After Hanukkah and Christmas comes the celebration of Kwanzaa, about which you may have heard but perhaps only know that it is a celebration in the African American community that falls during the year-end holidays.

“Kwanzaa” is a Swahili word that means “first” and signifies the first fruits of the harvest, and the holiday is described as a celebration of culture – and not Christianity – that emerged in the 1960s after the Watts rebellion. Its founder is Maulana Karenga, who is described by history.com as a Black nationalist who wanted to unite and empower the African American community.

The Greensboro Kwanazaa Collective meets for each of the seven nights of celebration. This one was from the prepandemic 2019. This year there are events on Facebook Live. (Photo by Ivan Saul Cutler)

Kwanzaa extends from Dec. 26 to Jan. 1 and does not preclude celebrating Christmas. There are nightly celebrations to reinforce seven principles for all: unity, self-determination, collective work and responsibility, cooperative economics, purpose, creativity and faith.

In the Piedmont Triad, the Greensboro Kwanzaa Collective was formed in 2010 from a group of five families to facilitate this 7-day celebration.

Dawn Hicks Tafari is a founding member of the group, has served as its public relations coordinator for the past decade and is listed as the contact person on the GSO Kwanzaa Collective Facebook page.

She talked with WGHP by email about the holiday and her group and how the area celebrates Kwanzaa.

WGHP: How does your group get together and where?

DAWN HICKS TAFARI: We gather at one another’s homes for informal meetings and family gatherings; and we organize various programs throughout the year at several of our partner locations (Bethel AME Church is one of our long-time supporting partners).  Typically, about 125 people celebrate Kwanzaa with us each day, each year. 

The organizers of the Greensboro Kwanzaa Collective are (from left) Dawn Hicks Tafari, JamillahNeeairah Nasir, Tonya Poole, Dandara Boyd and Nia Hendrix Wilson. (Photo by Ivan Saul Cutler) 

WGHP: How long have you been organized to celebrate Kwanzaa? How do you attract people to your group other than through social media? 

TAFARI: Mrs. Nia Hendrix-Wilson, Ms. JamillahNeeairah Nasir and Dr. Dawn Hicks Tafari founded the Greensboro Kwanzaa Collective in 2010.  Our first Kwanzaa celebration was held in the old Hayes-Taylor YMCA building (corner of Friendly and Dudley Streets); Ms. Tonya Poole joined us in 2011, and Mrs. Dandara Boyd joined us in 2012.  We attract people via word of mouth, our Facebook page as well as news and radio outlets. 

WGHP: Are you aware of any other groups such as yours in the area? 

TAFARI: There are no other collectives who focus on the Kwanzaa concept and the Nguzo Saba in Greensboro. However, Triad Cultural Arts in Winston-Salem and the African American Dance Ensemble in Durham also host regular, wonderful Kwanzaa celebrations in their respective cities.

The lighting of a set of candles called the Mishumaa Saba is part of Kwanzaa. The black candle in the center represents the people of Africa; the three red candles represent the bloodshed and the struggle of systemic racism; and three green candles represent the lush land of Africa and prosperity and hope for the future. A candle is lit each day, starting with the black candle and then alternating red and green. (Photo by Ivan Saul Cutler) 

WGHP: What are the unique aspects about the Kwanzaa celebration?

TAFARI: Kwanzaa is a celebration of African American family, culture and heritage. It is NOT a religious observance – at all. So many folks celebrate Kwanzaa in addition to their regular religious observance of Christmas, Ramadan, etc.  During Kwanzaa we light a set of candles called the Mishumaa Saba (seven candles). There is one black candle (represents the people of Africa); three red candles (the bloodshed and the struggle of Black folk around the world as a result of systemic racism); and three green candles (the lush land of Mother Africa and prosperity/hope for the future). We light one candle each day and we recite the accompanying principle (black candle on the first day, then we alternate between red and green for the remaining days). 

WGHP: What are the big events of the week’s celebration?

TAFARI: We are celebrating this year on Facebook Live, at 6 p.m. through Dec. 30 and 3 p.m. Dec. 1 and Jan. 1.

WGHP: What do you think most people don’t realize about Kwanzaa and why it’s celebrated?

TAFARI: Many people believe Kwanzaa is a religious observance that conflicts with Christmas, and this could not be further from the truth. Kwanzaa was, however, developed in part to help us shift away from the over-commercialization of the Christmas holiday and to a deeper focus on family and cultural values.

WGHP: What sorts of foods and rituals are involved with the Karamu feast?

TAFARI: The Karamu is usually held on December 31st or January 1st. However, we indulge in a Karamu during each night of our public community celebration.  During the Karamu, we enjoy many delicious dishes like ground stew with roasted vegetables, kale salad, baked spaghetti, yams, cornbread, lentil stew, pound cake and sweet potato pie. 

WGHP: Do people push back against the celebration of Kwanzaa?

TAFARI: Oh absolutely! Some folks say that Kwanzaa is a “fake holiday” – when, in actuality, ALL holiday celebrations have been created by humans and cultivated by different cultural groups. Kwanzaa is no different.  Kwanzaa is based on a set of principles commonly practiced in various African countries, and the actual celebration was designed in 1966 by Maulana Karenga for African descendants to honor our heritage, guide us in reflection on how we can improve the lives of our families and communities, and to remind us of the importance of standing and working together.  Also, some folks take issue with the personal choices of Maulana Karenga. Dr. Karenga is a man; he is no deity. He’s human. We are grateful to Dr. Karenga for his vision and perseverance in creating and spreading the Kwanzaa spirit around the world; however, Kwanzaa is not a celebration of him. Kwanzaa is a celebration of us.