Umoja Karamu (pronounced You-mo-ja Care-a-moo) are Kiswahili words that mean “unity feast.” Celebrated on the fourth Sunday of November it is a ceremony of unity that highlights events and periods that have shaped the African American family. This year it will be celebrated on November 26th.
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Like Kwanzaa, a popular holiday celebrated after Christmas by African American families in the United States, Umoja Karamu is becoming an alternative holiday for African American families who want to distance themselves from the European Thanksgiving.
Umoja Karamu is a ritual for the Black family that was developed to create new meaning and solidarity through ceremony and symbolism. Thanksgiving, although a tradition for most Americans, African Americans have a alternative to celebrate family along with their own heritage.
Umoja Karamu was inaugurated as a holiday in 1971 and was founded by Brother Edwards Sims, Jr. When it was first introduced it was only celebrated in Philadelphia and in Washington, D.C. “African Americans must re-establish cultural celebrations,” said Dr. Molefi Kete Asante, Professor and Chair of the Department of African American Studies at Temple University. “ Our traditional roots were violently weeded, repressed and finally forgotten during a process called slavery.”
Like Thanksgiving, Umoja Karamu emphasizes the family gathering and the feast, but it also features unique ceremonials. Specific foods and colors on the table are used symbolically to represent meaningful periods and elements in the African American experience. The color black is represented by black-eyed peas and it symbolizes the African American family before slavery in Africa. The color white is represented by rice and stands for the family in slavery. Red is represented by tomatoes and symbolizes emancipation or freedom from slavery. The color green is the symbol of the African American family’s struggle for liberty and is represented by collard greens. The color orange is for sweet potatoes and the color gold is represented by corn; both stand for the family’s hope for the future.
In the Umoja Karamu tradition, the feast is presided over by the head of the household. The foods are placed on the dinner table, which is covered with an African fabric. In a special purification rite, a bowl of water and towel is for the celebrant to wash his or her hands and to keep the foods pure and clean.
Extended family members participate directly in Umoja by bringing prepared foods to the ceremony. Everyone is given a wooden bowl and fabric napkins. Earthenware is used to serve the beverages. No paper products are allowed. Candlelight and incense provide ambiance and contribute to an atmosphere of calmness and reflection. The ceremony always begins in prayer. A libation of water is poured into a plant in honor of ancestors. Children participate by reading narratives commemorating each historical period while the food representing the era is passed around the table. After each narrative, the food is tasted by everyone, like an hors d'oeuvre. This process is repeated for each era. A benediction given by the oldest person or elder marks the end of the rite and signals the beginning of the feast itself.
Different families have their own ways of personalizing the holiday. “In our house when we celebrate Umoja Karamu, we will have drums playing in the background to set the mood. We once even hired a professional storyteller to perform the narratives,” said Iman Wooden of Washington, D.C. Families have gotten creative when celebrating Umoja Karamu. Some will play the music of New World music while others might learn a traditional dance.
Umoja Karamu is a way for African American families to celebrate their common history, ethnic experiences and cultural heritage while tailoring this unique holiday to fit your family’s personality. Traditions that were once stolen can be recreated to strengthen family unity. Thanksgiving is the American holiday of choice for many but more families are moving away from holidays that resulted in massacres of indigenous people and are seeking a cultural alternative. If you are questioning your support of Thanksgiving, Umoja Karamu might be the perfect celebration for your family.