BALTIMORE – This time of year, 14-year-old Amir Ralph is all about Kwanzaa.
He embraces the celebration of African culture, which is marking its 50th anniversary this year, and works tirelessly to spread the word about the holiday, visiting schools and communities throughout Baltimore.
He and his mother, Tiffany, will be lighting the kinara, whose seven candles represent the seven days and seven guiding principles of the holiday. There will be gifts and lots of celebrating.
But ask Amir what makes Kwanzaa so special, and none of that comes up.
“It’s a holiday surrounding community and family,” says Amir. “It’s also one of the only holidays that connects me to my heritage, and to my past.”
Fifty years since Kwanzaa was created by Dr. Maulana Karenga, its adherents say the holiday holds as much meaning as ever, offering the African-American community a chance to celebrate its accomplishments and remember where it came from.
Kwanzaa – which officially began Monday, Dec. 26 and runs through Jan. 1 – is centered on seven guiding principles, known as the Nguzo Saba: unity (in Swahili, umoja), self-determination (kujichagulia), collective work and responsibility (ujima), purpose (nia), creativity (kuumba), faith (imani) and collective economics (ujamaa).
During the weeklong celebration, stories are shared, with music and dance often a key part, and presents are exchanged, often books on African-American history and culture.
“Kwanzaa was intentionally created for the African-America population,” says Jeff Menzise, an associate professor at Morgan State University’s Institute for Urban Research, “as something cultural, something to help with better understanding of their cultural origins, and a practical way of applying it to their daily lives.”
Like Christmas and Hanukkah, other major holidays with which it shares a season, Kwanzaa has its symbols.
Besides the kinara (which evokes comparisons to the Jewish menorah and Christian Advent wreath), there are fruits and vegetables, corn, and a cup (called the kikombe cha umoja, or unity cup), all traditionally placed on a mat (mkeka) laid atop a piece of African cloth.
But it’s the underpinnings of Kwanzaa, and its proud embrace of African identity and pride, that seem to speak the loudest to those who celebrate it.
“That is exactly what Kwanzaa provides,” says Menzise. “It provides a culture and a sense of legacy to people who, for a long time, had their legacy begin with the plantation, or on a slave ship. It gives you sort of permission to embrace something African that could also be popular…It provides, to some people, their first exposure to something that’s authentically African.”
That sense of identity, of pride in a culture too often neglected, has always appealed to Sallah Jenkins, an art teacher living in Northeast Baltimore who has been celebrating Kwanzaa with her family – which now includes eight children and 12 grandchildren – since 1976.
Even this year, with none of her children living at home anymore, she’ll be setting up a Kwanzaa table, complete with a kinara and all the accompaniments. It’s for when the grandchildren come by, she says.
“I always felt a spiritual aspect to it,” says Jenkins, 58. “When we were doing Kwanzaa, we shared everything. People would talk about our history and culture all the time.”
Charles Dugger, a high school teacher living in South Baltimore, has spent much of the past several weeks setting up Kwanzaa celebrations at various branches of Baltimore’s Enoch Pratt Free Library.
By the time he’s done, he will have visited 18 libraries, sometimes singing and clapping and leading kinara lightings before packed houses, other times playing to audiences of only one or two.
He’s on a mission, Dugger says, to stress the principles of Kwanzaa – especially to young people, who he says can use all the positive role models they can get.
Nothing into something
“You learn about people who took nothing and literally turned it into something,” says Dugger, whose appearance last week at the Brooklyn branch library included the invocation of more than a dozen names of African-Americans who have made a difference, from Paul Robeson to Muhammad Ali and Emmett Till.
While some people try to avoid commercialism when it comes to Kwanzaa – handing out handmade gifts, for instance, or making their own mkeka – others embrace shopping for the holiday.
At Everyone’s Place, which prides itself as being Baltimore’s “Kwanzaa headquarters,” kinaras run around $30, while mkekas cost about $5 to $10. The store does a brisk business, co-owner Tabia Kamau-Nataki says – especially this year, with the holiday’s golden anniversary.
“There’s always a new group of people who are trying to incorporate Kwanzaa into their lives,” says Kamau-Nataki, adding that interest in the holiday has been increasing steadily in the 30-some years Everyone’s Place has been in business.
“Kwanzaa has breath and life; it’s just growing.”
That must be music to the ears of Karenga, who was active in the 1960s civil rights movement. He created Kwanzaa in 1966, finding his inspiration in African harvest festivals.
In his annual Founders’ Kwanzaa Statement, Karenga wrote in part, “The 50th anniversary of the pan-African holiday, Kwanzaa, of necessity brings added focus and emphasis on its customary call for remembrance, reflection and recommitment.
“We remember our history and the legacies left and the people who made and left them for us and the world. We reflect on the expansive meaning of being African in the world, on the context and issues of our times, and on our way forward in struggle to forge a future responsive to our needs and interests as well as those of the world.
“And we recommit ourselves to our highest values, to our most anchoring, elevating and liberating practices, and as ever to the good of our people and the well-being of the world.”
‘Celebration of freedom’
Karenga continues: “Kwanzaa is clearly a celebration of family, community and culture, but it is also a celebration of freedom, an act of freedom and an instrument of freedom. It is an act of freedom in its recovery and reconstruction of African culture, our return to its best values and practices and our resistance to the imposition of Eurocentric ways of understanding and engaging the world.
“Kwanzaa is a celebration of freedom, of the freedom struggle itself in which Kwanzaa is grounded, a celebration of our choosing to free ourselves and be ourselves, as Africans, and to rejoice in the richness of our history and culture of awesome and audacious striving and struggle.
“Let us hold fast, then, to our African value system, the Nguzo Saba, that has won the heart and minds of millions throughout the world African community.”
Chris Kaltenbach of The Baltimore Sun / TNS contributed to this report.