Devised a mere generation ago, Kwanzaa is sometimes dismissed as a made-up holiday.
But YMI Cultural Center officials discount that indictment. For them, Kwanzaa is less a “new” version of Christmas than an ancient community festival that’s been revamped in the here and now.
Asheville will honor African-American heritage and values this week, celebrating Kwanzaa’s bounty of pride, hope and self-determination. The holiday, named after the Swahili phrase matunda ya kwanza (“first fruits”), reflects social aspects of a traditional African harvest celebration — including sharing the collective fruits of labor.
Unlike Christmas, Jewish Hanukkah or Islamic Ramadan, however, Kwanzaa is a cultural rather than religious holiday, points out Rita Martin, executive director of YMI.
“It’s not religious or spiritual,” says Martin. “It’s a celebration and appreciation. Kwanzaa stands for what’s relevant in everyday life.”
Built on ideal African values, Kwanzaa also saves room for a vision of the future.
“Build where you are”
Desiring an African-American cultural, non-commercialized alternative to Christmas, Dr. Maulana Ron Karenga conceived Kwanzaa in 1966, amid the national civil-rights movement. Back then, Karenga urged blacks to remember ancestors’ past struggles and to focus on present and future challenges and pursuits.
The black-studies professor implored African-Americans to “strive for discipline, dedication and achievement in all that you do. Dare struggle and sacrifice, and gain the strength that comes from this. Build where you are, and dare leave a legacy that will last as long as the sun shines and the water flows.”
The local Kwanzaa ceremony annually includes Karenga’s “African Pledge” for African-Americans — which urges adherents to “bring new values” and “cultivate self-reliance” — says Connie Jefferson, YMI administrative manager.
Karenga, a self-professed “cultural nationalist” — it was he who added the extra “a” to the Swahili word kwanza — also called for blacks to “struggle to resurrect and unify our homeland.”
“We will raise many children for our nation,” he added.
Karenga urged African-Americans to “honor the struggle of our elders.” Both the African flag (a.k.a. the Black Liberation Flag) and Kwanzaa ceremonial candles are red (reflecting bloodshed and struggle), black (unity) and green — which bears the most vital burden, standing for earth, life, achievement, ideas and hope for future generations.
Margaret Fuller, YMI’s arts and education coordinator and a featured speaker in the holiday program, wants the younger generation to appreciate the struggles of civil rights activists. But her presentation at the local Kwanzaa presentation will emphasize the local black community’s collective achievements.
“We celebrate accomplishments for the year,” Fuller explains. “We also pay homage to those who have gone before us. We [stand] on their shoulders.”
Sound of symbols
Kwanzaa begins the day after Christmas, lasting seven days. Each day, celebrants honor a different one of Karenga’s seven principles — whose Swahili names translate to unity, self-determination, collective work and responsibility, cooperative economics, purpose, creativity and faith.
But the YMI celebration will condense the principles into a single afternoon, helped by such festive accoutrements as the musical sha kara gourd shaker, which represents creativity. Another central symbol is the seven-candle-holding kinara, traditionally lit a candle a day in the manner of the Jewish menorah.
At the local Kwanzaa, however, all seven candles will shine at once.
It is, after all, an event honoring bounty. Furthering that notion, YMI’s Kwanzaa will culminate with a feast — which traditionally includes chicken, corn, rice, sweet-potato fritters, black-eyed peas, vegetable stew and okra with an oil-and-vinegar topping, says Jefferson. Dessert is often a cake with sesame seeds (which are West African tokens of good luck).
Straw place mats at the Kwanzaa table act as the community’s foundation; on them are placed such items as ears of corn (one for each child in a family).
And what winter holiday, cultural or otherwise, could pass without gifts? Zawadi are exchanged as the fruits of labor, but should be modest and affordable. The National Museum of African Art suggests giving books or other educational items.
To Fuller, however, a family picture album best expresses the holiday’s spirit.
“Sometimes the things we do or say are the best gifts,” she reminds us.
In many Kwanzaa ceremonies, a “unity cup” chalice is filled with wine, juice or water, passed around and sipped to honor family and community. Sharing economic bounty is a key tenet of Kwanzaa — to this end, YMI will be distributing donated canned goods to needy families.
Recognizing the education of upcoming generations as the bread-and-butter of this cultural festival, YMI representatives spent December hosting Kwanzaa-related programs for area school groups.
Collective work and responsibility
Celebrants should remember to frequent African-American-owned businesses during Kwanzaa time.
To boost minority-owned businesses and jobs, YMI Cultural Center regularly houses a starter business — currently Studio Jab hair salon.
The YMI Cultural Center displays African and African-American art and artifacts in both temporary and permanent exhibits, and has presented the Goombay Afro-Caribbean music and art festival each August for the past 20 years.