In downtown Detroit, you'll find a 60-foot-tall Christmas tree and a 26-foot-tall Hanukkah menorah towering over Campus Martius Park. But in the nation's largest Black-majority city, there is no large kinara to celebrate Kwanzaa.
This year, however, the city is partnering with the Charles H. Wright Museum of African American History, where you'll find a more traditional and modest Kwanzaa display. In fact, its kinara belongs to Yolanda Jack, the museum's educator and youth programs coordinator, who loaned it for this year's celebration.
"Habari gani," Jack greets passersby as she leads us to the display. "That's a common phrase we hear in Swahili," she explains. "It's kind of like, 'what's up?' — it means 'what's the news?'"
During the seven days of Kwanzaa, she says, which are from Dec. 26 to Jan. 1, the appropriate response would be the corresponding principle being celebrated that day, of the seven Nguzo Saba. Since the celebration hasn't started yet, Jack says the appropriate response is simply "Kwanzaa."
Jack's kinara sits on top of a table on the stage of the museum's General Motors Theater. Like many Kwanzaa displays, it's set up among other items arranged on a mat, which is symbolic of African tradition and history. There are fruits and vegetables, symbolic of the rewards of collective labor, and corn, symbolic of the future. There's a bendera flag, and books about African art and culture. There's also the Kikombe cha Umoja, a cup for offering thanks to the ancestors. And of course, there's the kinara, which holds seven candles in the pan-African colors of red, green, and black. The candles symbolize the seven principles of Kwanzaa: Umoja (unity), Kujichagulia (self-determination), Ujima (collective work and responsibility), Ujamaa (cooperative economics), Nia (purpose), Kuumba (creativity), and Imani (faith).
Due to the coronavirus pandemic, the Wright can't host a big Kwanzaa celebration like it normally would. However, this year, the celebration could be poised to reach a wider audience — and as advocates like Jack believe, perhaps it should.
Even though Kwanzaa isn't a religious holiday, Jack spreads the word about it with all the enthusiasm of an evangelist.
"I want the energy and the excitement and enthusiasm about Kwanzaa to infect everybody," she says. "Because I believe that everybody can benefit from it."
Video cameras are pointed at the display; as part of the partnership with the City of Detroit, the museum has been pre-taping short Schoolhouse Rock-style educational segments about Kwanzaa and the seven principles that will air on the city's Channel 22 during each morning of the festival. In the evening, the programming will continue with a celebration, including songs, dances, storytelling, poetry reading, and more.
Kwanzaa is still a relatively young holiday, created in 1966 in the aftermath of the deadly Watts uprising in Los Angeles by Dr. Maulana Karenga, an activist and professor of Africana studies. Jack explains that Kwanzaa was always envisioned to have a broad appeal — Karenga used Swahili because it's the most popular language in Africa, and gleaned the seven principles from across different African cultures.
"In his studies and his work, he realized that there were certain aspects of behaviors and philosophies and values that kind of transcended ethnicity across the continent of Africa," Jack says, "which have then been transplanted here as a result of enslavement of Africans in the United States."
Kwanzaa comes from the Swahili phrase "matunda ya kwanza," which means "first fruits," since it was inspired by the first fruits festivals that exist in Southern Africa in December and January, including the Zulu festival Umkhosi Wokweshwama. (Karenga added an extra "a" to get "Kwanzaa," so there would be seven letters to correspond with the seven principles.) The first Kwanzaa was celebrated in California, and soon spread throughout the diaspora in the U.S. and beyond.
At first, Karenga envisioned Kwanzaa as an alternative to Christmas, to "give Blacks an alternative to the existing holiday and give Blacks an opportunity to celebrate themselves and history, rather than simply imitate the practice of the dominant society," he said. He later walked it back so people could celebrate both holidays if they wanted to. "Kwanzaa is not a religious holiday, but a cultural one with an inherent spiritual quality," he wrote on the official Kwanzaa website. "Thus, Africans of all faiths can and do celebrate Kwanzaa, i.e. Muslims, Christians, Black Hebrews, Jews, Buddhists, Baha'i and Hindus, as well as those who follow the ancient traditions of Maat, Yoruba, Ashanti, Dogon, etc."
