This past summer I left home without my family for the first time to go to Ghana for two weeks in The Year of Return. The Year of Return is a year marking 400 years since enslaved Africans touched down on American soil — and the first year their descendants have formally been invited back home. Four hundred years ago was the start of apocalyptic traumas affecting the black community, so when holidays and movements are crafted in attempts to heal wounds, I believe they need to be cherished.
I joined Pittsburgh Public School’s African American Center for Advanced Studies executive committee in ninth grade, and was fully exposed to the tradition of Kwanzaa. Much like a harvest festival, the holiday was invented by Dr. Maulana Karenga for African Americans with the purpose of celebrating, valuing, and unifying the black community in the aftermath of the 1965 Watts riots. It is celebrated in the week of Dec. 26 to Jan. 1.
Prior to this week, however, the PPS council devotes one meeting to a pre-Kwanzaa celebration. The council was created to bring together and celebrate African American gifted and talented high school students spanning across the nine PPS high schools in an effort to strive for excellence, and the committee only directs these efforts, unifying the community as Kwanzaa intends.
We begin by reading up on the holiday, going through the seven principles assigned to the seven days of Kwanzaa (more on that later). We then end the ceremony by pouring libation to those who have paved our way. We pour libation to those ancestors who touched down 400 years ago, to those who didn’t survive the journey, and to our brothers and sisters we’ve lost since then. During libation, we stand with our hands joined, our respects given, and for the first time the whole becomes one.
On each day of Kwanzaa, we light one of the seven candles in the kinara. The candles come in three colors: black, red and green. We start with black for the people — there’s only one — then red for their struggle (three) and green for their future (three). Each candle also represents one of seven Swahili principles: Umoja (oo-MOE-jah), the first candle, stands for unity; Kujichagulia (koo-jee-cha- goo-LEE-ah), self-determination; Ujima (oo-JEE-mah), collective work and responsibility; Ujamaa (oo-JAH-mah), cooperative economics; Nia (nee-AH), purpose; Kuumba (koo-OOM-bah), creativity; and Imani (ee-MAH-nee), faith. After lighting each candle, we showcase our talents, whether they be spoken word, poetry, music, dance or performing a monologue.
Over the seven nights of Kwanzaa, people typically tell stories, such as “Kevin’s Kwanzaa” in which Kevin awaits his chance to light the last candle on Jan. 1 and narrates the nights and principles leading to the principle he selected (people celebrating Kwanzaa usually choose a principle of the day). In another story, “A Family Kwanzaa,” a child explains what Kwanzaa looks like in her home. On the last night of Kwanzaa, following the candle lighting, families give gifts to children and prepare a feast, ending the holiday as you begin a new year together.
For two consecutive years I’ve chosen Ujamaa as my principle of the day. It’s the principle of cooperative economics and to me it means investing in and supporting black-owned businesses. My main reason for choosing Ujamaa is it is also the name of the store in the Hill District that gave me the opportunity to visit Ghana.Find More Stories