Friday, December 26, 2014

Is it Kwanza or Kwanzaa?

Several years ago I wondered which spelling was correct for the African American celebration of family, community and culture observed from December 26th through January 1st:  Is is Kwanza or Kwanzaa?

In an effort to promote community and culture among the family of African Americans, Dr. Maulana Karenga, professor and chair of the Department of Africana Studies at California State University, Long Beach, created Kwanzaa.  The holiday celebration was founded in 1966 during the aftermath of the 1965 Watts, California riots. Per the Official Kwanzaa website, where the the word is spelled with two As,

"Kwanzaa was created to introduce and reinforce seven basic values of African culture which contribute to building and reinforcing family, community and culture among African American people as well as Africans throughout the world African community. These values are called the Nguzo Saba which in Swahili means the Seven Principles. Developed by Dr. Karenga, the Nguzo Saba stand at the heart of the origin and meaning of Kwanzaa, for it is these values which are not only the building blocks for community but also serve to reinforce and enhance them."
The Seven Principles:
  • Unity: Umoja (oo–MO–jah) - To strive for and maintain unity in the family, community, nation, and race.
  • Self-determination: Kujichagulia (koo–gee–cha–goo–LEE–yah) - To define ourselves, name ourselves, create for ourselves, and speak for ourselves.
  • Collective Work and Responsibility: Ujima (oo–GEE–mah) - To build and maintain our community together and make our brother’s and sister’s problems our problems and to solve them together. 
  • Cooperative Economics: Ujamaa (oo–JAH–mah) - To build and maintain our own stores, shops, and other businesses and to profit from them together.  
  •  Purpose: Nia (nee–YAH) - To make our collective vocation the building and developing of our community in order to restore our people to their traditional greatness.   
  •  Creativity: Kuumba (koo–OOM–bah) - 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.
  • Faith: Imani (ee–MAH–nee) - To believe with all our heart in our people, our parents, our teachers, our leaders, and the righteousness and victory of our struggle.
In a vintage Sesame Street video, Tyrel Jackson Williams (now a teen actor who is younger brother of Tyler James Williams, Everybody Hates Chris), explains how his family celebrates Kwanzaa.

Kwanza Doll

Kwanza by Robert Tonner, 1997 is #11 of 500 dolls worldwide.
In 1997 when his "Christmas Doll Kwanza" was released, Robert Tonner chose to use the original Swahili spelling of the word.  After discovering another collector's doll on her dolls-for-sale list priced at the original retail of $250, Tonner's doll was placed on my wish list.  Although this lovely15-inch, all-vinyl, USA-made doll with beautiful Afrocentric dress made of natural fibers, wearing real leather sandals, was well worth the collector's asking price, Kwanza remained on my wish list in hopes of locating the doll for a better price. 

Kwanza models her real leather sandals and shows off her elaborate pinned up braided hairstyle in the next photo.
The ends of her crisscross braids are curly and pinned up onto the top of her head.
As illustrated in the above photos, some 14 years later, I now own Tonner's Kwanza.  After a much appreciated alert from another collector, I won an eBay auction for the desired doll for $30.99 + $12 shipping.  Kwanza's arrival prompted me to research the spelling of her name. 

The following text is copied from the The Chicago Tribune website.

How do you spell them?
Let's start with Kwanzaa. Or is it Kwanza? Both are correct, actually. Kwanza is the original spelling of the African harvest festival upon which the American holiday is based. The spelling was changed to Kwanzaa, according to the American Heritage Dictionary, to add a seventh letter to correspond with the seven traditional African principles (unity, self-determination, collective responsibility, cooperative economics, purpose, creativity and faith) honored during the holiday.
Interestingly, defines kwanza (with a lowercase k) as a unit of currency: 
the standard monetary unit of Angola, divided into 100 lwei. 

Kwanzaa with an alternate spelling, Kwanza (both capitalized) is defined at as: 
a harvest festival celebrated from Dec. 26th until Jan. 1st in some African-American communities.
During an inaugural Kwanzaa celebration, "seven children volunteered to carry the six letters in the word, Kwanza.  Rather than leave one child out, the holiday spelling inherited a spare A at its end." (

I have not yet determined why Tonner chose to spell the doll's name, Kwanza.  I have also not determined why the doll is referred to as a "Christmas" doll since the holiday is unrelated to Christmas. One "a" or two, I do appreciate Tonner's initiative in recognizing the existence of the holiday with a doll with such high quality.  But more than that, I am happy the doll is finally part of my doll family.  Thanks again for the heads up, DS. 

The answer to my own question, Is it Kwanza or Kwanzaa? with reference to the African American celebration of family, community and culture:  It is officially Kwanzaa. 

Learn more about the Kwanzaa celebration at the Official Kwanzaa website and here ( link provides more concise information and includes a very informative 4-minute video




  1. I loved the video! It was very informative. Happy Kwanzaa!

    1. I agree, Ms. Leo, the video was very information (actually both were). I enjoyed the Sesame Street video as much as I did the one at the website.


  2. I was born in 1966, but for the entirety of my life I have never celebrated Kwanzaa nor have I ever known anyone who has. The only people who have ever said boo to me about Kwanzaa was white people wishing me a Happy Kwanzaa. Until the video you posted I didn't even know the process involved. I don't celebrate Christmas either but I have no problems wishing people one. So, happy holidays and a wonder Kwanzaa to you!

    1. What a boring world this would be if everyone shared the same thoughts, feelings, opinions, and beliefs. There would be no room for discussion and no room for growth. Thank God for free will and independent thinking and thank you, Muff, for the happy and wonderful wishes.


  3. Happy Kwanzaa! Did you see the Kwanzaa Barbie that came out a few years ago? She is absolutely lovely.

    1. Hello Saturday Sequins - I own the Kwanzaa Barbie and the Kwanzaa Keeya. The Barbie is lovely (and Keeya is adorable).


  4. Thank you for this information, Debbie! Your Kwanza doll is lovely.

    I learned about Kwanzaa when I was a teenager in the 80's, when I attended community Kwanzaa celebrations. The celebrations took place in a community library(another year, in a strip mall), and I attended on each night with my good friend and her family. I learned a lot and have a lot of good memories. On one of the first nights, I chose a Swahili name for myself - Penda, which I was told means "lovely and likeable person". I learned about Black owned businesses in my community. I got to share my own creativity and looked forward to singing with the others. I honored my ancestors. I talked about the principles with my own family and other friends. I have not actively taken part in any Kwanzaa celebrations since my years in high school.

    1. Hi Roxanne,

      That's wonderful that you were able to take part in Kwanzaa activities as a teen and create pleasant memories from the experience.

      Penda is a very interesting name and my first time seeing it.



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