On the day after Christmas, Riche Holmes Grant will get up early to lay out the seven symbols of Kwanzaa, a weeklong celebration of African and African American culture.
On each night of Kwanzaa, an African drum call will summon Holmes Grant, 43, and her family to one room. They will begin the celebration by pouring libation water from the kikombe cha umoja, or unity cup, into a plant “as a way to honor our ancestors,” she said. Together, they’ll share what the principle of the day means to them as one of the seven candles is lit.
But instead of inviting her extended family over for a large feast of Caribbean, African and Creole cuisine called a karamu, Holmes Grant plans to swap recipes, cook and show off her Kwanzaa display via Zoom.
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Holmes Grant, a designer and content creator who splits her time between Washington, D.C., and Los Angeles, said her family also plans to watch The Black Candle, a film about Kwanzaa narrated by Maya Angelou, to keep everyone on the Zoom call engaged.
“It’s going to be a celebration filled with reflections and food and also entertainment,” she said.
Like Holmes Grant, many families will be holding virtual Kwanzaa celebrations amid the coronavirus pandemic, which has disproportionately sickened and killed African Americans. After months of protests against systemic racism and police brutality, Kwanzaa will provide a moment of reflection amid a difficult year for the Black community.
Kwanzaa, which begins Dec. 26 and ends Jan. 1, was created in 1966 by Maulana Karenga.
“The celebration of Kwanzaa is about embracing ethical principles and values, so the goodness of the world can be shared and enjoyed by us and everyone,” Karenga told the Rochester (N.Y.) Democrat & Chronicle in a 2013 interview.
A different value is celebrated on each of seven nights, marked by lighting candles on a holder called a kinara – three red candles, three green and a black candle at the center.
The seven values of Kwanzaa:
- Umoja, or Unity: The first principle of Kwanzaa is unity, especially as it relates to family, community, nation and race.
- Kujichagulia, or Self-Determination: This principle encourages participants to define and speak for themselves.
- Ujima, or Collective Work and Responsibility: Participants should build and maintain community together and help solve one anothers’ problems.
- Ujamaa, Cooperative Economics: Karenga describes cooperative economics as the sum of three concepts: 1) Shared wealth and work; 2) Economic self-reliance and 3) Obligation of generosity.
- Nia, or Purpose: This principle is defined as building and developing community.
- Kuumba, or Creativity: To leave the community more beautiful than before.
- Imani, or Faith: Finally, for Kwanzaa’s last night, participants reflect on faith in people, family and leaders.
During Kwanzaa, children are sometimes given gifts that are educational, homemade or related to the African diaspora, according to Kelly Navies, the oral history specialist at the National Museum of African American History and Culture. She said people typically celebrate with their extended families at home and with their church or community groups by reflecting on each day’s value with poetry, music and potlucks.
This year institutions like the National Museum of African American History and Culture will provide digital resource for communities to celebrate at home including recipes, music and activities for children, Navies said. Her family, too, will be gathering on Zoom to discuss the seven principles, light candles and read poetry.
The holiday began as a small celebration among members of an organization called Us, created by Karenga during the black power movement of the 1960s. As the holiday gained popularity, Karenga was arrested and jailed in 1971 on charges of assault and false imprisonment, and a jury found him guilty after two women testified that they were tortured by Karenga and his followers.
Karenga, who now serves as executive director of the the African American Cultural Center in Los Angeles, was released in 1975 and has maintained his innocence.
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Although some have questioned whether the holiday is still relevant, Chimbuko Tembo, associate director of the center told USA TODAY last year Kwanzaa is celebrated “on every continent in the world, throughout the world by millions and millions of African people.” About 2.6% of those who plan to celebrate winter holidays said they would celebrate Kwanzaa, according to survey by the National Retail Federation.
Navies said in the past 10 years she has seen a resurgence in interest in Kwanzaa and more national recognition for the holiday along with the rise of the Black Lives Matter movement. She said Kwanzaa can offer the Black community a chance to remember those they’ve lost this year, such as congressman and civil rights champion John Lewis, and connect with their heritage and culture.
“The principles of Kwanzaa – unity, self-determination, purpose – these are principles that can really help African American people and really all people to reflect on this year to come together and strengthen the bonds of family, community,” she said.
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Holmes Grant added she hopes people will use Kwanzaa as an opportunity to reflect on their shared African ancestry and share the richness of that heritage with the world.
“People within the African diaspora I think are finding that they do have a need for more connection, something to hold on to given everything that we’ve been through this year,” she said. “This is more than just a holiday celebration it’s an opportunity for cultural education.”
Follow N’dea Yancey-Bragg on Twitter: @NdeaYanceyBragg