Nguzo Saba: Values to live by

Close-up of a family celebrating Kwanzaa

Once Thanksgiving is over, many of us set our sights on a busy holiday season .  As members of the Diasporic community, Kwanzaa is among the holidays that has special meaning as it emphasizes very specific principles that are important to the uplifting and strengthening of our communities.  Professor Maulana Karenga is credited with creating the Kwanzaa holiday in 1966.  He saw it as a pan-African holiday that would offer blacks an alternative to the eurocentric, Judeo-Christian  traditions.

Karenga drew inspiration for Kwanzaa from the African concept of “first fruits”. It’s important to note, that at its inception, during the revolutionary 1960s, Kwanzaa was seen as a way to unite us as one people as we pay homage to our cultural origin, the motherland. “The rituals of the holiday promote African traditions and Nguzo Saba, the “seven principles of African Heritage” that Karenga described as “a communitarian African philosophy”.

Kwanzaa poster nguzo saba.jpg

As we near the end of the end of the 2010s, which in some ways mirror deciding moments in the 60s, we are digging into what makes the Nguzo Saba important to us as diasporic people.  How are we reaffirming these ideals regularly? How should/could these ideals be represented in our daily lives? We came to realize that as we considered the people and events that are important to our collective identity and experience, that many of them embody what these principles essentially mean. The conditions and experiences of Africans in this country requires that we walk, talk, breathe, love, learn and exist with these principles ever at the forefront of our minds.  We believe that the individuals and the events that we will focus on throughout the month of December epitomize the guiding principles of the Nguzo Saba.


The Sankofa principle instructs us to, “go back and fetch it,” now more than ever we need to equip ourselves, our students, families and our communities with the acts of our warriors, soldiers, leaders, artists, freedom fighters, activists, champions, sheros/heros  because we know all that they have been is also apart of us.


The charge for you as everyone counts down until the big holiday break is how to make the principles of Kwanzaa come alive in your classroom community and not just by having the kids practice saying those “hard” Swahili words or instructing them on the similarities of the menorah to the kinara. But rather, how do these principles live in our daily lives right now.

Ask your students to identify people in their families and community, pop culture or politics, athletics or artists that represent each principle. Help them to create a collage, while you create your own. Have them articulate how and why they believe these people represent that principle so well. We’ll help you with historical representations, you help them with making the connection to their lives RIGHT NOW. Further the assignment by helping them to envision how they represent these principles in your classroom and school community. The wonderful thing about history is that it is alive, right now!


We know you have a pacing calendar, a looming state exam, some of the kids don’t read on grade level, some still haven’t grasped multiplying multi-digit numbers, your ELLs need support and you fear your IEP student is falling further behind. And while ALL of that might be true, what is also true, is what Dr. Geneva Gay says about culturally responsive teaching:

Culturally responsive teaching: simultaneously develops, along with academic achievement, social consciousness and critique; cultural affirmation, competence, and exchange; . . . individual self-worth and abilities; and an ethic of caring. It uses [different] ways of knowing, understanding, and representing various ethnic and cultural groups in teaching academic subjects, processes, and skills. It cultivates cooperation, collaboration, reciprocity, and mutual responsibility for learning among students, and between students and teachers. It incorporates high-status, cultural knowledge about different ethnic groups in all subjects and skills taught…  Thus, [it] validates, facilitates, liberates, and empowers ethnically diverse students by … cultivating their cultural integrity, individual abilities, and academic success. 

A very different pedagogical paradigm is needed…one that teaches to and through their personal and cultural strengths, their intellectual capabilities, and their prior accomplishments. Culturally responsive teaching is this kind of paradigm…. they filter curriculum content and teaching strategies through their cultural frames of reference…  It is radical because it makes explicit the previously implicit role of culture in teaching and learning, and it insists that educational institutions accept the legitimacy and viability of ethnic group cultures in improving learning outcomes… The close interactions among ethnic identity, cultural background, and cognition are becoming increasingly apparent… It is these interactions… that give source and focus, power and direction to culturally responsive teaching.”

Ok, I know that was a lot. But you know as we tell our students, sometimes you just have to power through it! Seriously, though, we must recognize, that in order to close this achievement gap and develop intellectually, socially and culturally healthy children, we must be radical and unapologetic with our approach.


So as the CREAD Commandments states , let’s remix the calendar, make December all about Kwanzaa, not just a day or two before break.  And we’ll do our part, reflecting and contemplating the very principled lives of the people we honor.  Ask yourself, what has their example, their sacrifice and their life meant? How did they epitomize these Kwanzaa ideals and what is your responsibility as a Culturally Responsive Educator of and for the African Diaspora in ensuring that these stories and values live on?

Peace and love.

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