A reel celebration

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Thirty-seven years after the vision was first shared, Kwanzaa observers still celebrate with a purpose. In fact, one day after the last gifts have been unwrapped on Christmas, thousands of Detroiters will be just beginning the festivities.

Kwanzaa, the only holiday created by and for Africa’s descendants in America, is observed Dec. 26 through Jan. 1. It has consistently increased in popularity since the first Kwanzaa in 1966. Black nationalist scholar Maulana Karenga formed the concept of Kwanzaa with the aim of bringing together disconnected black communities to celebrate their families, culture and heritage.

Several million people throughout the nation annually attend Kwanzaa ceremonies at museums and recreation centers, or host observances in their homes. Though the celebration is secular in nature, many churches, such as Detroit’s Shrine of the Black Madonna, have gradually incorporated it into special services.

One of the best-received local programs recently began its eighth observance at the First Unitarian-Universalist Church, 4605 Cass Ave. The Cinema Cafe and DV Studio, an independently operated arts agency, is hosting the Eighth Annual Kwanzaa Film Fest through Thursday. Featuring the traditional Kwanzaa candlelighting ceremonies, storytellers, drummers and other performers, the festivities also include daily screenings of African-American, international and independent films. All programs are free and open to the public.

“Kwanzaa is not as foreign to the mainstream as it was at its introduction,” says Njia Kai, founder of the Cinema Cafe.

Kai says she was first introduced to the holiday in the early ’70s, while she attended Howard University in Washington, D.C.; the African-centered Ujamaa Shule school hosted celebrations. Karenga made appearances at the school, where he helped promote the new holiday.

“When we were introduced to Kwanzaa, we were told that this was an African-American celebration that was created for the purpose of giving African-American people a unified focus,” Kai recalls.

While there are few absolute specifications for celebrating the holiday, Kwanzaa is structured around seven Swahili principles that each have a day of recognition: umoja (unity), kujichagulia (self-determination), ujima (collective work and responsibility), ujamaa (cooperative economics), nia (purpose), kuumba (creativity) and imani (faith). A candle is lit each day in recognition of the principle being observed, and symbolic gifts are often exchanged. Celebrants are encouraged to reflect upon and discuss each of the principles, and on the final day of Kwanzaa a large dinner called the karamu feast is traditionally held.

Kai’s method of observing Kwanzaa took shape as a film festival because of her background as a screenwriter and director.

“Our efforts at the film festival are motivated by our desire to establish and continue the Kwanzaa practice as a regular community tradition,” she says.

“Fundamentally, I’m a filmmaker, so what happened is that we founded the Cinema Cafe during Kwanzaa. Every Kwanzaa is the Cinema Cafe’s anniversary. We used to show three films a day, so we didn’t have the opportunity to get to any other celebrations.”

In making certain that her family, which included young children, could experience the essential communal nature of the observance, Kai says, she opened the program to anyone interested in participating. Non-blacks have attended the Kwanzaa screenings at the First Unitarian, but Kai observes that the holiday’s growing prominence will present challenges too.

“Well, you know we’re in America, and there is very little about African culture that is not co-opted in America,” she says. “I’ll never forget in the late ’60s when the Afro picks started saying ‘Made in China.’ … It’s up to us to remain old-school and hold true to the foundation.”

With Hallmark’s production of Kwanzaa cards and the holiday’s appearance on calendars, she acknowledges the challenge of preserving its essence: “That is a core issue to the African-American reality – upon which standard do we measure our progress? In my efforts to be a part of the maintenance and development of our community, I continue to be focused on the goal and not on the numbers.”

Several schools, however, such as the Oak Park-based Nsoroma Institute, have begun incorporating the seven principles into their curriculum on a year-round basis.

Malik Yakini, Nsoroma’s director, served as celebration leader on the fifth day of the film festival.

“I have celebrated Kwanzaa since 1975,” Yakini says. “Nsoroma Institute has celebrated Kwanzaa since 1989, the year of our founding.”

The emergence of African influence and ideas in the classroom is indicative of how pervasive events such as Kwanzaa have become, Kai adds.

Screening selections for the festival have ranged from some of the earliest works of black filmmakers, including Oscar Micheaux’s 1919 work, Within Our Gates, to popular biopics, like Raul Peck’s critically acclaimed Lumumba, the 2000 film about the life and death of assassinated African freedom fighter Patrice Lumumba.

But more important than the screenings or other special attractions that the Cinema Cafe uses to lure an audience, Kai says, is the way each participant internalizes the meaning of Kwanzaa as an experience.

“It’s up to each of us to convince ourselves of the value of culture and our understanding and recognition of that culture,” she says. “If each of us does that, we have a better effect of doing that in the overall community.”


For more information on the film festival, call First Unitarian-Universalist Church at 313-833-9107. Eddie B. Allen Jr. is a Detroit-based writer. E-mail [email protected]

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