The African-American and Pan-African holiday of Kwanzaa begins on December 26th and lasts for seven days, and at Dandelion Chandelier we’re really looking forward to celebrating it with family and friends. You don’t have to be of African heritage to join in – all are welcome. This year marks the 50th anniversary of the holiday’s founding. Here are some ideas to help you celebrate with a spirit of optimism, discovery, remembrance and style.
First, a quick primer for those who may not be fully up to speed on the holiday and its traditions. The word Kwanzaa means “first fruits” in Swahili, and our current-day celebrations trace their origin back to the seven-day celebrations of the first harvest in Africa. Established in 1966 in the midst of the civil rights era in America by Dr. Maulana Karenga, a professor at California State University Long Beach, Kwanzaa is a cultural, not religious, holiday (it’s not a substitute for Christmas).
The holiday is grounded in seven principles: Umoja (Unity); Kujichagulia (Self-Determination); Ujima (Collective Work and Responsibility); Ujamaa (Cooperative Economics); Nia (Purpose); Kuuba (Creativity) and Imani (Faith). When our kids were little, they didn’t quite get what “collective work” meant, so here is a quote from the official Kwanzaa website that might help: “Ujima means making our neighbors’ problems our own, and solving them together.”
Celebrants place seven candles – one black, three red, and three green – in a kinara (candle holder). Underneath it is the mkeka (a woven mat) – beside it are ears of corn, a unity cup, art and books about African culture and history. Each evening, one candle is lighted. Gifts can be exchanged, and must include a book, emphasizing the importance of learning.
The colors of Kwanzaa are black, red and green: black for the people, red for their struggle, and green for the hope of the future.
The last day of Kwanzaa is New Year’s Day, and celebrants are asked to set aside some time for quiet reflection on three questions: Who am I? Am I really who I say I am? Am I all that I ought to be? The day can also be a moment to remember deceased family members and ancestors.
In addition to a celebration at home, where you light the candles and talk about the principle of each day with your family, here are some of the many other ways that you can make this year’s Kwanzaa one to remember:
–Visit Washington DC. The splendid new National Museum of African-American History and Culture is receiving rave reviews, as is its restaurant; while you’re in town, visit the Lincoln Memorial and the Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. Memorial; stop by the White House (book a tour, or just walk by on Pennsylvania Avenue) and take a moment to wish the President, First Lady and their family a good new year, even if they’re not in town. For a luxurious experience right in the center of everything, stay at the Hay-Adams or the Willard.
–Spend a few days in Atlanta – arguably the birthplace of the civil rights movement, Atlanta is where you can visit the Martin Luther King Jr. National Historic Site and see the house where Dr. King was born. The historic Ebenezer Baptist Church, where he preached for many years, is a short walk away. The Center for Civil and Human Rights, the Botanical Garden, and the historically black universities Morehouse and Spelman would be good stops, too. We always stay at the Four Seasons in Midtown, but the Ritz in Buckhead is also good. Every great holiday has its own special food, and in Atlanta you have the best soul food options imaginable to choose from. We love Paschal’s, now run by our dear friend Sylvia Russell (and don’t feel obligated to restrain yourself to the usual “meat plus two” – have three side dishes! It’s a holiday). If you have a couple of extra days, head to Memphis to visit the National Civil Rights Museum. It’s an incredibly powerful and moving experience that will stay with you long after you leave. The Peabody Hotel is charming (don’t miss the duck parade in the lobby).
–Visit the slave fortresses of Ghana. What better time to do this than during Kwanzaa? With the capital city of Accra as home base, a 2-day trip on the coastal highway toward Abidjan, Cote d’Ivoire will allow you to experience the infamous Gold Coast, where once there were over 50 “castles” and forts where black slaves were put on ships bound for the U.S. The imposing St. George’s Castle in Elmina was the African headquarters of the Dutch West Indies Company; at its peak it exported 10,000 slaves per year. Cape Coast Castle is about 30 miles away (this is the site the Obama family visited in 2009). Ft. William, in nearby Anomabo, is the only coastal structure still standing that was built for the sole purpose of exporting slaves; its Door of No Return is a vivid reminder of all that occurred there. Accra has several 5-star hotels: try the Villa Monticello, the Movenpick Ambassador, or the Labadi Beach Hotel.
–Host a dinner party. If you want to keep the celebration and remembrances close to home, you can bring out your favorite family heirloom dishes and silver and serve the food your grandmother used to make for you. Or cook some classic West African dishes like cassava patties, meat pies, red-red (made with black-eyed peas), ogbono soup, Jollof rice, or bofrot (these deep-fried doughnuts are further proof that every culture in the world seems to thrive on fat, sugar, and anything that will hold them together in one bite). Have each guest bring a recipe that has been passed down in their family, and create a shared cookbook that all of your kids can keep and use in the years to come.
