WEST ORANGE, NJ — A mix of African music and American hits, and the aroma of traditional food filled the Washington Elementary School Gymnasium as vendors displayed colorful paintings, jewelry and apparel for the community, united to celebrate Kwanzaa.
The West Orange African Heritage Organization hosted the 19th annual Kwanzaa celebration on Dec. 29, the fourth day of the weeklong holiday which runs each year from Dec. 26 through New Year’s Day.
“It’s really a holiday that people hope will happen throughout the year. It’s about community, it’s about family, it’s about children, it’s about acknowledging the heritage,” said Patrecia West, former president of the WOAHO and a member of the committee that organized the event.
The event focused around the theme of “ujamaa,” or cooperative economics, which is the fourth of the “nguzo saba,” or the seven principles of the holiday. The theme was displayed with the various vendors who sold their crafts at the event.
Maulana Karenga, a professor of Africana studies, founded the cultural holiday of Kwanzaa in 1966 by combining the traditions of various harvest celebrations. The name comes from the phrase “matunda ya kwanza,” which means “first fruits” in Swahili, the most widely spoken African language.
One event attendee stressed the importance of celebrating and bringing awareness to the holiday.
“I think it’s always important because we, African-Americans, by celebrating Kwanzaa, get a little more closer to our heritage, which is mother Africa,” attendee Diane Harris of East Orange said.
The event was held to celebrate the harvest of the community’s labor this year, said Akil Khalfani, the vice president of WOAHO and chairman of the committee that organized the event.
“I do want for us to make sure we are all here for the right reasons and that’s for uplifting the African diaspora community and making sure that we celebrate the history and culture of the people of African descent in the United States,” Khalfani said as he welcomed the community.
The event began with libations to honor “those who came before.” Khalfani took the name of figures and groups in the African-American community who made significant contributions — such as Imhotep, the first recorded medical professional — and even poured out water for the continent of Africa, where modern humans originated. After each libation, the audience responded with “ase,” or “let it be done.”
WOAHO President Robert Simmons concluded the welcome with “Lift Every Voice and Sing,” a poem that has been dubbed the African-American national anthem, which the audience joined in singing.
Following a break for shopping and food — including rice and beans, macaroni and cheese, and chicken and cornbread — to which the elders were invited first as per African tradition, the audience was treated to African drumming and dance led by Yahya Kamate. He even taught some of his moves to audience members who volunteered to take part in the fun.
To conclude the event, Khalfani called on seven children and teens from the audience to light the seven candles that represent the seven principles of the holiday.
Along with “ujamaa,” the other principles are “umoja,” unity; “kujichagulia,” self-determination; “ujima,” collective work and responsibility; “nia,” purpose; “kuumba,” creativity; and “imani,” faith.
The candles were placed on a table covered in a traditional African cloth to symbolize the foundation of the community and were of three colors: three reds for the struggle of the people, one black to represent the people themselves and three greens to signify hope for the future.
The table also featured fruits and vegetables to represent the harvest, an ear of corn to signify children, and a doll, which is given to the children as a present. Khalfani explained the table set-up in detail and encouraged attendees to do to the same in their homes.
Along with the memories of a night of music, dancing, food, uplifted spirits and celebration, the community was urged by Khalfani to also take and share the harvest. Some lucky people brought home with them raffle prizes, along with the fruits and vegetables.
After a long year of hard work and controversial political dialogue, the event served as an occasion to celebrate the perseverance and accomplishments of the African-American community of West Orange and beyond.
“When we are acknowledging and showing value for all of the different cultural groups in West Orange, that brings about a sense of being together and feeling as though we belong to one community,” West said.
Photos and video by Kaanita Iyer