Food, music and entertainment all highlighted the holiday celebration in the Student Union Ballroom, where tables spread with black, red and green welcomed guests to sit, eat and celebrate Kwanzaa on Monday night.
The University of Massachusetts Center for Multicultural Advancement and Student Success, working with the Malcolm X Center, invited students, faculty and community members to reflect on values and traditions of the international West African community celebrated by this holiday. Serving traditional food like fried catfish, collard greens and sweet potato pie, the two organizations welcomed guests of all ethnic backgrounds to come and join in the recognition of the holiday.
Kwanzaa, which means “first fruits” in the Swahili language – the most widely spoken African language – is celebrated from Dec. 26 to Jan. 1, but because students are on winter break during that time the celebration is usually held at UMass in early December.
The ceremony began with a speech from Amherst Regional High School Dean of Students Mary Custard, who explained the history behind Kwanzaa, from its founding in 1966 by Maulana Karenga as the first holiday meant for the African diaspora. Custard introduced the seven important values emphasized by Kwanzaa: Umoja (unity), Kujichagulia (self-determination), Ujima (collective work and responsibility), Ujamaa (cooperative economics), Nia (purpose), Kuumba (creativity) and Imani (faith). Each is represented by a colored candle on the traditional candle holder, called a kinara.
“Kwanzaa focuses on our own history, our values, our community, and our culture,” Custard said. “It was created to strengthen the bonds between people … and it celebrates what it means to be African and to be human in the fullest sense.”
Dr. Amilcar Shabazz, a UMass Afro-American Studies professor and Faculty Advisor to the Chancellor on Diversity and Excellence, then took the stage for a more in-depth discussion of Kwanzaa, as well as a close look at the traditional African-American song “Lift Every Voice and Sing.” Shabazz then gave libation to the ancestors through the pouring of water, described by CMASS’s Assisstant Director of Cultural Advancement Joyce Vincent as “the purest form of life.”
The night also featured performances by the Cape Verde Student Dance Troupe and the People of Color United from Amherst Regional High School, an address from the supervisor of the Malcolm X Center Supervisor Leslie Saulsberry, music from UMass student Mtalika Banda and graduate student Jonathan Hill, a speech from an African-American community member, and a poetry reading from Cheryl Grandison-Clark, the leader of the student-run spoken word and talent organization Emancipated Voices. Shelley Perdomo and Willie Pope, CMASS’s Director and Director of Student Advancement, respectively, both gave closing addresses to finish out the celebration.
Art Steele, local musician and founder of sound company Audio Promedia, also volunteered to help with the entertainment, freely donating audio equipment to the celebration and assisting in audio-visual tech.
CMASS has been holding a Kwanzaa celebration every year since its founding in 2010, although monetary restrictions have put pressure on CMASS, which had to cut student staff this year in order to afford the catering, according to Vincent. She hopes that elders within the local African-American community will come together soon with the Malcolm X Center, which typically organizes the event, to begin planning for next year’s celebration.
“It’s important that we support students regardless of their race or ethnic background,” Vincent said, “and it’s important that we support our [ethnic and international] communities as well.”
Conor Snell can be reached at [email protected]