Jessica B. Harris Kwanzaa Keepsake

ISBN 13: 9780684800455

Kwanzaa Keepsake

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9780684800455: Kwanzaa Keepsake
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A rich and festive distillation of the joy surrounding the African-American celebration of Kwanzaa offers more than fifty delicious recipes, along with facts and projects that add to the holiday's spirit. 30,000 first printing. National ad/promo. Tour.

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About the Author:

Jessica B. Harris is a Professor of English in New York City and a culinary consultant. She is the author of The Africa Cookbook, The Welcome Table: African-American Heritage Cooking, Sky Juice and Flying Fish, and Iron Pots and Wooden Spoons; she was an editorial consultant for The Black Family Reunion Cookbook. Harris has written for Essence, Eating Well, Food & Wine, and Black Enterprise. She lives in New York.

Excerpt. Reprinted by permission. All rights reserved.:

Chapter One:
What Is Kwanzaa?

Those who think that holidays are days steeped in centuries-old tradition are always surprised to hear that the African-American feast of Kwanzaa was established in 1966. That was the year Maulana Karenga decided that African- Americans needed a time of cultural reaffirmation. He looked east to Africa, East Africa, and came up with a celebration that is a compilation of several harvest festivals and celebrations that are held throughout the continent. The name Kwanzaa comes from the Swahili word kwanza, meaning "first," as in the phrase matunda ya kwanza (first fruits). The second "a" distinguishes the African-American from the African kwanza. An apocryphal tale is told that during one of the early Kwanzaa celebrations, a children's pageant was held, with each child holding up a card with the letters of the word kwanza, which at that time was spelled with one "a." One child was left, letterless and weeping, at the end of the row. A second "a" was quickly produced, the day was saved, and the holiday was forever after known as Kwanzaa.

Occurring annually from December 26 to January 1, Kwanzaa is a time of fasting, of feasting, and of self-examination. It was at first celebrated mainly by cultural nationalists who wished to express their Pan-African solidarity. Yet, as word of the new holiday and its family-strengthening virtues spread, African-Americans from all walks of life began to celebrate the seven nights of reflection. Today, over 13 million people of all political leanings and in all walks of life celebrate the holiday, one of the fastest growing in the history of the world. The roots of Kwanzaa are in Africa, but the fruits of the tree are truly African-American. Ironically, some of its fruits are reaching back to the motherland from which it sprang as Kwanzaa is celebrated in more and more countries.

Although Kwanzaa is celebrated at the end of the year at the same time as the Christian celebration of Christmas, the Hindu celebration of Divali, the Jewish celebration of Chanukah, and traditional New Year's celebrations, it is not designed as an alternative to or replacement for any of the holidays. Kwanzaa may be celebrated jointly with any or all of the year-end holidays. More importantly, it also offers a time for reflection and self-affirmation, in contrast with the rampant commercialization that has overtaken some of the other holidays.

The celebration of Kwanzaa is guided by the Nguzo Saba or Seven Principles. Each day of the week-long festival is devoted to the celebration of one of these building blocks of self-awareness.

Umoja Unity

Kujichagulia Self-Determination

Ujima Collective Work and Responsibility

Ujamaa Cooperative Economics

Nia Purpose

Kuumba Creativity

Imani Faith

The mystical number seven is at the core of the celebration; there are seven days, seven principles, and even seven symbols of the festival. The symbols are the mazao, the fruits and vegetables of the harvest that are a part of the celebration table; the mkeka, the placemat on which they are arranged, and the kinara, the seven-branched candlestick that holds the red, black, and green candles, the mishumaa saba, that are lighted each evening. There are also the muhindi, the ears of corn that represent each child still remaining at home; the kikombe cha umoja, the communal chalice from which the ceremonial libation is poured; and the zawadi, the gifts.

Kwanzaa is essentially a family holiday, whether it be the nuclear family, the extended family, or the communal family. Each evening of the holiday, family members gather around the celebration table to read the Seven Principles and meditate on the principle of the day while the youngest child lights one of the candles. Visitors to the home are asked to participate as the brief nightly ceremony is held, the candles lighted, and libation poured from the communal cup.

There are as many different types of Kwanzaa as there are types of families in the African-American community. African-Americans are known for improvisation; our virtuoso turns have created musical forms that have made the entire world sing and dance. Our artistic endeavors have redefined western art forms. Wherever we have stepped, our transformational and improvisational skills have changed the country and the hemisphere in domains as wide-ranging as retail sales and cooking, music, and language. In our world, there's always room for improvisation; it would be impossible for us not to improvise on the themes of Kwanzaa.

