The day after Christmas, while many people are eating leftover turkey and exchanging gifts, many in the African American community will be celebrating Kwanzaa. It’s a seven-day festival that lasts from December 26th through January 1st.
Kwanzaa originated in 1966 as a way for Black people to take pride in their African and West Indian heritage. Each day of Kwanzaa celebrates a different principle. These are Unity, Self-determination, Collective Responsibility, Cooperative Economics, Purpose, Creativity and Faith.
There are also seven symbols and objects of Kwanzaa−fruits, vegetables and nuts; a straw mat; a candleholder (kinara) which holds seven candles; ears of corn; gifts; a communal cup; and the seven candles. Each of the Kwanza symbols has a particular meaning. The fruits, vegetables and nuts symbolize the harvest. The mat represents history, tradition and the foundation on which the community builds. The candle holder symbolizes the roots of the community. The corn represents the future of the children and the communal cup symbolizes unity. The seven candles represent each of the seven principles and the gifts symbolize parental love and, in turn, the commitments of the children to their parents.
The colors of the candles have a special meaning. The one black candle represents the people and is placed in the center of the candleholder. The three red candles stand for the peoples’ struggles and the three green candles symbolize the future and hope that can result from struggle.
The name “Kwanzaa” comes from the Swahili phrase, “matunda ya kwanza,” meaning “first fruits.” An extra “a” was added to coincide with the seven Kwanzaa principles. Ironically, the festival is not observed in Africa. It’s primarily celebrated in Canada, the Caribbean and the United States and focuses on African family and social values.
On Sunday, December 31st, I had the pleasure of attending a Kwanzaa celebration at Mount Pleasant Missionary Baptist (MB) Church sponsored by the African American Heritage Society of East Pasco County. The facilitator for the ceremony was the church’s pastor, Reverend Nyika Taylor.
The principle for that day was Creativity and it was displayed in performances by several young people. Speeches, community singing, and a candle lighting ceremony were also part of the event.
Heaven Wright did a beautiful and heartfelt recitation of the poem “The Creation,” written by well-known poet, diplomat and educator James Weldon Johnson. The poem is in the style of a preacher giving a sermon to his congregation on how God created the universe. It’s written in Black dialect and, in some respects, humanizes God by giving him feelings, such as loneliness and joy. Ricky Richardson recited a poem entitled “Black Soul of the Land,” written by Lance Jeffers, another 20th century African American poet.
David Taylor related an African folktale entitled “The Chicken and the Eagle.” Similar to one of Aesop’s Fables, it uses animals as the characters to teach a lesson. In this instance, the lesson it teaches is that a person’s future and his fate is not determined by his surroundings. It is determined by who he is inside and we can always “rise” above our circumstances.
Deryanna Mobley did a dramatic monologue of “The Negro Mother,” a poem written by Langston Hughes, another well-known African-American. Among his accomplishments were a wide assortment of poems, novels, short stories and plays. In her presentation, Deryanna virtually became an elderly black woman, from the cane she walked with and the clothes she wore to her trembling voice. In the poem she is telling of the accomplishments of her people and also giving advice to the younger generation.
Calia Brown did an interpretive dance to the song, “Mr. Bojangles.” She seemed to defy gravity with her leaps and displayed amazing agility with her splits. At the end of her dance Calia received a standing ovation.
Nya Taylor led the group in a recitation of “This Flag of Mine” written by Amy Jacques Garvey. This poem explains the colors of the flag that represents Africans world wide−red, black and green. These colors are also carried over into the colors of the candles that are lit during Kwanzaa. Five young boys and one girl lit these candles in a solemn ceremony.
Prior to the candle lighting ceremony, Angela Theodore held up a chalice-like cup and asked everyone to join in honoring their ancestors.
Ms. Theodore stated, “Ancestor are those who have gone before us whose lives we want to emulate and whose names are worthy of being passed on to the next generation. To honor the ancestors is to honor the best of what we are and can become.“
The afternoon was topped off by a sumptuous meal called a “Karamu.” Many of the foods coincided with the three colors associated with the celebration−red, black, and green. These included yams and sweet potatoes, black eyed peas, and collard greens. Some of the other foods consumed are typical of the South, such as cornbread and fried okra. In some instances, peanut stew and jollof rice (typical African foods) and Jamaican jerk chicken and fried plantains (popular in the Caribbean) are also served.
Although Kwanzaa is an African American celebration, we can all relate to the seven principles that it espouses. Unity is something needed so much these days−unity among races, religions, and cultures and unity among people with differing political beliefs. Self-determination and responsibility are values that we all want our children to have. Cooperative economics needs to be practiced in our community when we support locally-owned businesses. Purpose and Creativity are other important values. Purpose is what drives a person forward to achieve and creativity, as exemplified in the arts and sciences, is what solves problems and makes the world a better place. Lastly, Faith is something we all need to have−faith in God, in ourselves and in our fellow human beings.