After riots swept through Los Angeles in 1966, Dr. Maulana Karenga of California State University, Long Beach, wanted to bring the African American community together. Combining elements of several harvest celebrations, the Black studies professor created Kwanzaa to unify and strengthen the African American community nationwide.
This year, in the wake of a pandemic and social unrest, Indianapolis Kwanzaa Committee Coordinator Sibeko Jywanza said it’s more important than ever to recognize and celebrate Kwanzaa.
“Kwanzaa is not a religious holiday, and it’s not a racial holiday,” Jywanza said. “It does focus on African Americans, so as long as you’re OK with that focus, no matter your race or religion, you can definitely enjoy Kwanzaa. It’s about bringing communities together, and after all the social unrest that happened this year, we could all use it.”
Jywanza and his family have celebrated Kwanzaa for over 30 years locally. Every family has a unique way of celebrating the seven-day holiday, which Jywanza said adds to the beauty.
“It’s individualistic because you have the autonomy to be as creative as you want,” Jywanza said. “Traditionally, my family loves to gather around and have conversations and celebrate and encourage each other.”
This year, though, due to COVID-19, many families won’t be able to safely gather. To make up for that loss, the Indianapolis Kwanzaa Committee has planned virtual events each night starting Dec. 26.
Each night through Facebook Live, the committee will share the history of Kwanzaa and candle-lighting ceremonies to help bring people together. The virtual celebrations will focus on one of the seven principles of Kwanzaa — unity, self-determination, collective work and responsibility, cooperative economics, purpose, creativity, and faith — through Jan. 1.
“Tradition is really why we do things,” Jywanza said. “Going back and looking at your roots helps to form a foundation. Anything you’re going through, someone else went through it in the past. We can reinforce that by looking at things and stories from the past and bringing them into the present, and Kwanzaa is a small part of that.”
The virtual Kwanzaa celebration is cosponsored by the Center for Black Literature and Culture (CBLC) at the Indianapolis Public Library, the National Coalition of Blacks for Reparations in America and the IUPUI Africana Studies Department.
Nichelle M. Hayes, Indianapolis Kwanzaa Committee member and founding leader of the CBLC, said Kwanzaa is a great opportunity for people to reflect on the principles of Kwanzaa and what they mean to their life.
“I would say that Kwanzaa is an individual decision,” Hayes said. “I don’t want people to feel that every person of African descent celebrates Kwanzaa, but a lot of people do. … The biggest thing about Kwanzaa is that it’s a time at the end of the year to think about family.”
Hayes said the most important principle in her life is faith, and she tries to reflect on the seven principles throughout the year.
Both Jywanza and Hayes think the virtual celebrations will continue in some capacity in future years to help as many people as possible learn the history and traditions of Kwanzaa. However, Hayes said one of the best parts of Kwanzaa — like all holiday celebrations — is the gatherings.
“I see [virtual celebrations] as one tool in our toolkit to share information about Kwanzaa,” Hayes said. “But the beauty of Kwanzaa is gathering together in real time. We’ll continue some of our virtual celebrations, but our fondest hope is coming together in person and hugging each other.”
The Kheprw Institute will also host two virtual Kwanzaa events to discuss collective work and responsibility and cooperative economics. Khephrw will host a conversation Dec. 28 with author Jessica Gordon-Nembhard about her book “Collective Courage,” which discusses how African Americans practice ujima — or collective work and responsibility. Kheprw will also host a Zoom meeting Dec. 29 to talk about how the organization and others are helping the community.
To join the Khephrw conversation via Zoom, click here.
Contact staff writer Breanna Cooper at 317-762-7848. Follow her on Twitter @BreannaNCooper.