Kwanzaa: A festa of commemoration of our ancestry, our African civilizations that more and more Afro-Brazilians are celebrating
By Marques Travae
Thinking of this holiday season, I was already planning on posting something on this, Christmas winter/summer solstice, depending on where in the world you are, but then I read a comment by a long-time reader of this blog which reminded me of something very important in my history of covering the question of race in Brazil.
When people ask me how it is that I got into Brazil, I always respond with the same answer. On December 24, 1999, I purchased a 2,000 page encyclopedia called Africana about the African and African-American experience. That work was a treasure chest of history, culture, events and personalities covering Africa, its people and descendants. Although the book touches on literally hundreds of people, places and things from around the world, for some reason the numerous reports about Brazil, its people and the importance of the African influence on that country caught my attention.
From that day on, I began an intense journey that lead me to visiting the country numerous times, eventually living there, reading numerous books, watching countless documentaries and coming to know hundreds of people over the course of two decades. Yesterday, December 24, 2019, marked 20 years since I ‘’discovered’’ Brazil and over the course of that period, I’ve learned many things about the country, some of which I like, others of which I don’t, but the experience itself has totally been worth the investment of my time. I hope for those of you who have followed this blog for any period of time, this journey has been at least 1/10th of what it’s been for me.
My intrigue for black Brazil is what leads me to share stories such as the one I present today. I delved into knowing Brazil 20 years ago on Christmas Eve, and so it is that I present a report, not on Christmas, but a festival that has gained traction with persons of African descent for several decades now, Kwanzaa.
Of course, Brazil having been colonized by the Catholic Portuguese, the vast majority of more than 210 million people celebrate Natal, which is Portuguese for Christmas. But with a growing influence and knowledge of African-American history and culture among Afro-Brazilians, a small but growing number of people are participating in the celebration of the seven days of Kwanzaa, from December 26th to January 1st.
São Paulo’s Gyasi Kweisi Mpfume (Carlos Machado) has a Master’s degree in History from the Universidade de Saõ Paulo and has conducted research on the observance of Kwanzaa.
“It’s important to say that Christmas is Christmas, the birth of Jesus Christ, an important moment for Christianity. Kwanzaa is not black Christmas. Kwanzaa is the harvest festival. It’s not just one day like Christmas,” says Mpfume.
The celebration of the festa began in the period between 1966 to 1967 in Los Angeles, California, during the historic struggle for the civil rights of black people in United States. It’s creator, Maulana Karenga, sought a method to strengthen the unity of the global black community.
“It’s based on the harvest festival, which has long existed on the African continent. The event was inspired by the Zulu people’s Umkhosi Wokweshwama festival and the Ashanti harvest festivals, but also by other African people who make the harvest festival,” reveals Gyasi Kweisi Mpfume.
Mpfume also reveals that he has observed Kwanzaa for ten years, dating back to 2008, when people in the northeastern city of Salvador, Bahia, ‘’Black Rome’’, first started partaking in the celebration.
“Kwanzaa’s goal is that we can talk about ourselves, apart from the black movement meetings, where we know that few people attend. Kwanzaa is a celebration, a space of commemoration of our ancestry, of our African civilizations. Knowing more about us and being together in community, solving problems together,” he explains.
According to Karenga, the name Kwanza ais taken from the Swahili language and phrase matunda ya kwanza and means “the first fruits”. The choice to borrow a phrase from the Swahili is a unifying force in itself as, with 150 million speakers of the language, it is the most widely spoken language on a continent with with more than 1 billion inhabitants.
For celebration of seven days of Kwanzaa, a candle known as a kinara is used that holds seven candles, representing the seven principles of Kwanzaa. The kinara has three green candles on the right side, a black one in the middle and three red candles on the left side. The red candle representes the struggle of African-Americans, who are represented by the black candle, with the green candles representing hope for the future.
The seven principles are Umoja, meaning unity; Kujichagulia, which means self-determination; Ujima, collective work and responsibility; Ujamaa, denoting cooperative economy; Nia, meaning purpose; Kuumba, for creativity; and Imani representing faith. For each of the seven days, a diferent candle is lit on an altar in which various fruits and an ear of corn are placed. Each of ears of corn represents the number of children in a family.