Kwanzaa's popularity seems to have peaked in the 1980s and '90s, and experts say it's been declining since then. A 2012 poll from Public Policy Polling found that just 4% of Americans primarily celebrate Kwanzaa — slightly more than the 3% who primarily celebrate Hanukkah, but also the 3% who say they primarily celebrate Festivus, the holiday popularized by Frank Costanza on Seinfeld. That's all dwarfed by the 90% of respondents who said they primarily celebrate Christmas.
Karenga also has a controversial history that could have turned some off from the holiday. In 1971, he was convicted of felony charges following allegations that he and three other members of the US Organization, the Black nationalist group based in Los Angeles that he co-founded, imprisoned and tortured two women. Karenga has denied the allegations, and argued that he was imprisoned for political purposes. He was released on parole in 1975, earned a doctorate, and became a teacher.
Despite Karenga's controversial past, the seven principles have proved resilient. Perhaps 2020 — with the forced introspection due to the pandemic, and the Black Lives Matter movement becoming more embraced by the mainstream — is the year for more people to celebrate Kwanzaa.
"It's a cultural celebration that, while it originated with one culture and it's embraced by that culture, is something that can be embraced by everyone," says Rochelle Riley, the City of Detroit's director of arts and culture. "You're talking about unity, self-determination, work and responsibility, cooperative economics, purpose, creativity, and faith — I mean, that makes up literally all of the reasons to live."
According to Riley, there have been Kwanzaa celebrations held at City Hall in the past. But the partnership with the Wright, she says, is a way to help celebrate and elevate the city's different cultures. The city also aired the Christmas tree lighting and Menorah in the D on its public channel.
As to why Detroit didn't previously have a large public Kwanzaa celebration the way it celebrates Christmas and Hanukkah, Riley cannot say. She surmises it could simply be due to the fact that for many years, culture frankly wasn't a priority for the city government as it fended off numerous crises — including its 2013 bankruptcy filing, in which the state-appointed emergency manager even considered selling off some of the Detroit Institute of Arts' collection.
It could also be a simple matter of no corporate donors previously stepping up to make it happen. For the past 17 years, Detroit's Christmas tree has been funded by the nonprofit Downtown Detroit Partnership, with the major funding coming from the DTE Foundation. (A spokesman for the DDP would not disclose how much Detroit's Christmas tree costs.) A Christmas tree at Campus Martius Park has been tradition since the park's grand opening in 2004, where it towers over an ice-skating rink modeled after the one at the Rockefeller Center in New York City; before that, Detroit celebrated with a much smaller tree in nearby Hart Plaza. In some form or another, the city has celebrated Christmas with a public-square tree since 1912, a DDP spokesman says. Meanwhile, Menorah in the D celebrated its 10th anniversary this year, with a long list of corporate and foundation sponsors. (A spokesman also declined to say how much Menorah in the D costs.)
Riley says it could also be the simple fact that Detroit has been without a director of arts and culture for many years — which can be hard to believe considering that for many years now, Detroit's top export has arguably been culture, not cars. Riley was appointed by Mayor Mike Duggan in May 2019 to lead the revived office after she took a buyout following a nearly 20-year-stint as a columnist for the Detroit Free Press. She says Duggan pretty much hired her on the spot when she announced her retirement from journalism; reviving the position was something he long intended to do, she recalls him saying, but he just hadn't yet found the right person to lead it.
Once at the helm, it didn't take much to convince Riley to help coordinate some sort of Kwanzaa celebration. "Somebody said, 'Are we going to celebrate Kwanzaa?' And I said yes," she says. "Because if someone asks then that means it's something that people want."
Riley says even though Detroit is facing new crises this year with the pandemic and its economic fallout, she believes her office is a way to use culture to help the city. When Duggan asked her to organize a memorial for the Detroiters lost to COVID-19 in May, Riley arranged a socially distanced motorcade on Belle Isle, where cars drove by large photos of the deceased, creating a powerful visual of the human toll of the virus but also a celebration of the lives of those who were lost.
A televised, citywide Kwanzaa celebration could similarly help Detroiters heal, she says.
"In this particular year, and this particular time, and with this particular horror that we're living in, this was just a great way to celebrate these principles that mean the same thing to everyone — no matter what language, no matter what color, no matter what person," she says.
As far as why Kwanzaa isn't more widely celebrated generally, it could be that unlike Christmas, Kwanzaa is inherently more introspective — so perhaps it's harder for capitalism to subsume it the way it has nearly every other holiday.
