Dr. Marcia Tate Arunga, academic dean of Evergreen State College’s Tacoma campus, joins African drumming and dancing with the ADEFUA Cultural Education Workshop at the Northwest African American Museum’s Kwanzaa celebration. During the event, Tate Arunga spoke about the importance of not selling yourself short and believing in yourself to be an economically successful individual. (Amanda Snyder/Crosscut)
“Kwanzaa is about renewal. It's about reset. It's about recharge. It's about refocus. It's about re-evaluation, “ LaNesha DeBardelaben, president and CEO of the Northwest African American Museum, shared with the crowd last week. “It's a time of building up. It's a time of coming together. It's a time of gifting our very best to one another.”
During the week of Kwanzaa, December 26 to January 1, families and communities gather to celebrate one another. They share a meal, honor their ancestors and celebrate African and African American culture.
Each day, celebrants light a candle to highlight a principle of the day, and give meaning to it through art and activities such as African drumming, dancing and reciting poetry, spoken-word performance and writings of great Black philosophers and writers, as well as community-building activities.
Joyous drumming and dancing rang out at the start of the evening as audience members joined in with shy dance moves. The crowd embraced the celebration with laughter and smiles – all happy to be in each other’s presence. After dancing and other performances, they sampled food such as cornbread, black-eyed peas and peach cobbler.
For Jason Turner, musical director of the African American Cultural Ensemble choir, one of his favorite parts is seeing the African culture and Black community celebrated and being able to perform in front of an audience. The choir, however, birthed during the pandemic, has only recently started to perform in person.
“The African dance and the African drums … take us back to our roots and who we are as Black people,” Turner said. “We've been stuck in COVID for such a long time that people are like, hey, hurray, we get to actually see a real live performance.”
Kwanzaa was established in 1966 by Maulana Karenga, activist, author and professor of Africana studies at California State University. The holiday was created amid the Black cultural art renaissance of the 1960s, according to DeBardelaben.
“This was the era when Black museums were being established across the country. There was a renaissance of Black cultural expression, Black poetry, Black dance, like music and Black arts,” DeBardelaben said. “This cultural holiday was created by someone who wanted to bring people of African descent in the United States together for cultural affirmation, and for cultural celebration.”
Kwanzaa celebrations in homes, schools and communities have grown over the past few decades. Instead of centering on prayer and religious tradition, Kwanzaa is a secular holiday and focuses on African American culture, community and reflection.
This year the museum’s event was held on the fourth day of Kwanzaa, recognizing the principle of Ujamaa, or Cooperative Economics. The event highlighted the importance of buying from and supporting Black businesses.
“We gathered tonight to remember the legacy of those Black entrepreneurs locally, regionally, nationally, internationally,” DeBardelaben said to about a hundred people. “To those creators who produced something that would make life better for all of us.”
The other six principles of Kwanzaa, also in Swahili, include: Umoja (Unity), Kujichagulia (Self-Determination), Ujima (Collective Work and Responsibility), Nia (Purpose), Kuumba (Creativity) and Imani (Faith.) Celebrants spend each day of the festival reflecting on one principle. They also mark each day with the lighting of the Kinara, a seven-branched candelabra.
“I would like to see people celebrate and live by the seven principles,” Kbibii Monié said as she settled in before the start of the event. “Because if people, period, live by the seven principles, [we’d] have a better life on this planet.”