Kwanzaa–a celebration of family, community and Black heritage–takes place this year from December 26 until January 1. Kwanzaa is observed mostly in the homes of African-American families; however, to honor the holiday, the Weisser Park Youth Center hosts a day of festivities.
Kwanzaa at Weisser Park, said supervisor of neighborhood programs Zynette Paige, begins with a libation ceremony during which participants pour water into plants or into the ground–to the north, south, east and west–while saying the names of deceased family members. If you continue to say the names of your ancestors, they live on in spirit, says a proverb.
Next comes a candle-lighting ceremony. Kwanzaa focuses on seven principles called the Nguzo Saba, each value believed to come from East African culture. The first candle is black and symbolizes unity; it’s set in the center of the kinara candelabra and surrounded by red and green candles, each symbolizing a different principle.
“Kwanzaa is about the children. We wanted to make Kwanzaa more inclusive of the children in the spirit that we thought the Creator wanted it to be,” said Paige. Kids get involved with the ceremony by reading and commenting upon a principle, then lighting a candle. After the kinara ceremony, the community center becomes a festive party.
There is poetry and spoken-word before the live jazz and R&B gets the dance floor going. There are performances by African dancers and the Weisser Park Youth Center Step Dance group.
The band plays into the evening, as lids are pulled from steaming dishes. “Caribbean food, some African-American ‘soul food’; there might be a traditional African dish… We have a spread!” said Paige. Kwanzaa, in fact, translates to “first fruits.”
“It’s a harvest festival,” said Dr. John Aden, historian and director of Fort Wayne’s African/African-American Historical Museum. Scholar Maulana Karenga established the holiday in 1966 as an opportunity to learn about African culture and as an “esteem building exercise” for Black people in the United States. The holiday really became popular, said Aden, in the 1980s.
“Other holidays that are celebrated by a majority of Americans really have a social function to bolster people’s self esteem and give them a common sense of purpose and unity,” said Aden. In creating the holiday, Karenga wanted to draw on a long-standing set of African traditions, and set his gaze on East Africa. Most of the language terms in Kwanzaa are Swahili.
Kwanzaa “is not something that’s celebrated in Kenya or Tanzania or on the Swahili coast,” said Aden, but Karenga likely chose that culture for its rich history as a main partner in the Indian Ocean trading system, which predates the birth of Christ.
Kwanzaa is a celebration of culture, of humanity, of triumph over struggle and of progress. “There’s a much richer discussion now about allies and what their role is than ever existed in the discussion of Kwanzaa or Black political movements,” said Aden. “There are always people of European descent at the Weisser Park ceremony. I’ve never seen it be a negative experience for white people [although] it was explicitly created to empower Black people.”
Paige agreed, everyone is welcome to attend. “It says that you’re willing to learn and hopefully that you respect other cultures and see the beauty in them; we’re more alike than we are different.”
“It’s important to embrace who you are culturally, because if you can embrace your own culture, you can also respect other’s,” said Paige. “But if you don’t have a foundation, it’s hard. If there’s any time we need to start embracing and respecting each other, it’s now.”
Annual Community Kwanzaa Celebration, December 28, 6 pm, Weisser Park Youth Center, 802 Eckart Street, 260.427.6780, fortwayneparks.org
Nguzo Saba: The Seven Principles of Kwanzaa
Umoja: Unity to bond family, community, nation and race.
Kujichagulia: Self-Determination to define, name and speak for oneself.
Ujima: Collective Work & Responsibility to strengthen community through supportive problem solving.
Ujamaa: Cooperative Economics to profit together by supporting local small businesses.
Nia: Purpose to commit to collective community development.
Kuumba: Creativity to leave neighborhoods more beautiful and beneficial.
Imani: Faith in the people, parents, teachers, leaders and the victory of Black struggle.