Shiane D. Jacocks


My grandfather, William Henry Jacocks, (who went by his Swahili name Ratibu Shadidi) did not celebrate Christmas because (1) he wasn’t too keen on how the holiday had become centered on this idea, if you were good, a white man would give you gifts and (2) he was able to find family, community, and culture rooted in the pan-African holiday, Kwanzaa, a week-long holiday from December 26th through January 1st.

Now, I don’t say this to harp on Christmas (humbug). As a child, I was both filled with joy and anxiety the night before Christmas, afraid that I would be considered a bad child if I wasn’t asleep when the jolly man in red fell from our chimney. I vaguely knew that the holiday wasn’t about presents and that, even though there were two mysterious beings, they weren’t the same person, and for some reason, we were celebrating Jesus’ birthday by giving ourselves the gifts. It was all a little confusing for a six-year-old.

As a Black woman and now that I am older, I can appreciate the solidarity and strength in Kwanzaa, helping me understand my history, my culture, and ways to think about my future.

In Kwanzaa: A Celebration of Family, Community, and Culture (2008), Dr. Maulana Karenga, who created Kwanzaa in 1966, writes, “it is based on the agricultural celebrations of Africa called ‘the first-fruits’ celebrations which were times of harvest, ingathering, reverence, commemoration, recommitment, and celebration.” It was also a radical response to the Black Liberation Movement in the ‘60s as a way for Black folks to “reaffirm back to their Africanness and social justice tradition.”

Now in this time of the Black Lives Matter and Black Girl Magic Movements, Kwanzaa could not be more relevant, powerful, and necessary especially when it comes to the Nguzo Saba (the Seven Principles).

For each day of Kwanzaa, there are seven candles that represent a principle. One Black for the people, three red for the struggle of the people, and green for the future of the people.

The Seven Principles 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 and make our brothers 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 developing 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.

Karenga emphasized on pan-Africanism, stating that, “the struggle to unit all Africans everywhere around common interests and make African cultural and political presence on the world stage both powerful and permanent. Pan-Africanism requires and urges that we see ourselves and act in history as an African people, belonging to a world community of African peoples. In this way, we self-consciously share in both the glory and burden of our history.”

Like Christmas, during Kwanzaa gifts are exchanged, but rather than focus on the gift itself, it is surrounded by the cultural value and how the gift may contribute to not only the individual, but also the community. For one, presents are mostly given to children, as they are the “hope and future of African people” and the presents are usually a book or a heritage symbol to represent education, history, and culture.

Karenga words, along with what my grandfather taught me, helped me understand that Kwanzaa was more than a holiday. It was a lifestyle, or as Karenga stated, “a cultural proactive choice.” For my grandfather, along with my grandmother, Wilmer Amina Carter (California State Assembly member and for whom Wilma Amina Carter High School in the City of Rialto is named), there was never a moment where they didn’t practice the Nguzo Saba. They gave their children and grandchildren, including myself, Swahili names, taught us both the beautiful and violent history of those who made it possible for us to live now, and encouraged us to always do our best. No was never an answer. The true failure, they taught, was giving up before we even started.

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For me, it was important to remember that this holiday was not an alternative to Christmas, but rather a reminder to stay grounded in my history, respect our ancestors and elders, challenge our children, respect the environment, and continue to grow and build upon traditions to enrich what we leave behind.

It was also a way to reconnect to the community, to read books from Black activists who made it possible for freedom, freedom to even write this, and to reaffirm, as my grandfather liked to say, “we are African people,” and that, can mean so many different things for everyone.

My grandfather passed away December 10th, three years ago from today, he still survives through his partner, wife, and my grandmother, Wilmer Amina Carter. She continues to share stories about him, and while there are some that I have heard a thousand times, it still feels like I am hearing them for the first time.

Stories keep the ones we love and their history alive. Stories are survival and sharing them remind us this has happened before, and it also gives us ways to develop tools to create change. Maya Angelou wrote for us. Malcom X raged for us. Martin Luther King dreamed for us. Rosa Parks refused to give up for us. Nina Simone sang for us, and so many more gave stories for us.

Kwanzaa is one way of making these stories possible. It moves us toward the, as Karenga stated, “the spiritual values of the Creator and the creation.” He also stressed that, “we share the collective work and responsibility (Ujima) for the maintenance of its authenticity and excellence” of celebrating and telling others about Kwanzaa. The good news is, while the holiday may be over in January, one can continue practicing the Nguzo Saba throughout the year with both your family and the community.