When my grandson was about three years old I decided to start a new holiday tradition for my family. Instead of driving myself to exhaustion buying Christmas presents that would within weeks be forgotten or discarded, I decided the celebration of Kwanzaa, designed to pay tribute to the rich cultural roots of African Americans, would become our annual family tradition. So, my grandson, his toddler friends, and family members gathered in my living room as we shared family stories retracing our family history. Instead of Santa, we shared stories about great-grandparents and aunties and uncles and god mommies who are all part of our family’s story being unearthed for a new generation of young people.
Since Kwanzaa does not focus on expensive gifts, we had rounded up an assortment of half-price earmuffs and gloves along with recycled toy cars, Lego building blocks, and arts and craft materials. As years went on, our celebration expanded, sometimes at a union hall or a community center complete with an African dance and drum ensemble. Thanks to my youngest son and his wife, three more children have been added to the celebration. As a way of underscoring the importance of the Kwanzaa principles, each child is expected to present an example of a principle.
Year after year as the celebrations continue, life happens. One year it was a held against the backdrop of my father being in critical condition in the hospital. The next year, he was remembered as an ancestor. One year, my daughter flew in from Florida specifically to play congas for our celebration. Some years later, she, too, was remembered as an ancestor.
Maulana Karenga, professor and chair of the department of Africana studies at California State University at Long Beach, created Kwanzaa in 1966 as a way of providing an opportunity to reflect upon both the African past and the American present. And, there was a period when Kwanzaa was making its way into the mainstream, but in recent years the red, black, and green colors of Marcus Garvey and Kwanzaa are not very visible in commercial market places or even art and educational institutions.
But, I believe it has become tradition in many African American homes, sometimes right alongside the beguiling celebration of Christmas. The traditions include donning African traditional clothing, pouring libation, lighting the kinara candles and remembering the names of ancestors who made a way out of virtually no way. Kwanzaa offers memory and a road map for our children to discover the history and cultural traditions snatched from them.
This year, the original participants in the Warrington children’s Kwanzaa cohort are in their 20s, in colleges, employed in other states, and well on their way to establishing individual career paths. But, like clockwork, they have been checking in to find out when we’ll get together to celebrate Kwanzaa this year.
For me, the principles of Kwanzaa: unity, self-determination, collective work and responsibility, cooperative economics, purpose, creativity, and faith represent a practical and reasoned pathway to reinforce family and community bonding by respecting those who have made a way for us and helping to create positivity as we move forward. But once again, just days before Kwanzaa, I am in search of red, black and green candles to light for each day of the celebration.
Karen Warrington is director of communications for Congressman Bob Brady.