The Philosophical and Moral Foundations of the 7 Principles of Kwanzaa

October 30, 2011

The Seven Principles of Kwanzaa are grounded in the communal values of traditional African societies. These principles formed the core foundation of the moral system which regulated family and community relations, and are offered through Kwanzaa as the value system most capable of producing the nurturing social conditions for human flourishing, healthy families, and supportive neighborhoods.

Inasmuch as the 7 Principles of Kwanzaa were introduced to address the cultural and developmental crisis of African Americans, it is worth while to explore and explain the philosophy and moral foundations which informed and underpinned these principles. To be sure, the 7 Principles represent the cardinal values of traditional African societies. The strengths of these societies were their humanistic orientation and the priority they placed on family and community well-being.  Kwanzaa, therefore, seeks a judicious adaptation and integration of these strengths and features for modern day African American life.

Traditional African Societies

In traditional African modes of thought, persons were nested and embedded in a web of kinship, community and ancestral relationships. These relationships were based on the   African ontological view: We are, therefore I am. Thus, the hallmark of traditional African societies was its reciprocal bonding (the principle Unity) and relationships and corresponding obligations among members of the family, extended family, and community (the principle Collective Work and Responsibility).  Traditional African societies placed “more stress on the group than on the individual, more on solidarity than activities and needs of the individual, more on communion of persons than on their autonomy,” asserts Leopold Senghor, architect of Negritude.

African proverbs undergird and underscore emphasis placed on togetherness, and collective well-being:

  • Somebody’s troubles have arrived; those another are on the way
  • If you do not allow your neighbor to reach nine, you will never reach ten
  • It is a fool who says, ‘My neighbor is the butt of the attach not me’
  • One person’s path will interest with another’s before too long
  • It takes a village to raise a child

Hence, in traditional African society, the sense of community formed a strong foundation for the idea and practice of communion, unity, sharing, and collective participation in community life. African peoples trusted and believed (the principle Faith) in their way of life and in the life-enhancing values of the values embodied in the 7 Principles of Kwanzaa.

Historical and Social Foundation of the 7 Principles

The traditional African world view promoted the idea that being inscribed in a social space required of everyone that they could not live in society and be indifferent. Their moral and social values required of everyone a responsibility toward those with whom they shared social space. Everyone was called upon to make a contribution by continuously creating the best human conditions for family, community, and individual flourishing the principle Creativity). Their world view gave them an enlarged sense and appreciation of the sociality of human existence, underscoring that persons depend on others (parents, kin, neighbors, ancestors) for their human existence.

Owing to the above, traditional African societies believed that humans were not born on their own, nor could they exist or flourish on their own. The Akan proverb (Onipa hia moa), A human being needs help, reinforces this philosophical view. Kwasi Wiredu, Akan philosopher, contends that the intent of this proverb was “not to just observe a fact, but also to prescribe a line of conduct. The imperative “carried by the word ‘hia’, which in this context also has a connotation entitlement: a human being deserves, ought to be helped.”

Further, Wiredu observes that traditional Africans were born into a social context in which the person was not strongly individuated, and in which he/she a strong sense of duty and obligation ( the principle Purpose) to build, promote, enhance and protect the community and by extension society as a whole. Thus, traditional Africans societies evolved value systems (the principle Self-determination) which placed a priority on the welfare, worth, and dignity of human beings, not things. The welfare of the individual extended to the economic domain as well as everyday family and community life.

The practice of mutual aid (the principles Collective Work and Responsibility and Cooperative Economics) by traditional Africans gave recognition and worth to their fellow human beings, and grew out of their shared understanding and philosophical insight of the essential dependency of the human condition as exemplified in their cooperative mode of agricultural production.

In traditional African societies, for example, the mode of agriculture production was based on smallholdings worked by individual farmers and their households. In such a mode of production, Kwasi Wiredu, Akan philosopher, states, “recurrent stages were easily foreseeable at which the resources of any one farmer would be insufficient to accomplish with the required dispatch a necessary task. In such moments, all that was necessary was for the household in the community to send word to the neighbors and the people would assembly with their own implements of work and together (the principle Collective Work and Responsibility and Cooperative Economics) help get the job done, “in full and warranted conviction that when their turn came the same gesture would be returned in exactly the same spirit.”kw

In summary, the 7 Principles of Kwanzaa emerged out of the context of traditional African societies. These 7 life-enhancing values were the underpinning of the humanistic orientation of these societies, with the centrality of family and community well-being as the priority and focus of social life. To stress again, in traditional African societies, the greatest value was attached to communal belonging. And, the way in which a sense of communal belonging was fostered in the individual was through the practice and reinforcement of values and practice representative of the 7 Principles of Kwanzaa. In brief, the 7 Principles were the values that provided the best human conditions for family development and human flourishing.

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