Addressing a standing room only crowd Dec. 28, at the National Action Network in Harlem, the Rev. Al Sharpton, president and founder of the organization, drew rounds of applause, and his words had particular resonance when he introduced the guest speaker, Maulana Karenga, and his concept of Kwanzaa and nguzo saba, the seven principles.
“The principles and values of nguzo saba will not be trumped in the next four years,” he said, and the reference to the president-elect was not missed in the boisterous response. He then recalled an article that appeared in The New York Times in 1971, one of the first published in the paper about Kwanzaa.
“Charlayne Hunter-Gault, the first Black woman reporter for the paper wrote the story about a Kwanzaa celebration at a school in Harlem that was guided by a 16-year-old minister named Al Sharpton,” Sharpton recounted. “Forty-six years later, it is my honor that we celebrate the 50th year of Kwanzaa at our headquarters with the creator … of Kwanzaa, Dr. Maulana Karenga.”
After a sustained and standing ovation from the audience, Karenga greeted the crowd with his typical Kiswahili “Habari Gani!” and he continued in the African language before expressing his appreciation for being in the House of Justice. He thanked Sharpton for his tireless devotion to “doing justice,” and then began his speech with a citation that Black people of the Nile Valley were “the elders of civilization.”
With these words he immediately connected with an audience, many of whom had been taught similar lessons by Dr. John Henrik Clarke and Dr. Yosef ben-Jochannan. “What does it mean to be the elders of humanity, but not only the fathers and mothers of humanity, but of human civilization?” he asked rhetorically before speaking at length about Black “resistance, resilience and recommitment.”
“If we can’t be ourselves, we can’t free ourselves!” he declared to loud cheers and applause. “We strive to achieve, we strive to excel and we strive to advance.” The creator of Kwanzaa then began a detailed discussion of each one of the seven principles—Umoja (unity), Kujichagulia (self-determination), Ujima (collective work and responsibility), Ujamaa (cooperative economics), Nia (purpose), Kuumba (creativity) and Imani (faith). He discussed the importance of “overcoming the legacy of oppression, to create social space in which we can live, love, work and relate freely, strive diligently and come into the fullness ourselves.
“We don’t even know what we can do because oppression keeps us busy defending ourselves,” Karenga continued, his voice becoming increasingly hoarse. After a sip of water from his wife, Tiamoyo, he said that after defending “ourselves we must develop ourselves.”
He explained, “[Kwanzaa] was conceived, born and came into being in the midst of struggle in the fires and furnace of the Black freedom movement. So, on this 50th anniversary of the celebration of the Pan-African holiday, Kwanzaa, brings with it the regular joys, celebration, beauty, the good, the excellence and the achievement of African people.”
For the next several minutes, Karenga enthralled the crowd with the glorious history of the African past “the awesome journey that has led us and the people to this pivotal point in our history and struggle.”
During his introduction of Karenga, Sharpton noted the universal celebration of Kwanzaa and Karenga elaborated on the global impact of the holiday, and this point was stressed again during the recitation of the seven principles in which there was an exchange, a call and response, between him and the audience.
Karenga asked the audience to repeat after him: “Continue to struggle, keep the faith, hold the line, love our people and each other, seek and speak truth, do and demand justice, be constantly concerned with the well-being of the world and all things.”
“Happy Kwanzaa to you all!” he declared.