Umoja Karamu (oo-MOH-jah kah-RAH-moo) is a celebration of unity within the African-American family, community, and nation. Umoja Karamu is a Swahili term meaning “unity feast.” Many African Americans celebrate this day as an alternative to the national Thanksgiving Day holiday. The unity feast may also be observed during Kwanzaa celebrations in late December.
The concept of African and African-American unity is centuries old. But during the 1960s and 1970s, it was a major focus of black nationalists. During the 1980s and 1990s, Afrocentric scholars such as Ishakamusa Barashango, lecturer, author, and founder of Philadelphia’s Temple of the Black Messiah, drew further attention to the theme.
Barashango, who died in 2004, argued that African Americans and black people of the diaspora should reject such European-American holidays as Thanksgiving and concentrate instead on understanding Africa’s culture and values that are the distinctive heritage of black people.
In 1971 Brother Edward Simms Jr. of the Temple of the Black Messiah in Philadelphia developed Umoja Karamu to celebrate the African-American family and home. According to Barashango, Simms defined the purpose of Umoja Karamu as “an effort to inject new meaning and solidarity into the Black Family through ceremony and symbol.”
The date for the holiday, the fourth Sunday of November, was established by the Temple of the Black Messiah in Washington, D.C. African Americans in other cities, including Philadelphia, Baltimore, and Chicago, soon followed the example.
The celebration is based on five periods of African-American life, each represented by a color.
- Prior to Slavery – the color black, represents black families before slavery
- In Slavery – the color white, symbolizes the scattering blacks families during slavery
- Upon Emancipation – the color red, marks blacks’ liberation from slavery
- Struggle for Liberation – the color green, significances the struggle for civil rights and equality
- Looking to the Future – the color gold, points celebrants to hope for the future