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May 13, 2017

UMass and Amherst Regional High School host Kwanzaa celebration

On Tuesday, the Committee for the Collegiate Education of Black and other Minority Students (CCEMBS) and the Program for Undergraduate Mentoring and Achievement (PUMA), in collaboration with the People of Color United (POCU) of Amherst Regional High School, hosted the annual Community KWANZAA celebration in the Student Union Ballroom.

Kwanzaa, an African cultural holiday, celebrates the importance of community, culture and family. Deriving from the African harvest festival Kwanza, the African-American holiday of Kwanzaa was started in 1966 by Dr. Maulana Ron Karenga and is a weeklong holiday from December 26 through January 1.

Kwanzaa celebrates familial bonds and unity. Handmade gifts are often distributed within families to break free of the capitalistic custom of purchasing gifts. The celebration was held from 6 to 9 p.m. and had participants from UMass as well as other organizations including the UMass Gospel Choir, Black Student Union, Cape Verdean Student Alliance (CVSA) and  representatives of the National Pan-Hellenic Council including Alpha Phi Alpha Fraternity, Phi Beta Sigma Fraternity, Zeta Phi Beta Sorority, Delta Sigma Theta Sorority and Sigma Gamma Rho Sorority.

The event was kicked off by a traditional African welcome dance by the Amherst College African Dance Class.  Students from Amherst Regional High School Imani Higginson, Naimah Petigny and UMass’ Kenny Francis gave the kukaribisha, which means welcome in Swahili. The UMass Gospel Choir then led the audience in a rendition of “Lift Every Voice and Sing.”

The history of Kwanzaa was then presented by UMass students and keynote speaker Onawumi Jean Moss, the so-called “Soulful Storyteller,” was then introduced. Jean Moss intrigued the audience with a beautiful tale about a dog that had lost his way and was left for doom and destruction. She then led the audience in a powerful chant of “united we stand, divided we fall,” with the warm message of staying together, and encouraged the audience to hug their neighbor.

The keynote speaker said she was inspired to become a storyteller by a young African American woman at Amherst College in 1991 and the young woman was the first person to ask her to tell stories. Jean Moss considers this woman her “earth angel.” Jean Moss further explained that her stories have no target audience. She says that “I tell stories from time of conception to the most elder,” meaning she tells stories to anyone regardless of age.

Most of her stories, she says, are stories from her life, stories she has written, and stories from literature that have been passed down for some time. When asked how storytelling has impacted her life, she says that “life is 1000 times more interesting on a minute by minute basis” and that her curiosity is more stimulated as she thrives to become more aware of what is going on around her. Onawumi says that she has “met many interesting people and [has] told stories as far as the Netherlands.” Winner of the 2005 Zora Neale Hurston Storytelling Award and the 2009 ALZA/ALSC Notable Children’s Book Award, Onawumi says the themes and messages of the stories she tells depend on “what the occasion may call for.”

After the story session, the festivities continued with lighting candles for the Seven Principes of Kwanzaa, which are Umoja or purpose, Kujichagulia, self determination, Ujima, collective work and responsibility, Ujamaa, cooperative economics, Nia, purpose, Kuumba, creativity, and Imani, faith. The Seven Principles were each represented by a candle in red, for the struggle of the people and their blood-shed, black, for the color of the people, and green for a prospective fruitful harvest and bright future.

Following the candle lighting was libations, where anyone in the audience could go to the podium and pour water out of a cup to pay respects to loved ones who had passed. The ceremony ended with an appreciation statement from CVSA, the Women of Color Leadership Network, and the Black Student Union. The Afrikan Pledge was then read by Greg St. Dick of Phi Beta Sigma Fraternity. The event was immediately followed by a dinner.

Jessica Bonheur can be reached at
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