"Christmas is fun," Jack says. "Christmas is easy. You just go shopping and open your presents and you're done."
Plus, as Jack explains, celebrating Kwanzaa is actually hard work.
Jack says she leaves her kinara up in her house all year long — to remind her and her children of the seven principles, and the daily work needed to cultivate them. Gifts are given during Kwanzaa, but "the gifts are a little bit more meaningful," Jack says. "Often they're handmade, or books, or they're representative of the parents' labor and love and care for the children." The gifts can be a reward based on a commitment that the child made — like learning a new skill, or maybe something as simple as a promise to make their bed each morning. Jack says she only lights her kinara's candles during Kwanzaa, and says she also celebrates Christmas with a tree, because she "likes the lights."
She didn't celebrate Kwanzaa growing up. In fact, Jack says she had never really heard about it until she was about 12, when she was invited to a Kwanzaa party thrown by a family friend.
"I remember that we all stood around the table and we spoke about what we were grateful for," she says. "I remember we talked about what plans we have for the new year, we talked about these kinds of things that help ground a community or help ground a family together."
It wasn't until she was an adult and moved into her own place that she officially adopted Kwanzaa into her life.
"I had no idea what I was doing," Jack admits. "I mean, I had a kinara, but I didn't have a mat. I had seven candles. I had no harvest, no crops. I was poor and fresh out of school."
Jack says when Dr. Karenga visited the Charles H. Wright Museum in 2016 to commemorate the 50th anniversary of Kwanzaa, she asked him what the first celebration was like. "He was like, 'Man, we didn't even have red, black, and green candles — we just had candles,'" she remembers. The idea to make the candles different colors didn't come until later, nor did the idea to have a feast, Karamu Ya Imani, held on the sixth day, which didn't come until 1971.
The holiday is still evolving and growing. "African people are flexible, and creative, and inventive," she says. "If you don't have this thing right here like that, maybe we substitute it for this."
Jack hopes the holiday will remain a part of the culture of the diaspora to help reflect upon its struggles and accomplishments.
"Black people have a history that goes back millennia, but the historians didn't tell us that," she says. "When my children were younger, I wanted them to feel the beauty and the power of how our ancestors have gotten to this day. ... All of these things that our ancestors have done, that work, we are the recipients of that — the good, the bad, and everything."
She gestures toward the kinara. "We've got something to work with, and now we have an opportunity to forward it to other generations — my children, and their children," she says. "There are generations that I'm never going to meet, but they're going to do the same thing that I'm doing here."
Jack says she welcomes non-Black people to join the celebration.
"It's not just 'Black Christmas,'" she says. "Is it for Black people? Yes, absolutely. It was founded by a Black man in the middle of the Black civil rights movement."
However, she adds, "I don't think that's how the holiday was intended to be. If you are human, you are African. ... It is for people who self-identify as African first. But if you understand your Africanness, or your adjacency to Africanness, then you should absolutely grab onto these Nguzo Saba and move forward."
No matter who chooses to celebrate, Jack says it's important that they work on and reflect upon the principles year-round, not just during the seven days of Kwanzaa.
But the reward, she says, is worth it.
"I know they've saved my life," she says of the principles. "I know they have. I wouldn't be standing here if it wasn't for the understanding of how I live my life through Kwanzaa."
Kwanzaa is celebrated from Dec. 26 to Jan. 1. You can learn more at the Charles H. Wright Museum of African American History, 315 E. Warren Ave., Detroit; 313-494-5800; thewright.org.
The Seven Principles of Kwanzaa
Umoja (Unity)To strive for and maintain unity in the family, community, nation, and race.
Kujichagulia (Self-Determination)To define ourselves, name ourselves, create for ourselves and speak for ourselves.
Ujima (Collective Work and Responsibility)To build and maintain our community together and make our brothers’ and sisters’ problems our problems and to solve them together.
Ujamaa (Cooperative Economics)To build and maintain our own stores, shops, and other businesses and to profit from them together.
Nia (Purpose)To make our collective vocation the building and developing of our community in order to restore our people to their traditional greatness.
Kuumba (Creativity)To do always as much as we can, in the way we can, in order to leave our community more beautiful and beneficial than we inherited it.
Imani (Faith)To believe with all our heart in our people, our parents, our teachers, our leaders, and the righteousness and victory of our struggle.
We have a new events newsletter! Find out the best things to do in the area every Thursday in your inbox.