in general is about. In Christianity it tells us, “Faith is the substance of things hoped for and the evidence of things not seen.” Islam says, “Verily Man is in loss, except such as have Faith, and do righteous deeds, and join together in the mutual teaching of Truth, and of Patience and Constancy.” There are similar sentiments about faith in Yoruba, Judaism and many other religions practices by Black people – because it is what carries us. Imani is about us vowing to ourselves to always search for the best part of other black folk. We may be disappointed with each other in our heads but we can’t give up on one another in our hearts.

I tried not to use the same movie twice, I really did, but I just couldn’t help it – these are the movies that came to mind first. Besides, I already told ya’ll that it’s my favorite :). This scene from “The Color Purple” is the perfect display of Imani/Faith both in the more “traditional” sense as in worshiping God and in the communal sense as in “not giving up on each other.” In this clip, Shug Avery, is performing in the local Juke Joint on a Sunday morning and is interrupted by the sounds coming from the choir in her father’s church nearby. Shug, whose father had long since turned his back on her for her “worldly ways,” proceeds to march to the church and show her father that “sinner’s have soul too.” (get your tissues)

And that’s it! Those are all of the principles. The Nguzu Saba is what they are called.

See, it’s not that hard of a concept to grasp, right? And if so, I hope I made it a little easier. I have actually been slacking on my Kwanzaa in the last several years, so this post was for me too. I needed to be reminded about the things I love the most about the holiday – Black folk. I love black people and I love everything about being black and ANY excuse to celebrate and uplift black folk is alright with me.

For more information about how to traditionally celebrate Kwanzaa check out this website:

But you should note, even if you don’t feel comfortable going through the seven-day practice (after you’ve tried it at least once) that’s cool – no one is judging you or snatching your “black card.” But, if you never light another kinara or pour a libation, you can still embrace the principles of Kwanzaa in your life and the life of your children and community.

Harambee good people!