Greetings of “Habari gani?” the Swahili words meaning “what’s the news?” echoed along the halls of West Philadelphia High School where dozens gathered on Thursday in celebration of the 50th anniversary of Kwanzaa.
The attendees were excited to greet and welcome Maulana Karenga, the creator of Kwanzaa, to the annual community event hosted by the Philadelphia Chapter of NAKO (National Association of Kawaida Associations and Committee). “Kwanzaa,” Karenga wrote in an earlier message, “was conceived, created and introduced to the African community as an audacious act of self-determination.”
The Kwanzaa holiday is celebrated each year on December 26 through January 1 by African Americans as a way to reaffirm their heritage that is rooted in African culture and reflected in the best practices of African-American people. Its origins are based on the agricultural celebrations of Africa (African Harvest Festivals) called “first fruits” celebrations, and focuses on fundamental collective values called “Nguza Saba,” which in Swahili means the “Seven Principles” designed to build strong and wholesome communities.
As a cultural activist, author and teacher, Karenga travels extensively in addition to his duties as the Africana Studies department chair at the California State University, Long Beach. In the 1960s, he established Kwanzaa as a cultural option of engagement for the African-American family, community and culture.
“One of the things we have to do is be sure of the principals that we are committed to, and practice them daily as an ethical obligation,” said Karenga during a private reception prior to his Kwanzaa program lecture.
Through a hacking cough that was eventually abated by hot tea and with the assistance of both his wife, Tiamoyo Karenga, and Maisha Sullivan-Ongoza, Karenga recited Kwanzaa’s principals: Umoja (unity);Kujichagulia (self-determination); Ujima (working together); Ujamaa (supporting each other); Nia (purpose); Kuumba (creativity) and Imani (faith).
“That’s how we do it,” Karenga, 75, explained. “First, we have to have some measure of unity. Second, we’ve got to practice self-determination. We’ve got to decide that buying Black and building Black and investing in Black is a priority – and we have to take responsibility for that. We have to define ourselves, name ourselves, create for yourself and speak for yourself – and there is no greater speech for yourself than that you practice self-determination.”
Karenga then went on to encourage his listeners to understand and acknowledge the long and historical legacy of Blacks in America and beyond.
“Let me tell you this: I am a Pan Africanist, and I value all other Africans experience, but I start with my own,” Karenga said. “And, just like we have narratives about what [others] did, we’ve got stories like that for ourselves – but we’ve got to tell them. And there has been a lot of diminishing of African Americans heroic activities, their resourcefulness, their resilience, their adaptive vitality second to none.
“There are no people more chosen than us…It is so easy to talk against Black people, especially African Americans as a conversational pathology,” he added. “We are doing great things and we need to acknowledge them and point out the people who have pushed on. Harriet Tubman, Fannie Lou Hamer, Messenger (Elijah) Muhammad, Malcom X, Martin Luther King, these are just people’s names. What about your grandmother and your grandfather who made ways out of no ways? Where are those stories? Get up and testify about that.”
Karenga went on to greet the capacity audience that packed the high school auditorium. On stage behind him was a large kinara holding the seven red, black and green candles symbolizing the core principles of Kwanzaa. The golden anniversary evening ended as it had begun, in Swahili, with the gathered raising right fists while shouting “Harambee,” a term which means “all pull together.”
Among the Kwanzaa celebrations that took place this year was one at The Please Touch Museum on Tuesday, with performances by the Universal African Dance and Drum ensemble.