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‘Understand the principles and live them’: How Utahns celebrate Kwanzaa

The seven principles of Kwanzaa are Umoja (unity), Kujichagulia (self-determination), Ujima (collective work and responsibility), Ujamaa (cooperative economics), Nia (purpose), Kuumba (creativity) and Imani (faith).
Elena Dy
Getty Images/iStockphoto
The seven principles of Kwanzaa are Umoja (unity), Kujichagulia (self-determination), Ujima (collective work and responsibility), Ujamaa (cooperative economics), Nia (purpose), Kuumba (creativity) and Imani (faith).

The month of December is filled with traditions, such as celebrating Hanukkah, Christmas, prepping for a new year and Kwanzaa, the weeklong celebration of African American culture that runs Dec 26. to Jan 1.

Author and activist Maulana Karenga started the holiday in 1966. While Kwanzaa celebrates Black culture, it's not tied to one religion.

As Betty Sawyer, executive director of Project Success Coalition explained, it gives people an opportunity to see how different cultures are interrelated.

"And so take that opportunity to learn to experience it and to become, more importantly, allies" said Sawyer.

Each day of Kwanzaa highlights a different principle to be reflected on and celebrated. The seven principles of Kwanzaa include:

  • Umoja (unity)
  • Kujichagulia (self-determination)
  • Ujima (collective work and responsibility)
  • Ujamaa (cooperative economics)
  • Nia (purpose)
  • Kuumba (creativity)
  • Imani (faith)

On Dec 27, Project Success Coalition held a Kwanzaa celebration at Second Baptist Church in Ogden honoring ancestors. For those wanting to participate in Kwanzaa, Sawyer said there's no one-size-fits-all way to honor the culture, but she encourages people to look toward each principle.

"For example, today (Dec 28.) is ujima: collective work and responsibility. Can you set a goal to do something to promote collective work responsibility? What does that mean in your own circle?"

Utah's African American population sits at 1.5%. As more people begin to learn and embrace African American culture, Sawyer believes that, similar to Juneteenth, more can be done to elevate the importance of Kwanzaa in the state.

"As we embrace it more as people of African descent, then I think that gives the opportunity for others to do the same. So we do have a way to go in promoting and informing and educating people about it. But I think the time is now to do that," said Sawyer.

She said it's important for the youngest generations to know, understand and embrace Kwanzaa.

"When I look at the principles that are embodied in Kwanzaa, these are Afrocentric principles that we hope all young people embrace. You know, find your purpose and share that purpose so somebody else can help you achieve that purpose," said Sawyer.

Kwanzaa can also mean a time to connect with family members. Nikki Walker is a board member for the Utah Black Chamber who grew up in New Jersey and has been in Utah for six years. Walker said Kwanzaa gives her a chance to be involved in celebrations through her sister, niece and nephew.

"You know, it's a big deal for the African American community. [It] is a really great way to reset at the end of the year and look forward to what's coming."

Walker praised leaders in the state's Black community who are working to create more of an awareness for African American culture, but agreed more can be done to educate the youth on what the celebration means.

"Kwanzaa, much like Juneteenth, I think, needs a little more eyes on it from the general community and maybe some perspective," said Walker.

She believes education starts with outreach from community leaders.

“I think the onus is on us to be reaching out to high schools and black student unions and working with the colleges at the college level, so that they can loop in the high school students who can loop in the grade school students. So that we have this kind of explosion of information,” Walker said.

While Kwanzaa is a weeklong celebration, she said people should take the seven principles and integrate them into their everyday lives year-round, because "it's not just a holiday, or a one time thing. It's an experience that you should be experiencing throughout the year."

Despite Utah's slim African American population, Walker believes the Black community is strong when everyone works together. That's where principles like ujima come into play with collective work and responsibility.

"But when we look at that principle and we start to think about how we can share resources with one another, how we can build on each other's businesses and each other's and give each other new opportunities. It's really important for us to look inside of our community for resources and for support," said Walker.

Whether it’s putting the principles of Kwanzaa into motion, or just working to learn more about the holiday, Walker said the weeklong celebration of Kwanzaa is a great time to bond with family and prepare for the upcoming year.

"I encourage everybody to learn about it, understand the principles and live them in 2023,” she said. “We've had a hard couple years, folks. And when we start to implement principles that can really move us forward, it really changes things."

Curtis Booker is KUER’s growth, wealth and poverty reporter in Central Utah.
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