–Take in a movie. This month saw the premiers of four outstanding films about the black experience in America. Moonlight is director Barry Jenkins’ drama about three eras in the life of a young black man. Hidden Figures is about a team of black women who worked at NASA and were instrumental in the launch of the Apollo 11 mission to the moon; August Wilson’s award-winning play Fences is now a film starring Denzel Washington and Viola Davis. Two Trains Runnin’ is a documentary about the day in June 1964 when two legendary black blues singers who had gone missing were both found, and three courageous college students who came to the South to advocate for racial equality — Schwerner, Chaney and Goodman – were all tragically lost.
–Come to New York City. There are so many great choices in the city, you’ll be hard-pressed to experience them all. See Alvin Ailey at City Center; visit the Schomburg Center for Research in Black Culture; see Kerry Marshall: Mastry at the Met Breuer; attend one of the numerous Kwanzaa celebrations around town; worship at the Abyssinian Baptist Church; see “The Window and the Breaking of the Window,” a sampling of protest art at the Studio Museum in Harlem; visit the African Burial Ground National Monument downtown; see Suzan-Lori Parks’ seminal 1990 work “The Death of the Last Black Man in the Whole Entire World” at the Pershing Square Signature Theater; catch David Oyelowo and Daniel Craig in “Othello” at the New York Theater Workshop; have a great meal and a swanky night out at Harlem supper clubs Minton’s or Red Rooster; go to Jazz at Lincoln Center or the Poisson Rouge and listen to some music created by black Americans. For pure luxury, stay at the Pierre, the Regis or the Mark.
–Visit Detroit. Motown is my home town, and it has many important ties to the civil rights movement, including being the home of Rosa Parks. The city is on the upswing, so this is the perfect time to go. While you’re there, visit the Charles H. Wright Museum of African-American History (current exhibits include black dolls and black achievements in science and tech); the Second Baptist Church, a stop on the Underground Railroad and the oldest black church in the Midwest (it celebrated its 180th anniversary this year); and the Motown Museum, site of the recording studios of Berry Gordy and Motown records. You have to visit the Detroit Institute of Arts – I spent many happy hours there with my family as a child, entranced by the famous Diego Rivera murals. Great places to stay? The Westin Book Cadillac, or the boutique Aloft Hotel at the David Whitney.
–Listen to some music. There are too many songs about the black experience to list here, so pick a few of your favorites, and pay special attention to the lyrics this time. Here are some of the ones we’ll be playing: John Legend’s Darkness and Light; Kendrick Lamar’s Grammy-winning To Pimp a Butterfly; and Beyoncé’s Lemonade. Then we’ll kick it old-school with Miles Davis, John Coltrane, Duke Ellington, Aretha Franklin, Tina Turner, Ella Fitzgerald and Lena Horne.
–Go to Chicago to see the end-point of the Great Migration and the home town of poet Gwendolyn Brooks; Visit the DuSable Museum of African-American History; listen to jazz at the same clubs where Louis Armstrong played; see the place where President Obama first made his mark (and visit Grant Park, where he spoke on election night 2008). Celebrate the many South Side black businesses that were founded and thrived in the Windy City: four major insurance companies, Oprah’s Harpo Studios, and Johnson Publishing were all born in Chicago. The Chicago Defender was the preeminent black newspaper in its day; three of the six black Senators elected since Reconstruction were from Chicago. The Conrad Hotel just opened and early reviews are strong; you cannot go wrong with the Four Seasons, the Park Hyatt, or the Ritz-Carlton.
–Read a book. As we noted, the giving of books as gifts and the display of books near the Kwanzaa candles are core elements of the holiday. Here’s a chance to read a recent book that illuminates the experience of black Americans, or to go back and re-read a classic:
–Recent fiction: The Underground Railroad by Colson Whitehead; Homegoing by Yaa Gyasi; The Mothers by Brit Bennett; Behold the Dreamers by Imbolo Mbue; and The Sport of Kings by C.E. Morgan
–Recent non-fiction: Blood at the Root: A Racial Cleansing in America by Patrick Phillips; The Defender: How the Legendary Black Newspaper Changed America by Ethan Michaeli; They Can’t Kill Us All: Ferguson, Baltimore, and a New Era in America’s Racial Justice Movement by Wesley Lowery; The Fire This Time: A New Generation Speaks about Race by Jesmyn Ward; Blood in the Water: The Attica Prison Uprising by Heather Ann Thompson; and Thunder at the Gates by Douglas Egerton, about the black former slaves and freemen who fought during the Civil War
–Classics: Letter from a Birmingham Jail by Dr. Martin Luther King Jr.; Autobiography of Malcolm X by Alex Haley; The New Jim Crow by Michelle Alexander; Our Kind of People by Lawrence Otis Graham (who is my darling husband); Dreams from My Father by President Barack Obama; Between the World and Me by Ta-Nehisi Coates; and The Fire Next Time by James Baldwin
However you decide to join in the celebration, we hope that the unifying and uplifting spirit of family, community and culture that Kwanzaa stands for will stay with you long after the holiday ends.