KWANZAA IN THE TWIN CITIES
Holidays aren’t about quantity, especially when they come from community
By Lianna Matt
Ashley Ousley grew up knowing what Kwanzaa was and the history behind it, but she never practiced it. This year, she’s practicing the seven-day holiday for the first time with her family, which includes her seven-year-old daughter. The main catalyst? She co-produced Woke Productions’ show, “What Happened to Kwanzaa?” which was performed Dec. 9 at Minneapolis Central Library as one of a scant handful of events this holiday season to mention Kwanzaa in the Twin Cities.
Another Kwanzaa celebration was held by WE WIN Institute, a Minneapolis nonprofit that focuses on supporting African American youth and families, and a third event is the Minnesota Historical Society’s Wow! Family Sunday’s “Holidays Then, Holidays Now,” which has a special focus on Kwanzaa and New Year’s among its holiday lineup Dec. 31.
Despite the more selective pickings of Kwanzaa events, the cultural pendulum may be swinging back to shed a light on the holiday.
“We (as a nation) obviously celebrate Christmas, Hanukkah, Eid (al-Adha),” Ousley says. “I think there is a re-emergence that it (Kwanzaa) could be coming back because our communities need these principles now more and ever, and recognizing that it is another part of the holiday’s celebration.”
Kwanzaa will never be the biggest holiday of the season, but perhaps, because of its strident determination to not become commercialized, it shouldn’t be.
For instance, in University of Minnesota professor Keith Mayes’ book, “Kwanzaa: Black Power and the Making of an African-American Holiday Tradition,” he chronicles how Love, Auntie Cheryl Greetings, Inc. partnered with American Greetings Corporation to sell their successful Kwanzaa cards before being pushed out of the business by them. Then in the 1990s, a story circulated that one of New York City’s community-driven “Kwanzaa Fests” got so large it needed corporate sponsoring, which eventually became what Mayes labeled “business colonization.”
Kwanzaa was started in 1966 by Maulan Karenga, one of the leaders of the Black Power movement, to celebrate the tenants of pan-African culture and heritage. It is not a religiously affiliated holiday, and over the years, Karenga has retracted an earlier opinion of his and said that Kwanzaa is not meant to replace Christmas for those who practice the Christian holiday.
Instead, Kwanzaa is about the seven principles of the African community: umoja, or unity; kujichagulia, self-determination; ujima, which means collective work and responsibility; ujamaa, or cooperative economics; nia, purpose; kuumba, creativity; and imani, or faith. Each principle, named in Swahili since it is the most spoken African language, takes one of the seven days of Kwanzaa that run annually from Dec. 26 through New Year’s Day.
Although Kwanzaa was quite popular since its inception through the early 2000s, as of late, the headlines are tinged with phrases such as, “Is Kwanzaa Fading Away in Minnesota?” Across the country, annual Kwanzaa events that used to bring out the multitudes only bring a couple hundred, and the number of events themselves have dwindled. Mayes has estimated that only 3 percent of African Americans practiced Kwanzaa in the U.S.
The MNHS annual Kwanzaa Family Day, which could be depended on for many a Kwanzaa roundup, ended in 2015.
“In regard to no longer having a Kwanzaa Family Day Program, we were seeing our attendance decrease for that program,” Lauren Peck, a public relations specialist at MNHS wrote in an email. “Our Kwanzaa program celebrated the holiday as well as African-American traditions and family, so in 2017, we decided to take those concepts and refocus our efforts on a family day during Black History Month in February instead.”
This reallocation of resources is not unfounded by any means, and the similar themes of Black History Month and Kwanzaa mesh well together. Also, as stated before, the Historical Society has created part of its “Holidays Then, Holiday Now” program around it, with storytelling by “Auntie Beverly” to teach people about the traditions of the holiday as well as family activities to go with the sixth principle, kuumba, or creativity. Nonetheless, the dissolution of the original Kwanzaa Family Day could be seen as one more sign that the holiday is in demise. The case would be much stronger if it didn’t have so many smaller, community-driven gatherings.
The question, “What Happened to Kwanzaa?” was the center of Woke Productions’ first show on Dec. 9. The nonprofit, started by Ousley and Anderson, strives to give youth a theater and arts experience as traditional in-school options are threatened by budget cuts. With this show, the pair hoped to fill in the Kwanzaa event gap they saw and focus not only on the holiday, but the values of it.
