Wearing a gold and black tunic over black pants and accented by a striking African hat in red, black, and green, J.H. Atkins enthralls a classroom of first-graders at Woodlawn Elementary School in Danville with a presentation on Kwanzaa. The weeklong festival, observed from December 26 to January 1 each year—in African culture, “the time when the edges of the year meet”—and celebrated primarily in the United States, honors African-American heritage.
“‘Kwanzaa’ comes from the Swahili phrase ‘matunda ya kwanza,’ which means ‘first fruits of the harvest,'” explains M. Annette Mandley-Turner, executive director of the Office of Multicultural Ministry in Louisville. “It is based on ancient African harvest celebrations and shares five aspects with these celebrations: the gathering of the people; special reverence to our creator; commemoration of the past and our ancestors; commitment to our highest ethical and cultural values; and celebration of family, community, and culture.”
On a table in the classroom, Atkins has arranged his show-and-tell itemsï¿½an array of zawadi (gifts) and Kwanzaa cards, including a drum, bookmarks, and strands of beads. Many of the homemade gifts reflect Kwanzaa’s emphasis on individual creativity and were presented to Atkins by students from various program presentations.
“Kwanzaa celebrates the harvest—and the harvest of the mind,” says Atkins, assistant vice president for diversity and associate professor of education at Centre College. A born educator, Atkins has taught in a variety of public schools at the elementary, middle, and high school levels. In addition to his teaching duties, Atkins also assists with elementary and secondary student teachers and with diversity activities for the college—and presents programs about Kwanzaa to elementary and middle school children.
Also part of Atkins’ presentation are African-inspired clothing, including a scarf, a candleholder with seven candles, ears of corn, a chalice, and images of the seven symbols of the principles of the festival.
“There are seven days, seven principles, seven symbols. I stress the Seven Principles of Kwanzaaï—they are great for African-Americans, great for everyone.
“Kwanzaa is a nonreligious, nonpolitical celebration,” he adds. “The colors of Kwanzaa (red, black, and green) symbolize our blood, the color of our faces, and our Motherland—Africa. Part of that green is the historical significance of black people and their connection to agriculture. It is a celebration of the harvest and hope for the future.”
Created in 1966 by Dr. Maulana Karenga, professor of Africana Studies at California State University—Long Beach and author of Kwanzaa: A Celebration of Family, Community and Culture, Kwanzaa’s intent was to focus on the African struggle to achieve social justice, to build unity—and a better world—and to strengthen African culture. From its first celebration it has been a festival—but one with a decidedly introspective component.
“Each Kwanzaa we are called upon to think deeply about our lives and the world, and ask ourselves how do we as a person and people understand ourselves and address the critical issues of our times in ethical and effective ways,” Karenga explains in his article, Principles and Practices of Kwanzaa: Repairing and Renewing the World. (The full article, along with information about the origins and celebration of the festival, can be found at www.OfficialKwanzaaWebsite.org.)
Originally celebrated in the final days of 1966 and concluding on the first day of 1967, Kwanzaa consists of seven days of celebration and features activities such as candle-lighting and pouring of libations, culminating in a feast and gift-giving. At its heart are the Seven Principles, including unity, faith, and purpose, known by their Swahili name, the “Nguzo Saba.”
Marilyn Dishman also presents Kwanzaa programs. The Lexington resident first got involved in keeping Kwanzaa about 15 years ago when her sister, Carolyn Dishman Bell, invited her to share in a celebration. Curiosity piqued, Dishman accepted the invitation.
“At that time, my sister was the director of the Robert H. Williams Cultural Center in Lexington, which also housed all kinds of books, flags, and various African and African-American memorabilia,” says Dishman. “So I bought some books, including one written by Dr. Karenga, and some gifts, crafts, and games.”
Dishman used the items to teach black history to her grandson, nieces, and nephews.
“Actually, we would play the games at all of our family gatherings—young and old—because it was a fun way to learn about our heritage.”
Dishman presents programs to family and friends, churches, and organizations. For her programs, she brings all of the symbols, including candleholder and Unity cup, and explains their origins and reasons for using them.
“My grandson, Isaiah Lewis, helps me carry, set up, and tear down my equipment. He also participates in the ceremony.”
Dishman usually ends the celebration with a meal and always wears African attire.
In her study and presentations on the topic, Dishman discovered there are two major misconceptions about the festival: “One misconception is that it is a religious holiday; the other is that it’s trying to take the place of Christmas.”
“Neither is true,” notes Atkins, who has heard the same erroneous beliefs voiced in the course of presenting his own programs.
Atkins has celebrated Kwanzaa since the 1970s when he received an invitation to a Kwanzaa celebration while in the Army and stationed at Fort Campbell. Besides visiting schools, he and his family annually host a Kwanzaa open house for the community.
“We ask folks not to bring gifts; the gift is conversation and comradeship. It is not a ‘black’ celebration but a community celebration.”
Atkins says a Kwanzaa feast might consist of rice and beans, what people typically think of as soul food or any type of cultural foods, including celery and carrots and dip.
“Ethnicity is not a thing of color. Everyone has their own ethnicity; it’s easier to see in some people.
“The purpose of Kwanzaa is to help maintain African-American heritage and to learn respect for your culture and others.”
The rituals of Kwanzaa include laying the symbols of Kwanzaa—the Kwanzaa Set—atop a piece of African cloth. The symbols, including a candleholder, or kinara—symbolic of African-American roots—ears of corn (mazao), and Unity cup (kikombe cha umoja), are then placed on a mat called a mkeka. Placed either on or next to the mat are African art objects and books on the life and culture of African people; these symbolize commitment to heritage and learning.
Kwanzaa celebrations may be accompanied by drumming and various musical selections, readings appropriate to the occasion, and fresh fruits and libations (wine, grape juice, or water).
Homes are decorated with objects of art and participants might wear African-inspired clothing, including kaftans for the women.
The specific greeting for each day of the Kwanzaa festival is “Habari gani?” In Swahili, this means, “What’s the news?” The answer is one of the Seven Principles—a different one for each day of Kwanzaa. And like other holidays, Kwanzaa has a general greeting that is exchanged by its celebrants: “Heri za Kwanzaa” (Happy Kwanzaa). KL
LOUISVILLE’S KWANZAA CELEBRATION
For the past 28 years, the Office of Multicultural Ministry at the Archdiocese of Louisville has hosted a community-wide Kwanzaa Celebration. The event, originally initiated by M. Annette Mandley-Turner, executive director of the Office of Multicultural Ministry, features prayer, guest speaker, dance team, drum call, entertainment (poetry, music, storytelling), and a libation (grape juice) sipped from the Unity Cup. Louisville’s River City Drum Corps will perform this year.
“The person facilitating the celebration will go over the principle of the day and oversee the lighting of the kinara,” says Sondra Mehler of the Office of Multicultural Ministry at the Archdiocese of Louisville. “At the tables there will be displays of the images of the Seven Principles.”
The focal point of this celebration is the karamu, or Kwanzaa feast, which typically consists of corn, potatoes, greens, and more. This year marks the 29th such event:
Wednesday, December 29, 5:30 p.m.
Catholic Enrichment Center
3146 West Broadway
Louisville, KY 40211
For information, contact Charmein Weathers,
(502) 636-0296 ext. 1223, or go online to www.archlou.org.
KEYWORD EXCLUSIVE: Keyword Exclusive—THE SEVEN PRINCIPLES OF KWANZAA
To learn about “Nguzo Saba,” or the Seven Principles, that were developed by Kwanzaa creator Maulana Karenga, go to seven principles.