On June 19, droves of African Americans in Louisville celebrated Juneteenth, many for the first time, as a response to the changing social climate of the United States and the growing Black Lives Matter movement.
The June holiday celebrates the day former slaves in Texas learned they were free in 1865, two and a half years after President Abraham Lincoln’s Emancipation Proclamation. For many, Juneteenth is a celebration of blackness, a way to connect with a past that’s singularly unique to Black Americans.
As the holiday season approaches, many wonder if Kwanzaa — the celebration of Black self-determination, unity and empowerment — will also see an uptick in Louisville and carry more gravity than usual following a summer defined by social justice movements.
It’s a question on everyone’s mind. “Will anyone be celebrating Kwanzaa for the first time this year?” Kristen Williams, executive director of Play Cousin Family Network Collective, a family outreach organization in Louisville wrote on Facebook in early December.
Forty-plus comments later, she had her answer:
I’d like to.
“I do think that the political climate and COVID really makes Kwanzaa more important,” Williams said, “because we have to be reminded of who we are and our resilience, and Kwanzaa is definitely a celebration of that.
Kwanzaa is a seven-day holiday held annually from Dec. 26 to Jan. 1 that celebrates African and African American culture and history. It was created by Maulana Karenga, a Black professor of Africana studies at California State University in 1966, as a way to bring Black Americans together in celebration of Black culture.
A year ago, 400 people attended the Play Cousins’ Kwanzaa celebration held at Roots 101 African American Museum, though Williams suspects about 1,000 people celebrate Kwanzaa annually with their families and loved ones across Louisville.
Traditionally people recognize the holiday in their own households, said Lisa Bennett-Uthman and Taaj Clark-Uthman, elders in the Kwanzaa community who have celebrated the holiday for “at least 30 years.” It’s often symbolized by the lighting of the Kinara, which holds seven candles — three red candles on the left and three green on the right with a black candle, the same colors represented on the Pan-African flag.
Each night during Kwanzaa, a candle is lit, similar to Hanukkah. The black candle is lit first and then it alternates between the red and green candles going left to right on the following days, each corresponding with one of Kwanzaa’s seven principles.
Kwanzaa celebrations often include singing and dancing, storytelling, poetry reading, African drumming and feasting.
For Louisville’s Kwanzaa community, gatherings in years past would rotate between the Catholic Enrichment Center, Shawnee Arts & Cultural Center and whoever else would volunteer space for the seven-day event.
A year ago, Roots 101 in downtown Louisville joined the lineup to host a celebration.
But this year amid COVID-19, the community expects to come together via Zoom and live from Facebook, Instagram and YouTube. Between Dec. 26 and Jan. 1, Play Cousins will host a Zoom call from 6-7 p.m. each night that will be open to the public.
During the call, Play Cousins will lead attendees through a drum call, libations, the lighting of the Kinara, the principle of the day, a Kwanzaa craft, a relevant story and the singing of the Black National Anthem (“Lift Every Voice And Sing”).
Principles play a key role in Kwanzaa, and though the celebration only lasts seven days, the guiding principles — Umoja (unity), kujichagulia (self-determination), ujima (collective work and responsibility), ujamaa (cooperative economics), nia (purpose), kuumba (creativity) and imani (faith) — are meant to be incorporated into daily life.
This year’s events and the weight of each day’s principles will be “an awakening,” Bennett-Uthman said.
Play Cousins is partnering with local Black organizations such as Roots 101, the Louisville chapter of Black Lives Matter and the River City Drum Corp, who will rotate leading the crafts and storytelling each day.
Play Cousins will also provide 100 Kwanzaa kits, which include a Kinara, candles, unity cup, corn, a Pan-African flag, and a booklet, alongside 150 craft kits that hold materials for each day’s craft on a first-come, first-served basis at its office at 2600 W Broadway.
For people like Lailah Hampton, Kwanzaa is the culmination of her daily teachings. Inside Launch Louisville, a local co-working space, Hampton goes over the seven principles of Kwanzaa daily with her students at Liberated Minds Homeschool Academy.
For Hampton and her academy, Kwanzaa is a “lifestyle,” not something they only celebrate in December, and the students study one principle every day.
It may be true that more people will turn to Kwanzaa in 2020 as a way to connect with their heritage, but Hampton wants her students and anyone celebrating for the first time to understand that Kwanzaa is not a one-time event. It is not limited to a week.
Instead, its principles should be applied every day — especially now, as this country is hurting socially, rebuilding financially, grieving from the loss of loved ones to a global pandemic and looking toward 2021 for renewed hope, she said.
Hampton stressed that Kwanzaa is not and does not have to be an alternative to Christmas or Hanukkah. All can be celebrated and anyone — Black, white and beyond — can apply Kwanzaa’s principles to their life for the betterment of all people.
“It’s not a holiday. It’s a way of life,” said Hampton. “It’s non-religious. Everybody can celebrate Kwanzaa.”
Liberated Minds will lead one of the crafts during Play Cousins’ virtual event and will host a Kwanzaa Chess Bowl at its headquarters on the final day of Kwanzaa, open to both children and adults.
As for the first night of Kwanzaa, the first of seven candles to be lit on the Kinara will be the black one in the middle. It stands for the principle Umoja — unity.
This year, the lighting of that candle to kick off the celebration carries symbolic meaning — considering what the Black community has been through this year — says Dre Dawson, a local business owner and artist.
“People don’t understand that the power isn’t in ‘me,’ ” said Dawson, who has celebrated Kwanzaa for over a decade. “The power is in ‘we.’ Unity is used to increase our power.”
Clark-Uthman takes it one step further. She says lighting the unity candle first is not only symbolic for her community but for a hurting, divided, pandemic-laden world that is in need of that very thing — unity.
“White, Black, LGBTQ, other — that’s our village,” Clark-Uthman said. “So, once we don’t have unity, it’s chaotic. Just the pure thought of not having unity, we can’t go forward.”