WEST ORANGE, NJ — Millions of people across the United States and abroad have celebrated Kwanzaa since it was created in 1966 by activist and Africana studies professor Maulana Karenga. But for all the people who choose to participate in the annual tradition honoring African heritage held the week after Christmas, there are many more who do not realize the significance of the holiday. In 2011, Kwanzaa scholar Keith Mayes estimated that the number who celebrate the tradition in the United States has tapered off to somewhere between just 500,000 and 2 million people.
The West Orange African Heritage Organization will attempt to reverse this trend locally at its own 17th annual Kwanzaa celebration at St. Joseph’s Catholic Church on Wednesday, Dec. 30. That is when newly-appointed WOAHO Vice President and Essex County College Africana Institute Director Akil Khalfani will give a presentation on Kwanzaa and its “nguzo saba,” or seven principles.
Khalfani hopes the celebration will give West Orange residents of African descent a better insight into their own heritage.
“It’s important to make sure that we’re aware,” Khalfani told the West Orange Chronicle in a Dec. 18 phone interview. “Some of us have less knowledge about our own cultural history. These types of events give us an opportunity to expose and share that which some may know more about and some may know less about.”
Celebrating Kwanzaa certainly has the power to acquaint people with their roots; after all, its very purpose was to introduce African-Americans to their ethnic history while honoring their values and hard work during the past year to live up to them. In fact, the holiday itself was inspired by the year-end harvest festivals held in ancient Africa, with the name “Kwanzaa” taken from the Swahili phrase “matunda ya kwanza,” meaning “first fruits of the harvest.”
But the most important aspect of Kwanzaa, Khalfani explained, are the seven principles that governing the celebration. Representing the core values of the African culture, the principles: “umoja,” or unity; “kujichagulia,” or self-determination; “ujima,” or collective work and responsibility; “ujamaa,” or cooperative economics; “nia,” or purpose; “kuumba,” or creativity; and “imani,” or faith. These principles are recognized individually on each of the holiday’s seven days, as celebrants light one of the seven candles on a “kinara,” the candle-holder that symbolizes one’s roots. Afterward, celebrants reflect on how they exemplified that night’s specific value over the past 12 months as well as how they plan to carry on that value in the coming year.
Aside from the seven principles, Khalfani said Kwanzaa is also celebrated by the display of other items symbolizing African culture. Corn represents youth and the future it holds, while crops stand for the African harvest celebrations of the past and the rewards of labor. Additionally the mat symbolizes the foundation of history upon which modern African descendants build; the unity cup is an icon of how unity makes everything possible; and the gifts are representative of the love of parents and the commitments of children. Even the colors of the candles are symbolic, with black standing for the people, red indicating their struggle and green symbolizing the hope emanating from that struggle.
Yet perhaps the most fun aspect of Kwanzaa is communing with family and friends. Khalfani recalled that he has fond memories of reconnecting with loved ones while feasting and enjoying cultural activities from his youth and years celebrating the holiday with his own family. Above all, he said everyone is welcome.
“Kwanzaa is a cultural holiday, not a religious holiday, so it doesn’t exclude anybody, regardless of religious practices,” Khalfani said. “You can be Muslim or Christian or Jewish or Buddhist or whatever you want to be spiritually and still celebrate Kwanzaa because it’s about understanding and connecting to a culture and history of people.”
All are welcome to attend the WOAHO’s free Kwanzaa celebration, which will pay tribute to the fifth principle — nia. And there will indeed by attractions for all age groups, Kwanzaa event committee Chairwoman Diedre Dyson said, including authentic cultural food and vendors, performances from Alvin Ailey dance instructor Yah’Ya Kamate and West Orange singer Alana Hunter, and children’s art projects led by West Orange educator Mansa Mussa. It all culminates with Khalfani’s presentation, which Dyson herself said she is looking forward to as someone not too familiar with the history of the cultural holiday.
WOAHO President Patrecia West told the Chronicle that every time her group holds a gathering like this celebration, it is an opportunity to show people the importance of honoring one’s heritage in building community. She said that in a township as diverse as West Orange, sharing one’s culture instills a sense of inclusiveness that uplifts residents and brings them closer together.
And that makes the community as a whole stronger, West said.
“If you have a community where people feel they are welcome to celebrate those days and those traditions that are important to them, then it makes people feel like we really are diverse, we really are inclusive, we really value people who have different experiences and who come from different places,” West said in a Dec. 18 phone interview. “It creates a spirit of feeling like we’re all part of West Orange, and that we all contribute to what makes it a good place to live in. And I think that’s essential.”
Furthering that spirit within the township will be a priority for the new executive board headed by West and Khalfani, according to the new vice president. Even though his two-year term just began, Khalfani said he already has set goals for what he would like to see the WOAHO accomplish in the near future, starting with expanding its membership base to include people of African descent who are not necessarily African-Americans, such as immigrants from Africa and the Caribbean. He added that the organization would also like to get more young people involved, with plans to start a youth committee already in place.
In addition, Khalfani said the WOAHO hopes to increase the number of events it holds to demonstrate that the significance of celebrating African heritage goes beyond Kwanzaa and Black History Month — rather, it is something that is prevalent all year.
“We want to make West Orange as a whole aware of the beauty of African history and culture and to celebrate what we as people of African descent bring to the people,” Khalfani said. “We want people in West Orange and the neighboring communities to celebrate and look at what African and African-American culture is all about.”