Spurred by the tumultuous events of the early '60s, Dr. Maulana Karenga developed the first Kwanzaa in 1966. Based on the Kawaida philosophy, Kwanzaa celebrates African tradition as the cultural anchor of African Americans. Through a series of seven evenings, Kwanzaa explores and honors seven principles, the "nguzo saba." Unity, self-determination, collective work and responsibility, cooperative economics, purpose, creativity and faith are all, in turn, discussed, considered and celebrated. Dr. Anthony Young, founder of the Tutmose Academy, hosted the first local Kwanzaa celebration in his own home ten years ago. Over time, it got so large that the festivities were moved in order to allow greater community involvement. This year's events take place at the Hillside Community Center, and culminate in the Unity Feast on New Year's Eve and a quiet day of meditation on New Year's Day. Linda Oliver, an executive mentor and the director of the Tutmose Experience Program, spoke with me about the enlightening powers of Kwanzaa.
Is Kwanzaa viewed as a religious celebration? Kwanzaa is an African American traditional holiday using the principles of the African culture. It's not tied to a religious concept -- it's a cultural event.
Why are there seven nights of the celebration? There are seven principles of Kwanzaa and being aware of how those principles affect you every day is why we come together and unite. ... For each night, we focus in on one particular principle. It is not one of those opportunities that's "up for grabs" -- no. We really focus in on that particular subject, that concept for the evening.... We wake up to the principles that sustain the human spirit.
Is there an importance to the order in which you cover the principles? I've never thought about it that way, but there is order to it. There's a progression in waking up... There's some things that you have to have within yourself to make all these other things work... Each one of us has an obligation to the world to celebrate who we are, so that others will feel comfortable celebrating who they are. But unless you know of yourself, it's very difficult to celebrate yourself. So this is what it's all about -- learning to know of oneself.
Describe the Unity Feast. Oh, it's awesome. That's all I can tell you. You've gone through the teachings. You've gone through the learning. It's a celebration. It's the culmination of everything that you've just done. It's like graduation. It's intense, it's wonderful, it's the community coming out to share their gifts -- their children, their food, their music, their dance. It's all of that. ... Food has always been important to who we are. Because it came from the Earth. It came from your work. So it's a celebration of what you've produced. So we cook, and we serve it in a grand style, and folks just eat until they can't move anymore.
If you haven't been participating in Kwanzaa from the beginning, can you just jump on board at the Unity Feast? Yes, that's one thing about the village concept. Even if you showed up that evening, you would gather the growth of it all.... You can't imagine what happens when a community comes out and you hear what's on the mind of people.... A hundred or so people standing in a circle, lighting candles and calling out their wish for themselves and others. I recall that last year I wanted balance between men and women. That's what I called for... So, when you hear people say what they want, they're asking for assistance and they're calling it forth in a way that says, "I'm standing out on these words." So you start out in the serenity, that quiet space, and you end up in a loud celebration.
What's your favorite part of Kwanzaa? I think my favorite part of Kwanzaa is the ceremony itself, the ritual itself.... We stand on the shoulders of our teachers and in Kwanzaa we celebrate our teachers. That's unusual because usually we celebrate ourselves without recognizing the struggle that our teachers had to go through.... When you hear the names of grandparents, when you name of Marcus Garvey, when you hear the name of Martin Luther King, when you hear Sorjourner Truth, Harriet Tubman, the strength of those individuals comes forth.... It's important to remember our lineage, and the beauty of the people who have survived under all extreme hardships and still have love in their hearts.
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