Kwanzaa Celebrates African American Heritage, Pride and Culture

By Allan Tellis

Editor’s note: This article has been revised and reprinted from the Denver Urban Spectrum December 2017 issue.

Kwanzaa is a week-long celebration held in the United States and other nations of the West African diaspora in the Americas. The celebration honors African heritage in African American culture, and is observed from December 26 to January 1, culminating in a feast and gift giving.

Even though Kwanzaa has become a powerful tool for African American pride and celebration, its roots can only be traced back to the late 1960s. The celebration began as the vision of Dr. Maulana Ndabezith Karenga, an influential figure during the Black Liberation struggle and Black Power movements that dominated the late ‘50s, ‘60s and ‘70s.

Karenga is an African American activist, author and creator of the pan-African and African American holiday known as Kwanzaa. As a well-educated man with several doctorates and a professor of Africana studies at California State University, he realized no holiday celebrated the African American culture, motivating him to create Kwanzaa.

Karenga’s purpose in creating the holiday, stated in his goals for the holiday in 1966, were, “To give Blacks an alternative to the existing holiday, and give Blacks an opportunity to celebrate themselves and their history, rather than simply imitate the practice of the dominant society.”

As the Kwanzaa celebration began to take hold throughout the nation in the 1980s, Denver took an exceptionally strong liking to the holiday, and has boasted for more than two decades, one of the most well-executed Kwanzaa celebrations in the country with community leaders such as Brother Jeff, Thedora Jackson and Isetta Crawford Rawls at the helm.

Kwanzaa Committee President Thedora Jackson, a committee member since its inception, attributes their success to their perseverance and dedication.

“We’ve been working at it for a long time,” Jackson said regarding how they have done so well in a city with Denver’s demographics. “(The late) Opalanga Pugh brought it publically so people could come from all over the state and celebrate with a lot of other like-minded people. It’s amazing we’ve been working on for it well over 20 years now.”

The seven essential principles of Kwanzaa are:

  • Umoja (unity)—To strive for and maintain unity in the family, community, nation, and race.
  • Kujichagulia (self-determination)—To define ourselves, name ourselves, create for ourselves, and speak for ourselves.
  • Ujima (collective work and responsibility)—To build and maintain our community together and make our brother’s and sister’s problems our problems and to solve them together.
  • Ujamaa (cooperative economics)—To build and maintain our own stores, shops, and other businesses and to profit from them together.
  • Nia (purpose)—To make our collective vocation the building and development of our community in order to restore our people to their traditional greatness.
  • 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.
  • 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.

The principles are named in Swahili, a language composed of several East-African languages to promote cohesion in the area. The names were chosen to further emphasize the feeling of a grand community of Black people across the planet, who will continue to thrive with the implementation of the principles.

This December, the public is invited to participate and support this historic occasion to celebrate the 55th year of Kwanzaa, and 20-plus years of the holiday’s celebration in the Mile High City.

2021 Kwanzaa Schedule of events – “The Best Is Yet To Come”

Saturday, December 18

Noon – Instillation of the Kinara at Blair Caldwell’s African American Research Library, 2401 Welton Street. Installed and hauled by John Hayden and the Friends of Curtis Park. Volunteers are needed.

Sunday, December 26

6 p.m. – Kwanzaa Parade from Blair Caldwell African American Research Library, 2401 Welton Ave., Cleo Parker Robinson Theatre, 119 Park Ave. West, performed by the Platinum Divas and coached by Ms. Chinique.

6:30 p.m. – First Night Celebration at Cleo Parker Robinson Theatre will include the induction of four new Circle of wisdom Candidates. The event will be hosted by Brother Jeff Fard and the Kwanzaa Committee of Denver. Local entertainment will be provided by Kwanzaa 101.

Friday, December 31

5 p.m. – The Big Dance this year is a masquerade ball. Wear a mask. Face mask and beads will be available at the entrance for a donation of $5. Platinum Divas will perform. There will be line dancing and a prize for best outfit. Gumbo and rice will be served for dinner.

Editor’s note:  To participate, volunteer, or get information on the schedule of events and location, call Executive Director Kwanzaa Committee of Denver Thedora Jackson at 303-371-4793 or email

Kwanzaa Symbols

Kwanzaa has a number of key symbols that are used as artifacts to teach, remind and inspire us in the application of Kwanzaa principles. The basic symbols used to celebrate Kwanzaa are:

  • Mazao (mah-zah’-o), the Crops that represent African harvest and acknowledgement of productive labor;
  • Mkeka (m-kay’-kah), the Kwanzaa Mat that represents a foundation of our tradition and history;
  • Kinara (kee-nah’-rah), the Candle Holder that represents continental Africans as the people’s roots;
  • Muhindi (moo-heen’-dee), the Corn that represents the children and thefuture;
  • Mishumaa Saba (mee-shoo-mah’-ah sah’-bah), the group of Seven Candles that represents the Kwanzaa seven principles (Nguzo Saba);
  • Kikombe cha Umoja (kee-kom’-bay chah oo-mo’-jah), the Unity Cup that represents the principle of unity as the basis of all Kwanzaa principles;
  • Zawadi (zah-wah’-dee), the Gifts that represent the commitments made and kept;
  • Bendera (bayn-day’-rah), the Flag that is a supplemental symbol to represent the people (black color), the struggle (red color) and the future and hope (green color); and
  • Nguzo Saba (en-goo’-zo sah’-bah), the Poster that is the printed display of The Seven Principles and is a supplemental symbol.