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Akron’s Kwanzaa celebration caps year of extraordinary challenge

A Kwanzaa table featuring the traditional candle set known as the kinara as well as other symbols of African heritage is shown during a past "Kujichagulia" celebration at Mount Calvary Baptist Church in Akron.

Akron’s citywide celebration of Kwanzaa, a weeklong holiday honoring African American heritage and culture, will take place virtually this year. But the holiday’s messages of unity, purpose and collective responsibility are more urgent than ever, organizers say, as 2020 — a year marked by both a devastating public health crisis and a momentous civil rights movement — comes to a close.

As with years past, the seven days of Kwanzaa that begin Saturday commemorate African-American traditions and accomplishments and “Nguzo Saba,” the seven guiding principles of the festival. 

“What Kwanzaa does generally is provide a way of rooting oneself in a culture, a heritage, a narrative that allows the person not to feel alone, allows a person to learn the lessons of ancestors, recognize one’s worth as being connected to those things that have come before and connected to those things that are yet to come in a healthy, nurturing way, [which] in 2020 became all that more important,” said Lathardus Goggins II, co-chair of the Akron NAACP chapter’s Kwanzaa Planning Committee.

Created in 1966 by California State University professor and activist Maulana Karenga in dialogue with other African American scholars and historians, Kwanzaa is inspired by the traditional African harvest celebrations that Karenga observed during his travels to the continent.

Each day of Kwanzaa is devoted to one of the seven principles. The sixth day — New Year’s Eve — is reserved for a communal feast or “Karamu,” and the last day may be reserved for rest, reflection, goal-setting or a celebration to welcome the new year.

Akronites can participate in live and pre-recorded virtual celebrations from Sunday to Thursday. Mount Calvary Baptist Church, Project Ujima, the Akron NAACP, Guys and Gals Community Partnership, Inc. and the National Association of Black Social Workers will each host a virtual celebration that will be streamed on the official Akron Kwanzaa Facebook page. 

“The whole notion of a harvest celebration is that we worked, we nurtured, we toiled, we tended yearlong, and at the end of the year — at the time of harvest — we celebrate the fruits of our labor,” Goggins said. Your stories live here.Fuel your hometown passion and plug into the stories that define it.Create Account

“While Kwanzaa itself is a celebration for seven days, the practice of the principles … the practice of culture and the connection to culture is year-round,” he said. “So its significance is this reminder, this connection. In some places, for some people, it may be their very first connection to an authentic sense of self, rooted in a narrative, rooted in a heritage and a cultural practice that is not based upon other people’s interpretation of what it means to be Black, what it means to be African, but rooted in one’s own sense of a healthy self — ‘Kujichagulia,’ self-determination.”

In addition to speeches, music and presentations honoring Kwanzaa principles, attendees are encouraged to participate in virtual challenges centered on cultivating community and reflecting on African American history. Participants are encouraged to post speeches from famous or non-famous community leaders, share photos of themselves engaging in public service or mentoring activities, promote Black-owned businesses and Black artists and more. https://www.usatodaynetworkservice.com/tangstatic/html/nabj/sf-q1a2z3be0d353f.min.html

The fourth day of Kwanzaa’s focus on “Ujamaa,” or cooperative economics, emphasizes the importance of supporting African American businesses as a way of nurturing community through economic growth. The Akron NAACP plans to highlight local entrepreneurs in partnership with Buchtel High School. In previous years, young people were invited to promote their businesses and sell their products at tables. This year, due to the COVID-19 pandemic, the NAACP has invited young entrepreneurs to submit short videos promoting their businesses, which will be streamed Tuesday.

“We like highlighting the young people and building them up, and we also like the fact that we can support an Akron Public School setting that is moving the needle for young people,” said Judi Hill, president of the Akron NAACP.

“We just want to highlight what they’re doing to encourage them to keep moving in the right direction,” she said.

John Fuller, a Vietnam veteran who has been instrumental in organizing Akron’s Kwanzaa celebrations in the last several decades, is optimistic about this year’s virtual gathering. Turnout has grown over the last 30 to 40 years, he said, thanks to the efforts of local African-American organizations, particularly the Akron African-American Cultural Organization. 

“It’s very special for me and other members of the community, because it celebrates our culture and our heritage,” Fuller said.

Nurturing healthy, strong community ties is particularly important now, Goggins said. The COVID-19 pandemic, which has claimed more than 300,000 Americans’ lives, has also forced people to remain physically separated from their loved ones over long periods of time. But the principles of Kwanzaa serve as a reminder of collective resilience and accomplishments throughout the year. At the same time, they provide a roadmap for how to cope and thrive in the new year. 

“We had to physically distance and maintain social connection, and we had to be creative in ways that we did that,” Goggins said, reflecting on the principle of ‘Kuumba,’ creativity.  

For Goggins, the fact that the holiday spills over into new year embodies the “solid belief that in the practice of these principles, we will have the opportunity to come again next year and celebrate the fruits of our labor.”

“In the context of 2020 particularly, those principles, the ideas and even the idea of faith, that if we practice healthy community, we practice ‘Ujima’ — collective work and responsibility — we become creative in ways that we connect,” he said.

Hazel Malone, co-chair of the Akron NAACP chapter’s Kwanzaa Planning Committee, reiterated that while the principles of Kwanzaa are meant to be observed year-round, they have gained a heightened urgency given the events of the last year.

“Especially during this COVID time, I think families have become more focused on what is important — so it’s important that our children know our ancestors who came before them and know what our customs and the things we do and our particular families are. And Kwanzaa is a good time to come together for that,” she said.

Reflecting on the public health challenges and progress towards dismantling systemic racism over the last year, Hill stressed the importance of continuing to push forward.

“I think for this year, I think it’s so important that we remember that we still have greatness within and that we need to use that greatness to help propel us into the future, because the work isn’t done, and we still have a lot to do,” she said. 

Seyma Bayram is a corps member with Report for America, a national service program that places journalists into local newsrooms. Learn more at reportforamerica.org. Contact her at sbayram@gannett.com or 330-996-3327 or on Twitter @SeymaBayram0.

The 7 principles of Kwanzaa

The name Kwanzaa derives from “matunda ya kwanza,” a Swahili phrase meaning “first fruits.” Common features among the ancient and contemporary first fruit celebrations of West and Southeast Africa inspired its seven principles or “Nguzo Saba”:

  • Umoja: Unity.
  • Kujichagulia: Self-determination.
  • Ujima:Collective work and responsibility.
  • Ujamaa: Cooperative economics.
  • Nia: Purpose.
  • Kuumba: Creativity.
  • Imani: Faith.

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