The celebration—a week-long, pan-African holiday centered around fellowship and community—is open to all to observe.
MICHIGAN—It doesn’t matter if Hanukkah traditions dominate your holiday season or if you kick off winter with Diwali, whether you refrain from all Yuletide observances or if Jesus is the reason for your season—Kwanzaa can be honored in your community this holiday season.
Kwanzaa is a week-long pan-African holiday meant to celebrate family, community, and culture. It has no religious ties and can be observed in conjunction with—or in absence of—any personal religious practices.
The holiday was created in 1966 by Dr. Maulana Karenga, who earned PhDs in both social ethics and in leadership.
At the time, the country was barely 100 years removed from the abolition of slavery, and was in the midst of ending the racist Jim Crow laws enacted across the South.
Black pride was discouraged in the white-dominated societies of the 1960s that struggled to maintain their dominance over Black people, but Karenga wanted to change that.
Karenga created Kwanzaa for observation by all people of the African diaspora, whether they lived in America, the Caribbean, or beyond.
The word “Kwanzaa” is a derivative of the Swahili phrase matunda ya kwanza, which means “first fruits.” Each year, the holiday begins on Dec. 26 and ends on Jan. 1.
Each day of the celebration, a new candle in the kinara (seven-branched candleholder) is lit in representation of the day’s principle that is being observed.
Andrea Hetheru began celebrating Kwanzaa nearly 20 years ago when her then-school-aged daughter attended the Nsoroma Institute, a now-closed, African-centered school in Detroit.
“They focused on culture,” Hetheru told The ‘Gander. “Not just in name, but they actually celebrated and taught the children African culture.”
Like most parents, Hetheru wanted to reinforce the learning process from the school in her home—and her annual Kwanzaa celebration was born.
Dr. Kimberly Martin remembers being exposed to Kwanzaa long before earning her PhD at Oakland University in Rochester, Michigan.
“It wasn’t until I went down to Atlanta,” says the Michigan native who left home to attend Clark Atlanta University, an HBCU, for graduate school.
“Back then, even Martin Luther King, Jr. Day wasn’t observed everywhere in the country. Early exposure to things like that and Kwanzaa began in the South for me; it’s where most of the [historically Black colleges and universities] are located.”
In past years, Kwanzaa celebrations would usually consist of fellowship with family and friends, exchanging of gifts—often handmade or purchased through Black vendors—and cultural experiences like live music and dancing.
Hetheru even performed with an African dance troupe for the Charles H. Wright Museum of African American History’s programming in past years.
“When music is on, movement is happening,” Hetheru said, a professional dancer trained in several disciplines and self-described “movement specialist.”
Indoor, in-person gatherings like that at the Wright Museum have been suspended as COVID-19 vaccine distribution begins and Michiganders brace themselves for what many hope will be the beginning of the pandemic’s end.
In fact, the museum has pivoted to a week-long virtual celebration in observance of the holiday instead. Each night will be dedicated to nguzo saba—or principles—of Kwanzaa.
Less than 10 minutes away from the museum, Detroit Farm & Cider will host an outdoor, socially distanced celebration. Owner Leandra King has been celebrating Kwanzaa for the past three years.
“My older [daughter] is 8 and my younger is 7,” King told The ‘Gander.
“When we first began celebrating, I Googled everything and we would sing the songs and learn about the principles together.”
But this year, as the pandemic continues to shift what used to be considered normal ways to gather, King has chosen to welcome all Michiganders to her farm for a safe, outdoor option for fellowship.
“The celebration is open to all of Michigan,” King said.
Guests can escape the cold in the greenhouse, but masks must be worn at all times. African and Caribbean dance troupes will perform, Detroit musical artist Lathun Grady will perform. Warm apple cider and hot, organic chicken broth will be available—and the soup is free.
“Each day will be filled with so much entertainment, but all culturally geared,” she said.
Meals can be purchased from African food trucks that will be parked on site, and different cultural events will honor each day of the nguzo saba. King is also accepting clothing and nonperishable food donations for the Cass Community shelter in Detroit.
And that free soup? It’s being called a healthy, organic, healing soup, and it will be available for free for any community members needing warmth and nutrition during the week.
“Anybody who is hungry or who wants some food, we’ll be giving away a chicken and vegetable soup thanks to a donation from Pure Pastures,” King added.
Creating Your Own Celebrations
Despite the holiday’s origins in honoring Black heritage, culture, and community, Hetheru says she isn’t offended by the idea of all Michiganders taking part in the celebration.
Non-Black Michiganders engaging with Kwanzaa is “beautiful,” she said, because of the cultural awareness it brings. Although Kwanzaa’s principles focus on Black culture, one’s own personal culture can be reflected upon during the seven days.
“As a human family, I think [learning about Kwanzaa] is a good idea because the principles are good for everyone, not just Black people,” said Hetheru.
Martin, who serves as the director of multicultural programs at Missouri State University, cautions against appropriating African and Black culture as non-Black Michiganders navigate their way through learning more about the tradition.
“There are always options to participate in established celebrations with people of the African diaspora so you may learn from people who practice Kwanzaa,” Martin suggested.
Martin, who facilitates cultural programming for people of all backgrounds, encourages non-Black Michiganders to utilize the resources available to them—like internet searches, books, and other media—to educate themselves on the holiday before asking their Black friends or family members for explanations.
“All Black people don’t celebrate Kwanzaa,” Martin pointed out, “Just like all Jewish people don’t observe Hanukkah or all Muslim people do not necessarily observe Ramadan.”
“It’s not on the people who have been traditionally oppressed to educate those who traditionally filled the role of oppressor,” she told The ‘Gander.
Martin suggests taking time to seek out information on your own before assuming a Black person observes Kwanzaa and that they are willing to explain the intricacies of the holiday.
“Putting that burden on persons of color is just another burden,” Martin said.