This year was our first year celebrating Kwanzaa and now I’m all a gaga over this cultural holiday and can’t wait till next year. We’ve been to Congo Square twice to take part in the drumming and dancing and lighting of the candles. The first night was Umoja – Unity – and the man from the Nation of Islam talked about unity in all of our beliefs. The fourth night back at Congo Square was Umoja and as a show of principle, community leaders were rewarded with a certificate and a check by the Congo Association for their tireless work in the community.
Each time, we’ve gathered for Kwanzaa, we’ve called the ancestral names as the libations were poured onto the ground, we’ve pounded our feet with the drumming, we’ve listened to the principles of Kwanzaa and have been taught about an ancient culture that lives inside each African American.
Tin even lit a candle as the youngest member on the fourth night.
Tonight, on the fifth night, we went to the Community Book Center and a woman spoke about finding her purpose (NIA) after having been shot during a home invasion. She is active in helping women of domestic violence – not only the women but their children. This woman was the embodiment of what C.S. Lewis wrote about – how hardship prepares ordinary people for extraordinary lives.
The drums were playing in the background as girls as young as Tin and as old as me performed African dances while the drummers and string player moved us. And circling the room were children, bright beautiful children all watching and listening.
I was called up to dance and I did.
At first, I was unsure how we would go about celebrating this holiday, and I was unsure of its meaning and its purpose. But tonight on the fifth night I’m in – 100% in – and find this to be one of the most beautiful holidays I’ve had the pleasure of participating in. Tonight as Tin was getting ready for sleep, in his pajamas, he raised his fist and said Ashé and I just kissed him all over.
From an outsider looking in here is how I’ve come to know Kwanzaa: The African people were brought here by force and separated from their ancestors, their culture, and their land. They were bereft of a history. And then African Americans began to piece together their lineage and to understand that they were more than this place and this time. They began to reclaim the stories their grandmothers had told them and tie them back to the huge continent of Africa and their stories from near and far became intertwined.
In 1966, Maulana Karenga started Kwanzaa as a cultural holiday for the unique group of people who are African Americans. The seven days are each tied to a principle that is based on ancient wisdom in a modern world. Unity, Cooperative Economics, Purpose. A table is made in your home with the colors of Africa – red, green and black. The kinara (candelabra) has seven candles – three red and three green and one black. The red is for the troubles they’ve seen, the green is for the dreamy verdant hills of the motherland, Africa, and black is for the color of their skin.
The celebration involves retelling the stories, meditating on the principle of the day, and gathering in community. Most importantly, it is a way to teach the children about who they are and where they come from – it’s a way to give back to a people whose genealogies were stripped from them.
The holiday is not meant to replace a religious one, nor is it meant to exclude non African Americans, it is simply a celebration of the African American culture that has so colored every one of our lives in this country and in the world. It is their stories and celebrating with them helps us to understand why their stories, their telling of their stories, matters to all of us.