The Mahoning Valley will join the rest of the nation tonight in ushering in Kwanzaa, the seven-day African-American cultural festival. Tonight’s event at 7 in New Bethel Baptist Church in Youngstown, sponsored by the Harambee Youth Organization, will feature music, dance and a variety of black American vendors.
The launch of the 43rd annual observance of Kwanzaa in this country serves as an opportune time to demystify the festival and debunk myths surrounding its celebration.
Coming as it does during the heart of Christianity’s most hallowed season, it is easy for some to perceive Kwanzaa as a religious celebration. Targeted as it is toward black Americans, it is easy for other ethnic groups to simply ignore.
Kwanzaa, however, is neither religious in its foundation nor exclusionary in its message.
The premise of Kwanzaa is cultural. The observance is designed to reaffirm the community vision and values of African culture and to contribute to its restoration among people of African descent in America.
According to Dr. Maulana Karenga, who organized the first Kwanzaa in the United States in 1966, “Kwanzaa was not created to give people an alternative to their own religion or religious holiday. And it is not an alternative to people’s religion or faith but a common ground of African culture.”
Of course, the cultural message is aimed primarily at blacks. Kwanzaa, which in Swahili means “the celebration of first fruits,” accentuates values that reinforce African family, community and cultural values.
Kwanzaa is inclusive
But as Karenga points out, people of other cultures and ethnic backgrounds can and do celebrate Kwanzaa, just as people of all cultures mark Cinco de Mayo, St. Patrick’s Day, Italian-American heritage festivals and other ethnic-specific observances throughout the year.
As Lynette Miller, founder of the Harambee Coalition and an organizer of this year’s Kwanzaa observances in Youngstown, points out: “Those principles are something that everyone can live by because it is based on sharing, unity and working together.”
Indeed, many of the seven guiding principles, or “Nguzo Saba,” of Kwanzaa transcend racial and ethnic boundaries. Those values, one of which is celebrated during each day of Kwanzaa, include Umoja (unity), Kujichagulia (self-determination), Ujima (collective work and responsibility), Ujamaa (cooperative economics), Nia (purpose), Kuumba (creativity) and Imani (faith).
Take Kuumba, for example. The philosophy behind the principle of creativity, according to Kwanzaa’s founder, is “to do always as much as we can, in the way we can, in order to leave our community more beautiful and beneficial than we inherited it.”
Strengthening and improving community — within one’s ethnic group and beyond it — is a laudable ideal for all to embrace.
But that ideal and the others of Kwanzaa should not be reserved for only one week of reverence.
As scholar Dorothy Winbush Riley, author of “The Complete Kwanzaa: Celebrating Our Cultural Heritage,” argues, “although we celebrate Kwanzaa the last week of the year, we must live the teachings each moment of every day, physically, morally and spiritually. Every day of the year, we must apply and practice the Nguzo Saba sincerely and faithfully to harvest success.”