So we ring in changes and create new riffs on our own holiday. There are single Kwanzaas, celebrated by individuals with friends and neighbors; nuclear family Kwanzaas with mommy, daddy, and the kids gathering each evening to light the candles. There are single-parent Kwanzaas, extended-family Kwanzaas, neighborhood Kwanzaas, and even community Kwanzaas. Each celebration brings something else to the kaleidoscope of possibilities that is the holiday.

While the basic Nguzo Saba (Seven Principles) remain unchanged, celebrants are open to find the way to the holiday that best expresses their individuality. Some followers of Kwanzaa fast from sunrise to sunset during the seven days, as with the Muslim Ramadan. Needless to say, this makes the gathering for the evening meal more celebratory. Others invite different friends in to celebrate throughout the seven days, or have gatherings to remind the children of the family of the seven principles. Still others celebrate Kwanzaa without even knowing that they're doing it. All of those New Year's Eve gatherings and New Year's Day open houses fall right into the category of the Kwanzaa gatherings, whatever they're called. All that are missing are the mazao, and the mkeka, the kinara with the mishumaa saba, the muhindi, the kikombe cha umoja, and the zawadi.

The Kwanzaa that you will find between these pages is my personal Kwanzaa; an individual riff that can be embroidered at your whim. My aunt Clara always used to say, "You don't have a holiday, you have to make a holiday." In this she spoke the truth. The personal meaning of each and every holiday comes from the manner and commitment with which the celebrants choose to participate in it.

My Kwanzaa is informed by two main factors in my life: family and ritual. My family has always been the nucleus of my being. Pride in my parents, their accomplishments, their perseverence, their ability to survive in a world that was not always kind, and a desire to live up to their standards have been strong motivating factors.

I am also an individual steeped in a love of history and tradition. As a teacher, I believe it is important that we know about our past. As an internationalist, I believe it is important that we know about the cultures of peoples of African descent around the globe. As a spiritual being, I believe it is important that we honor those who went before so that we build on their deeds in creating our own future.

I am a newcomer to the holiday of Kwanzaa, but when I look at the holiday, I realize that I've been celebrating it all of my adult life in my own personal way. I've been out of sync, but I've been in the spirit. My personal celebration has taken place on only one of the days of the holiday: January 1. On that day, I open my home to friends old and new, to relatives, and to new acquaintances whose spirits speak to me. Over the eighteen or so years that it's been held, the gathering has grown from a few friends who were invited over to meet my parents to a gathering of fifty or more individuals from around the world.

At last year's celebration, Haitians, Brazilians, Senegalese, Guyanese, Ethiopians, and Americans of all hues gathered to start the year. A Moslem religious leader shared conversation with a Yoruba priestess, while a precocious eleven-year-old offered his views on polygamy to an astonished group of single over-forty women. My eighty-one-year-old mother danced a few vigorous steps to some Zairian soukouss music, while my Uncle Herbie, who's really not my uncle but has known me all of my life, guarded the door. There was a heaping plate of food on the floor in the kitchen for my ancestors, who were called by name in a small Yoruba ceremony just prior to the serving of the food. There was music, food, drink, good times, reflection, and communion. In short, there was Kwanzaa.

The menu has always been selected to salute my African-American ancestry and my international life. Each year there's Hoppin' John for luck and collard greens for folding money. There's also roast pork for sheer colored cussedness. A mixture of okra, corn, and tomatoes is served with hot chile to fire us up for the oncoming year and to remind us of our origins. For internationality, there's always a diaspora dish from the Caribbean, or the Motherland, that changes annually.

The gathering has become so much a part of my celebration of the first of the year that my budget and my life are planned around it. Up until recently, there have been none of the more traditional trappings of Kwanzaa, but the spirit of the celebration -- the physical and spiritual communion of friends, family, neighbors, and new acquaintances -- is exactly what the holiday is about.

As I look around at the African-American community, I find that I have unwittingly allowed myself some leeway because I do not have children. The responsibilities of Kwanzaa, though, extend beyond the family to the extended family and to the community, and there, we all have children. Our children need the sense of specialness that comes from participating in a known and loved ritual. They need the mastery of self-discipline that comes from order. They need the self-awareness that comes from a knowledge of their past. They need Kwanzaa as a tool for building their future and our own.

Copyright © 1995 by Jessica B. Harris

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