First Fruits for the Family

Observing Kwanzaa is an important part of sharing African heritage with family.

BY: Eric Copage


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When I first told my wife I was thinking about observing Kwanzaa, she barred the way to the attic and said she'd never chuck out our Christmas tree lights and antique ornaments. I told her that wouldn't be necessary. Kwanzaa does not replace Christmas and is not a religious holiday, so we could celebrate both.

On each day of Kwanzaa, a family member lights a candle, then discusses one of the principles. The next-to-last day, December 31, is marked by a lavish feast, the Kwanzaa Karamu, which, in keeping with the theme of black unity, may draw on the cuisines of Africa, the Caribbean, South America--wherever people of African descent live. The Karamu is also an opportunity for a confetti storm of cultural expression: dance and music, readings, remembrances.

When my family lights the black, red, and green Kwanzaa candles during the last week of December, we do so with black Americans around the nation. Major community celebrations are held in just about every city with a significant black population: Chicago, Philadelphia, Milwaukee, Dayton, Atlanta, Durham, Charleston. Some people invite non-African-Americans to Kwanzaa as a way of sharing African culture. For others, the idea of sharing Kwanzaa with anyone other than a fellow African-American would be anathema. Some people "Kwanzify" their Christmas by using African-inspired Yuletide decorations and tree ornaments. Others celebrate Kwanzaa in lieu of Christmas.

My family takes an a la carte approach. We decided we'd have just one Kwanzaa meal in the middle of the holiday week. Our first such meal consisted of dishes that brought forth sweet memories. I remembered helping my grandmother make collard greens, especially the arduous task of washing dirt from the leaves (and getting bawled out if someone got a gritty mouthful during dinner). I remembered sorting the black-eyed peas for the Hoppin' John she cooked. I remembered visiting West Africa when I was 18 and tasting the spicy peanut soup for the first time. And, of course, there was my lifetime of eating cornbread.

Like Christmas, our Kwanzaa tends to be a small celebration comprising our nuclear family of four (although we also attend Kwanzaa cultural events--dance performances and the like--at the American Museum of Natural History or the Studio Museum of Harlem). After our Kwanzaa meal, I relate the biography of a black man or woman, tell a black folktale or myth, or describe a historical event central to blacks. And every night, I turn the seven Kwanzaa principles into bedtime stories. For example, I describe how Frederick Douglass showed nia, or purpose, in overcoming the institution of slavery that forbade him from learning how to read.

At my family's Kwanzaa, we don't drink from the unity cup but pour a small libation into it and leave it on the center of the table. We use freestanding candles instead of a kinara. That may change, however, with this coming Kwanzaa, or the Kwanzaa after that. It took several years for me even to feel comfortable saying, "Happy Kwanzaa." But I think that is only natural. Any holiday, together with its rituals, derives its symbolic and social power from its cultural context. It takes time for a cultural context to crystallize. It's easy for someone to devise a holiday from on high, but it takes time for the buzz to develop, and for people to find out if, and how, their neighbors are celebrating.

I always remind myself--and my family--that celebrating Kwanzaa is not an end in itself. Like wearing kente cloth hats or giving our children African names, newly created rites should remind us of our collective strength and of the fact that this strength is manifest only through individual effort. The seven Kwanzaa principles aren't just part of a ritual but a set of practical tools for helping us live our African-American cultural ideals throughout the year. That is why I've decided, even though I'm not much for holidays, to make a place for Kwanzaa on my end-of-the-year calendar.


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