The Buffalo Kwanzaa Committee shifted Sunday night’s celebration of Ujamaa, Cooperative Economics, from the Pratt-Willert Community Center to the more spacious Frank E. Merriweather Jr. Library at Jefferson Avenue and East Utica Street, but it still wasn’t big enough.
The African Marketplace in the lobby was jammed with vendors and shoppers and the auditorium was standing room only as Kamau R.E. Fields and local co-founder Sharon Holley began the program with a libation statement and an explanation of the symbolic items on the Kwanzaa table.
“Ordinarily,” Holley said, “we’d light the kinara [the Kwanzaa candle holder], but due to the sensitive nature of the library’s fire extinguisher system, we can’t do it.”
Then, after spirited African dances by students from Miss Barbara’s School of Dance, a powerful performance by the drumming circle Daughters of Creative Sound and an earnest request from branch manager Sandra Williams Bush for people to support the library by checking out more books, it was time for the attraction that brought out the big crowd.
It was Maulana Karenga, the activist and scholar who created Kwanzaa in 1966. Buffalo has been an annual stop on his tour of Kwanzaa celebrations around the country for more than two decades and he made no secret that coming here is special.
“People ask why I keep coming back to Buffalo,” he said. “It’s because of the respect and appreciation you have. You keep the African tradition and the Kwanzaa tradition.”
Sitting at a table beside his wife, Tiamoyo, he proposed that instead of a speech, this would be a conversation. And in tune with his Kwanzaa theme this year, “Celebrating a Living Kwanzaa: Sowing and Harvesting Seeds of Good,” the conversation revolved around how doing good is the foundation of the seven principles of Kwanzaa.
“All goodness is a shared good,” he said. “You share it in marriage, in friendship, with your mothers, your fathers, your sisters and your brothers. Kwanzaa is about creating, celebrating and sustaining good. Kwanzaa begins as a celebration of ourselves as African people, African family, African community and African culture.
“Can anybody else celebrate Kwanzaa? Well, of course, we’re not talking about Native Americans, Asians or Latinos. We’re talking about white people. But the question is, do you accept white people? They need, for some reason, for people to say they’re good.
“They could be part of lighting the candles and coming to the events, but can white people celebrate black people? Can they celebrate us for the greatness of our humanity and civilization? Can they celebrate us as survivors of the holocaust of slavery? Can they celebrate Harriet Tubman and Frederick Douglass with the same insight?
“When you come to Kwanzaa, come with respect. You don’t need to take over the ceremony. You need to bear witness to the beauty and the good.”
Karenga noted that on this Kwanzaa tour he has been speaking for 40 minutes, but that Buffalo inspires him. He had gone past the 40-minute mark before he began his commentary on the seven principles and then expanded his discourse on the first of them, Umoja, Unity, to critique oppression and cultural warfare.
“Don’t be American by habit,” he said. “Be African by choice. If we lose our identity, we can’t do anything but watch in horror.”
Speaking on Ujamaa, the fourth principle, he focused economic inequality.
“Every great religion says you measure the greatness of a society by how it treats the weakest and most vulnerable,” he said.
He turned upbeat on the seventh principle, Imani, Faith.
“Without faith,” he said, “whatever you started, you can’t sustain. You have to believe in the good. You have to believe you can be good to do good and sustain good throughout the world. Let us go forth then, reaffirmed. It’s a duty, not just seasonal, but for all time.”
The other principles of Kwanzaa are Kujichagulia, self-determination; Ujima, collective work and responsibility; Nia, purpose; and Kuumba, creativity.