Cultural center outreach event celebrates Kwanzaa

During the peak of the American civil rights movement in the 1960s, California State University professor Maulana Karenga conceptualized a now well-known winter holiday.

Karenga saw the push for equality as an opportunity for everyone of African descent in African-American culture to get in touch with their ancestors and identities. From that struggle, he created Kwanzaa, a celebration built on seven principles inscribed in Swahili: Umoja (unity), Kujichagulia (self-determination), Ujima (collective work and responsibility), Ujamaa (cooperative economics), Nia (purpose), Kuumba (creativity) and Imani (faith). The holiday was first celebrated in 1966-67.

Kwanzaa now spans seven days, from Dec. 26 to Jan. 1 this year, and has its own unique traditions. A candle holder called a Kinara, similar to a menorah, holds seven candles — three green, three red and one black to represent the colors of the African flag and the holiday’s seven principles. Each day, a candle is lit and the principle of the day is observed and reflected upon. However, Kwanzaa is dominantly a holiday designed to celebrate life, family, community and culture, something members of the University are committed to endorsing. 

To celebrate the holiday while students are on campus, the University’s Bruce D. Nesbitt African American Cultural Center will hold a new community outreach event called “The Holiday Express.” Spearheaded by Alisha Elliott, assistant director of BNAACC, the event series will kick off Wednesday at the Don Moyer Boys and Girls Club in Champaign. Students will try to instill Kuumba and Ajima, or creativity and collective work and responsibility, in the children of the Champaign-Urbana area through a series of craft workshops.

“This year, we’re trying to kind of espouse the principles of Kwanzaa with the service of giving, and what we want to do with these youth is decorate holiday ornaments and cards so that they kind of, at the very least, learn how to give back to their parents, their favorite teacher or their mentor; someone who they’ve had in their lives,” Elliott said.

Principles of Kwanzaa are echoed throughout the year at the cultural center, said BNAACC Director Rory James.

“Even though Kwanzaa is just December 26th through January 1st, we try to incorporate the principles of Kwanzaa throughout the year,” James said. “It’s bigger than those seven days.”

For many celebrating Kwanzaa, the introduction to the holiday was not necessarily through decades of family tradition. The holiday does not commercially bombard Americans’ lives with TV specials and parades of giant inflatables hovering over Radio City Music Hall. Instead, it can be discovered by coincidences, and in James’ case, curiosity.

“When I was younger, you never put up a Kinara; my uncle would have it but my immediate family wouldn’t put one up,” he said. “My uncle would take me to Hyde Park (in Chicago) to the African festivals and stuff. He was very Afrocentric-minded, and I knew about Kwanzaa from that experience.”

For James, Kwanzaa is a way to reconnect to a past permanently rattled by the slave trade, when cultural ties were severed and traditions were lost.

“(Kwanzaa) solidifies our identity as a people, regardless if you’re in Guyana, Belize, Brazil or Canada. You realize that we are a diverse group of people with different faiths,” James said. “For a lot of African-Americans who are descendants of enslaved Africans, you don’t necessarily know where your roots are. You don’t know if you’re from present-day Liberia or Sierra Leon, but it still ties you to African culture.”

Unlike Christmas and Hanukkah, which are holidays tightly associated with religion, Kwanzaa is designed for people of African descent or not, and all faiths, to join in the celebration of its core values.

“I feel like because some of these holidays are tied in culturally, you have a responsibility to educate and talk about them,” James said. “It’s tied in culturally with black people; just like Las Posadas is culturally relevant to a lot of Latin American cultures, or how a lot of Chinese people here celebrate Chinese New Year. I think these holidays have cultural relevance, and that’s why I think you have to side step the whole religious conversation.”

For Ariana Taylor, junior in LAS, the holiday encapsulates what it means to be an African-American.

“It is an extremely important holiday to celebrate so that black people keep a close relationship with our history and ourselves,” Taylor said. “It is extremely easy to try and assimilate fully into American culture and ignore the fact that we have a rich and unique culture of our own. It allows black Americans to reflect on ourselves as a people and stay connected to our roots.”

Eliseo can be reached at [email protected]