For the show, students ages 6 through 17 performed a work such as a spoken word piece, dance number or song to teach one of Kwanzaa’s seven principles, and then a model would present a fashion design inspired by that principle.
“There were a few young people who had some familiarity and some facility with it, and most often we heard that because they went to a certain school that practice Kwanzaa,” Anderson says. “We were very intentional about teaching them along the way. It wasn’t just about their gifts and talents, the singing and dancing. We were very intentional about learning the history of Kwanzaa and how it relates to us today.”
To put the show on, Anderson and Ousley worked with more than the students and the local fashion designers. Parents drove their children to the late evening and weekend practices, and they helped record and disseminate some marketing material for Woke Productions. Local organizations and entrepreneurs donated to the show to get it off the ground.
“It’s about the youth being on the stage and being proud and highlighted, but it’s the whole community effort to be part,” Anderson says.
After performance night came and went, the positive reviews were immediate. Older audience members thought about nostalgic pieces of their past where, even if they did not celebrate Kwanzaa growing up, they reclaimed the knowledge of its history. Parents were coming up to Anderson and Ousley saying their children would definitely be doing the show again, or for those who weren’t involved this time around, that Woke Productions could count on a new face next year. The biggest takeaway of one of the North Community High School volunteers was that she learned a lot.
At WE WIN Institute, they have a Kwanzaa tradition that has persisted over the years since it began in 1996. The organization itself seeks to empower and support African American youth and families through programs like after school options, mentoring programs and a student summer garden program, so its Kwanzaa event also focuses on giving the next generation the gift of the holiday.
Before the institute has its winter break, they have an open invitation for anyone to come and celebrate Kwanzaa as their students provide a night of Kwanzaa teaching, singing, dancing, drumming and dinner. This year, the event was Dec. 19, a week before Kwanzaa began. There was minimal advertising around the event—many who went simply knew about it because they knew WE WIN—but with a root in its community, the event can only continue to flourish over the years.
To celebrate Kwanzaa at public events often means to do a recap of all the Kwanzaa principles and highlight performing arts by those in the African American community. However, when you celebrate the holidays, you split the time between the larger community and the more intimate gatherings behind the door of your private home. So what does one do to celebrate Kwanzaa there?
“You know what your traditions are for Christmas and with that amazing holiday, there’s all of these things tied to it, and so I think people are looking for a blueprint so to speak on how to celebrate (Kwanzaa’s) culture,” Anderson says. “(For Kwanzaa) it’s not going to look the same for each household that is celebrating.”
Anderson, who has practiced Kwanzaa for the last seven years with her family, tailored her celebration to her family’s strengths and interests. She has the classic kinara, of course, the eight-pronged candelabra that gets confused for a menorah. Day by day, a family member lights the candles for the seven principles. The black candle in the middle represents the people of Kwanzaa. The red candles are for the struggle of the people; green is for their future.
Whoever lights the candle also reads about an African figure who embodies that principle and issues a call to action on how to live out that principle. There is singing and a remembrance of their ancestors. On some days Anderson hosts other friends and family, and on other days, she and her family have some bonding time, like when they had a pizza making contest for the unity day. This year, kuumba, or creativity, will have lots of crafts. Anderson’s gift-giving happens on the fifth day, nia, or purpose, and the gifts are chosen to help further the recipient’s talents and calling.
Ousley’s celebration may have similar aspects to Anderson’s, and it may have different ones. That’s the beauty of it. Even if it shrinks even more from the mainstream in Minnesota, those who do practice it will stay true to its meaning. With community efforts like Woke Productions, WE WIN and even the Minnesota Historical Society, people might just find themselves being drawn back to the holiday.
“It’s more than the holiday; it’s the community. It’s about having a purpose, being unified, a determination to make yourself better,” Ousley says. “If you really focus on those set of principles and relearn them and re-apply them, it’s about rebuilding the communities from the ground up.“
Correction: An earlier version of the article gave a misconception about how many Kwanzaa events were in the Twin Cities. It has since been updated (Dec. 28, 2017) with a sidebar of other past and upcoming events.