On Friday, December 11, the Department of AfroAmerican and African Studies (DAAS) hosted a pre-Kwanzaa festival with DAAS students and faculty as the university neared the end of the Fall semester. Kwanzaa is an annual celebration of African-American culture that lasts from December 26 to January 1, and DAAS provided background on the traditions and significance of the holiday. DAAS Chair Matthew Countryman introduced the event by reminiscing on the success of the past semester’s DAAS events and expressing excitement about upcoming MLK and 50th anniversary events.
DAAS program associate Elizabeth James began with libations for DAAS community members who’ve passed like former DAAS chair James Jackson and DAAS grad student Frank Yates. She held them up to the ancestors to hold them close, and event participants responded with “ashay,” a word that invites ancestors to be with us.
James then delivered an animated presentation on the history of Kwanzaa. The holiday was created in 1966 by Dr. Maulana Karenga to celebrate family, community and culture. James showed images of all the significant symbols the holiday uses in its traditions, such as the Mkeka (the mat) and the Kinara (the candle holder). The Kinara is lit from umoja to imani, and each candle represents principles like unity, self determination and purpose.
“The whole point of kwanzaa is to remember who you are and celebrate who you are,” James said.
The event transitioned to a discussion of prominent books about Black culture that influenced the lives of DAAS community members. DAAS Lecturer Nyambura Mpesha began the conversation with “Sulwe,” by Lupita Nyong’o, appealing to the class of second grade students who were participating in the Zoom event.
Dr. Alford A. Young Jr., Edgar G. Epps Collegiate Scholar and professor of Sociology and Afroamerican and African Studies, discussed the influence of the novel “The crisis of the Negro Intellectual,” by Harold Cruse. “That work was an eye-opener for me to think about questions that I’ve now been thinking about for 30 years… all this began in my senior year of high school when I came across this book,” Dr. Young said.
LSA Collegiate Postdoctoral Fellow Justine Davis shared the book “All God’s Children Need Traveling Shoes,” a book by Maya Angelou about her years in Accra, Ghana. “When she talked about being Black American in Africa… [and] seeing that she was also grappling with these issues really touched me,” Davis said.
After community members had all shared the books they prepared, James played the song “This Christmas” by Donny Hathaway, a cheerful and uplifting song to wrap up the event. While DAAS event participants were wistful about the lack of physical presence that Kwanzaa celebrations prior to the pandemic had, Hathaway’s song brought color and hope that one day, the department could return to its annual in-person celebration.