Every year like clockwork you count on articles to surface debating the relative significance of the Kwanzaa. Some decry it as a made-up holiday that seeks to displace Christmas while others focus on the credibility of its founder instead of the virtues of the observance. Despite the controversy, Kwanzaa thrives in more progressive pockets of the Black community, mainly on the east and west coasts, reports of the holiday’s demise are greatly exaggerated.

DR. MAULANA KARENGA, Founder of the Kwanzaa

Pittsburgh has an ardent community-base for Kwanzaa and it was out in full force during the final week of the year. Celebrations were held throughout the city in Homewood, East Liberty and Downtown at the August Wilson Center for African American Culture. Perhaps the most vibrant observance of all took place in the Hill District Thursday evening when the Kente Arts Alliance, Ujamaa Collective and the Hill House Association hosted a day-long Kwanzaa event of educational Afrocentric activities in the Elsie H. Hillman Auditorium on Centre Avenue.

A multi-generational gathering of several hundred took in presentations for the entire family including book authors, vendors of handcrafted and imported clothing and giftware, artisans. Individuals also learned of traditional African holistic healing methods used to treat a variety of ailments certified herbalists while taking in live performances of music, drummers, dance and spoken word, and enjoying complimentary meals of the African diaspora. The highlight was a lecture by Dr. Maulana Karenga, the creator of Kwanzaa.

Karenga is a professor and Chair of Africana Studies at California State University-Long Beach and executive director of the African American Cultural Center. His remarks touched this year’s theme, “Kwanzaa and the Seven Principles: Sharing and Sustaining the World.”

“The celebration of the 45th anniversary of Kwanzaa is a significant marker and milestone in itself because of what it says about us as a people,” said Karenga. “It speaks to our profound commitment to self-determination—we did not ask permission for this holiday; to cultural reaffirmation and the celebration of ourselves; to our right and responsibility to speak our own special cultural truth in a multicultural world; and to the practice and promotion of Kwanzaa’s core principles, the Nguzo Saba,— the Seven Principles—the hub and hinge on which the holiday turns.”

Karenga reminded his audience that the observance was rooted in the Black liberation movement of the mid-1960s (Kwanzaa began in 1966) and born of a desire of self-identification and to speak a collective truth. The weeklong observance of Kwanzaa highlights each of the seven principles: Umoja (unity), Kujichagulia (self-determination), Ujima (collective Work and responsibility), Ujamaa (collective responsibility), Nia (purpose), Kuumba (creativity) and Imani (faith).

Karenga connected Kwanzaa’s relevance to the current events, specifically the global environmental activism and the historic kinship of African culture with the earth as a site and source of sacredness.

“This Kwanzaa comes with an increased concern for the well-being of the world because of the continuing injustice and oppression imposed on humans and the injury and injustice inflicted on the earth,” said Karenga.

He also quoted Pitt grad and 2004 Nobel Prize winner Dr. Wangari Mathaai (founder of the Green Belt Movement in Africa), saying, “Today we are faced with a challenge that calls for a shift in our thinking, a shift that stops us from destroying the very basis of human life on the planet, and causes us to assist the earth to heal her wounds and in the process heal ourselves.”

Karenga suggests the Kwanzaa principles offer a solution. “Here the Nguzo Saba are again posed as a vital and valuable way to walk, work and struggle in the world for the well-being, wholeness and flourishing of ourselves and the world. And their central and summary message is walk gently, act justly and relate rightly in and for the world.”

Karenga then gave a shout out to August Wilson, citing the incorporation of Kawaida Theory, a pan-Africanist philosophy of reconnect to African heritage as a means of political sovereignty and economic empowerment in a keynote speech Wilson gave in 1996, encouraging Black artists to claim the power of their own cultural identity and to establish permanent institutions that celebrate and preserve Black artistic achievement. He also acknowledged the presence of Wilson contemporary Rob Penny’s widow in the audience.

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