With each day of Kwanzaa, family and friends get together around a table when someone lights a candle, starting with the black one. Other candles are then lit alternately from left to right, and as each candle is lit, someone makes a declaration about what a particular principle means from their own perspective.
Then the focus of the gathering turns to ancestors who have passed on. A person chosen from the group then pours water or juice from a cup into a bowl. The chosen person takes a sip from the cup, raises it and says the word ‘’Harambee’’, meaning ‘’let’s all pull together’’. With that, all present repeat the word seven times with each person taking a drink from the cup. The candles are then put out. On January 1st, during the big festa, there’s lots of food and each child receives three gifts, often a book, some sort of symbolic item and a toy.
“Subjects are spoken about our history, while being a playful and entertaining space. Kwanzaa comes to reinforce black identity and to be a space for our fellowship to appreciate, be together and think like a community,” concludes Mpfume.
As more and more Brazilians are coming to accept a black identity, it is understandable that such a festa would begin to catch on in Brazil. After years, decades and centuries of Eurocentric indoctrination, people of African descent are beginning to question the racist manner in which peoples and cultures are placed in a racialized hierarchy. Mpfume is one of them.
“I don’t celebrate Christmas because the 25th is my birthday,” say Mpfume, 48, with a laugh. Joking aside, the historian reveals when he began to analyze the things he had been taught with a more critical eye. “From the age of 17 I have questioned the Eurocentric legacy that black people have violently been forced to accept.”
For Kwanzaa, Mpfume regularly gathers friends and family seeing in the celebration a method of addressing cultural, economic and political questions that affect the Afro-Brazilian community. In Brazil today, Kwanzaa celebrations have already been discovered in states such as São Paulo, Bahia, Rio Grande do Sul and Santa Catarina. While it was not meant to be a substitute for Christmas, the celebration of Kwanzaa has spread to other areas of the Americas such as Central America and Colombia.
Although it is celebrated during the same season as Christmas, it was not Karenga’s intent to rival Christmas, the inspiration coming from festas of various African peoples such as the Zulu and the Ashanti.
“Karenga didn’t necessarily think of making a counterpoint to Christmas, but that happened, also because he wanted the African-American community to think of the holiday season from the African civilizing value,” says Thembi Sekou, who was responsible for the organizing of that first Kwanzaa celebration in Brazil, in Salvador, in 2007.
“This has to do with the idea of harvesting. Plant all year round and then you reap. It is a kind of balance about what happened. The party ends on the first day of the year, with the hope of a better year,” adds Mpfume, whose given name is Carlos Machado.
For Mpfume, Kwanzaa is a form of resistance of black people that is similar to other cultural expressions already widely practiced in Brazil. “It is an anti-hegemonic fighting strategy. Christmas is here, and Kwanzaa is coming slowly. This always happens with black resistance. It’s never on the agenda, but it has always existed, eating around the edges, like the quilombo, capoeira or candomblé,” he points out.
For Sekou, it’s necessary to redeem the African values that he says were destroyed by European colonialism.
“It’s essential to redeem what was lost, to be reborn in another model. It’s not only a celebration, but also a possibility of inserting in the daily lives of black people, in their families, communities, the values that will end the Western precepts imposed on us.”
It may be true that the idea for the celebration of Kwanzaa started in the US, but with its emphasis on unity, it is crossing national borders with its potential for attracting other communities throughout the African Diaspora that have experienced racism, exclusion and exploitation at the hands of Europeans and their descendants.
The message and uniting potential of Kwanzaa seems to continue to attract new participants despite the controversial history of its creator, Maulana Karenga. Karenga, a long time university professor, was accused of being an FBI informant and having been involved in the murder of two members of the Black Panther Party in San Diego, California, in 1969. Karenga has always maintained his innocence and claimed that he was in fact a victim of US government conspiracies.
Whatever the case may be, in 1971, the Kwanzaa creator was arrested and charged with the rape and torture of two women that were a part of his organization. Having been sentenced to serve 10 years in prison, Karenga served three years before his release.
So, what do you this of this? Kwanzaa does have a following in the US, Brazil, Colombia, and Central America, where growing numbers of black people see something positive in its celebration. But is the festa itself and what it represents outweigh the controversial history of its creator? It’s a question that many people tend to avoid when I ask the question.
With information from the BBC Brasil and Yahoo Brasil