Kwanzaa celebration unites African-American community

African-American students at Ohio University will rock around the kinara tonight, filling Baker University Center Theatre with holiday cheer.

Every year, OU’s Black Student Cultural Programming Board and the Multicultural Center host Pre-Kwanzaa before students head home for the holidays. In years past, the event has attracted guests such as Dr. Maulana Karenga, the founder of Kwanzaa, and Synthia Saint James, who designed the first Kwanzaa U.S. postage stamp.

Tonight, Keith Mayes, four-time author and professor of African-American studies at the University of Minnesota, will speak about the collection of cultural celebrations he calls “black power holidays.”

“Kwanzaa is about representing blacks on the American calendar,” Mayes said. “We can partake in Christmas, but we can also celebrate something we created on our own.”

Launching in the ‘60s as part of the Civil Rights Movement, the weeklong holiday has become not only a celebration of black heritage but also a commemoration of traditional African values. The candles of the kinara represent what Karenga calls “the seven principles of blackness,” also known as Nguzo Saba.

“The most important thing about Kwanzaa is the idea of unity,” said Julius Smiley, a sophomore studying Spanish education and BSCPB’s assistant cultural arts director. “We all get to come together to celebrate what we’ve done.”

Unity, self-determination, responsibility, family, purpose and creativity are each represented by candles that will be lit during tonight’s ceremony.

But after nearly half a century, the hype surrounding black power has died down. The African American Cultural Center reported that an estimated 30 million people celebrated Kwanzaa in 2009. Today, the number of Kwanzaa participants barely reaches 2 million, Mayes said.

“It serves a different purpose today than it did generations ago,” he said. “It’s now part of the cornucopia of holiday diversity.”

It has been almost 60 years since Rosa Parks refused to give up her seat on the bus and nearly 50 years since Martin Luther King Jr. delivered his “I Have a Dream” speech in Washington, D.C. Mayes thinks the black community has lost motivation to recognize black power holidays.

“There was more overt adoption of Kwanzaa’s principles when people felt oppressed,” said Winsome Chunnu, assistant director of the Multicultural Center. “But it’s important for students to understand the diversity of the U.S. and it’s the duty of the university to expose them to as many aspects of the world as possible.”

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