Local group remembers African heritage with a week-long celebration of Kwanzaa

Food, culture and dress all part of festivities

CINCINNATI -- Remember Kwanzaa, the holiday between Christmas and New Year’s Day that celebrates African-American unity, diversity and other good things?

During the ‘90s and early ‘00s, it ranked right up there with Christmas and Hanukkah as the most popular holidays celebrated this time of year. Stores stocked Kwanzaa greeting cards and kinaras, the seven-branched candelabras used in Kwanzaa ceremonies.

But a few years ago, stories began appearing asking what had ever happened to the festival. In 2012, National Public Radio aired a story titled, “Is Kwanzaa Still A thing,” in which it pointed out that in a survey by the National Retail Federation, just 2 percent of Americans said they celebrated the holiday.

In Cincinnati, yes, Kwanzaa is still a thing. In fact, options have increased for those who want to celebrate their African ancestry and network with their African-American neighbors. Three years ago, the Citywide Kwanzaa Committee expanded its celebration from one day to all seven days of the holiday, coordinator Leah Saho said.

This year, the first day of the celebration, dedicated to the principal of umoja, which is Swahili for unity, began Saturday at the House of Joy Christian Ministries, a non-denominational church in College Hill. It included the lighting of the first candle in the kinara, as well as lots of music from performers such as jazz trombonist Michael Goecke, 33, a Cincinnati native who is now studying ethnomusicology at Ohio State.

He likes Kwanzaa because it came out of the black nationalist movement of the 1960s as a way to celebrate African heritage. Maulana Karenga created the holiday in 1965, naming it from the Swahili phrase “matunda ya kwanza,” which means “first fruits of the harvest.”

Health And Wellness Fair Added

This year a health and wellness fair preceded the Kwanzaa celebration because the African-American community needs this kind of information, Saho said. 

The fair happened in the church “theater-style,” as one speaker after another took the stage with a hand-held microphone.

The audience of about 50 wasn’t shy about shouting out agreement and applauding. On the stage behind the speakers, a man occasionally punctuated the remarks with rolls on an African drum.

On the auditorium’s white walls hung banners with the principles celebrated during the seven days, such as kujichagulia, or self-determination; and ujamaa, or cooperative economics. On the steps in front of the stage lay a large sheet with a map of Africa painted on it. 

Food And Clothing Vendors

Meanwhile, in the church lobby, African-American vendors sold food, African-style clothes and other wares. They included Roots, a Senegal native who changed his name when he became an American citizen. He sold Bob Marley T-shirts, mixed CDs that he made himself, mouse pads and screen prints he made of famous African American singers.

Not far from his table, Raniyah Holley, 7, of Mount Healthy, munched on vegan cupcakes and cookies she bought from Morie Rose, who was selling food and jewelry. It was the first Kwanzaa for Holley, whose grandmother, Ruby Mullinas, who lives downtown, brought her so she could learn about the holiday and other cultures.

Mullinas, a regular at the city’s Kwanzaa celebrations, said she had planned to set up her own booth but found it too crowded. She was enjoying the umoja, she said.

She wore a traditional outfit similar to those worn in Central Asia. Many attendees wore some kind of traditional Asian or African garb, which for women typically included prints with black figures of African animals on a colorful background. Saho, for example, wrote a three-piece outfit with a head scarf that she said belonged to her late sister, Maria Lesley.

Mount Auburn resident Brenda Gray-Johnson, 57, also brought her grandchildren, who were visiting for the holidays: Sienna Johnson, 11, of Maryland; and Nyela Johnson, 13, of Boston. She wants them to understand Kwanzaa and the meaning of each day of the celebration, she said. Kwanzaa celebrations helped her keep her own children in touch with their African-American heritage when they were growing up in a predominately white neighborhood, she said.

A Celebration Of Heritage

Kwanzaa is a chance for “us to be black together,” Nyela said. And Sienna recited the words of a song about the colors of Kwanzaa she had learned in school: black is for the people, red for their struggle and green for the future/hope that comes from the struggle.

One of the oldest attendees was Johanna Lorene Byrd, 83, of Hyde Park, who has given the signal to start many Kwanzaa celebrations, an honor reserved for the oldest person present. She celebrates Kwanzaa every year because she loves history – “you must always remember that things are now because it was then,” she said.

She is a lifelong member of the Allen Temple African Methodist Episcopal Church in Cincinnati, she said. Although it has some spiritual elements, such as the pouring out of libations, Kwanzaa is not a religious holiday, said Bakari Lumumba, an Ohio University student who was helping Saho coordinate the celebration. 

The celebration continues each day through Friday at various locations in Cincinnati.

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