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Learning what Kwanzaa is and isn’t

DiverseCity

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When he first arrived in Colorado Springs in the early 1970s, Anthony Young says he remembers no citywide black culture celebrations.

Young and a friend decided to observe Kwanzaa, a celebration of African heritage that honors seven principles (unity, self-determination, collective work and responsibility, cooperative economics, purpose, creativity and faith), privately with their families. That celebration would eventually burgeon into a citywide festival and spark the founding of the Colorado Springs Citywide Kwanzaa Celebration Organization. It’s all in the name of raising “the level of consciousness regarding the rich legacy of values and culture of people of African descent.”

Decades later, Young is still working to dispel misconceptions about Kwanzaa: “A lot of people think it’s a black Christmas or something crazy like that.”

Confession: Prior to attending Young’s pre-Kwanzaa event Nov. 17, all I knew about Kwanzaa was that the name is derived from a Swahili phrase meaning “first fruits” and that it was established in part to commemorate the achievements of members of the African diaspora.

I am African-American, but my family did not celebrate Kwanzaa. The only reference I had growing up was a children’s book. It obviously did not help much. When I discovered an annual Kwanzaa event had been going on in my hometown of Colorado Springs since 1989, I felt like I had been cheated for not knowing all these years.

For this year’s festival, Young decided to split the celebration into two parts: a pre-celebration for local vendors in November and a festival on Dec. 26 to kick off the holiday, which runs through Jan. 1, culminating in a feast. Like Christmas, Kwanzaa starts earlier each year.

Attendance at the celebration was sparse. Young guessed that icy roads that day had kept some people away. But that did not seem to dampen the mood. A maze of plastic fold-out tables snaked along the polished gym floors at Hillside Community Center. Behind the tables, local businesses, many of them black-owned, displayed homemade soaps, hand-painted coasters and, of course, several Pan-African flags. A deejay blasted Afro genre music that bounced off the gym walls, forcing me to shout to speak to those standing next to me.

“It makes me think about how on a normal basis, you kind of forget about what we have out there … and also helps you remember our contribution to humanity,” said P.k. Patterson, a regular at the Colorado Springs Kwanzaa festival for about 15 years who has been celebrating the holiday even longer.
For him, Kwanzaa serves as a reminder to purchase from black-owned businesses, particularly those that are online-only. Patterson’s eyes grew wide with shock when I revealed that I had never heard about the Colorado Springs event.

Besides chatter about products for sale, there was plenty of serious talk at the event. One man selling his own version of the Pan-African flag engaged anyone who would listen in a conversation about racial inequality in the United States. Vendors shared personal stories and talked to visitors about family.

“It’s a celebration of community, coming together,” Patterson said.

Robert Turman, an attorney who said he has also been celebrating Kwanzaa for multiple years, said the holiday offers him an understanding and appreciation of his own heritage. He said his early education rarely focused on African history, and generally the only information given about African-Americans was that they are the descendants of slaves.

But after he celebrated Kwanzaa for the first time, at Howard University, he began to delve into African history. “Kwanzaa is a reopening of your soul to go and seek that out,” Turman said.
Both Patterson and Turman have passed down Kwanzaa traditions to their children, but I still couldn’t help but wonder if passion for the holiday, which was established in 1966 during the heat of the Black Freedom Movement, is dwindling among the younger generations. Patterson seemed to think the opposite.

Either way, the pre-Kwanzaa celebration was an indication that black contributions exist everywhere, even in cities with small black populations like Colorado Springs. And the importance of the event does not solely lie in its ability to highlight black-owned businesses. Celebrations like pre-Kwanzaa allow space for someone who may feel distanced from black culture to connect to those who have greater knowledge, like Young, Turman and Patterson.

The festival made me long for more opportunities to increase the conversation about black life in southern Colorado. Maybe more events like these would decrease the number of people who think Kwanzaa is a black Christmas.

Turman participates in the citywide Kwanzaa with hopes to connect others to a more complex African history. It’s an education not just for black Americans, but “every human being on the planet,” he said.

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