Written by Lucero Benitez, COSS Communications Specialist

Kwanzaa is a week-long annual celebration held in the United States and other nations of the African diaspora in the Americas to honor African heritage in African-Americanculture.

Africana Studies Program Coordinator and Professor Thomas Whit Ellis has personally been a part of Kwanzaa most of his life, mainly in his hometown of Sacramento and has lead Kwanzaa plays, and participated in renaming ceremonies (the practice of changing one’s name to that of one clearly Afrocentric in nature).

Africana Studies Program Coordinator/Professor Thomas Ellis

“I have also spoken at our local Kwanzaa celebrations and consulted with the African American Museum on several occasions. I also conducted such activities while in grad school in Michigan. It has been an integral part of my growth as an artist and educator,” said Ellis.

We caught up with him for a Q&A to learn more about the Kwanzaa celebration.

What is Kwanzaa?

Kwanzaa or “First Fruits” has been celebrated by African Americans for roughly 40 plus years. It is derived from African cultures who celebrated the harvest of food planted earlier in the year, which brought hope and positive direction for the new year. It is partially a part of a broader social/political attempt by those seeking to identify and intensify black and African consciousness and offer an alternative to the commercially themed, Eurocentric Christmas season.  For the most part, it was/is accompanied by special programs including music, dance, keynote speakers and the like, celebrating the year’s accomplishments in the black community. Many community centers (including our own American American Museum) schools and other civic centers offer some sort of Kwanzaa activity.

When is Kwanzaa celebrated?

Typically, Kwanzaa is celebrated the last week of December, running seven days, which correspond to the seven principals of the Nguso Saba, a list of seven thematic principals, aimed at strengthening, harmonizing and encouraging the black community. Some of which include Umoja (unity), Ujima (collective work and responsibility) Kuumba (creativity) and others supporting success and productivity.

What does it mean to celebrate this holiday?

Due to the historic role slavery played in disconnecting American blacks from their cultural and spiritual roots, Kwanzaa provides a symbol of our connection to Africa, its history, cosmology and importance in shaping the world as we know it. Blacks were excluded and prevented from keeping iconic historic celebrations such as those in other communities: Octoberfest, Hanukkah, Chinese New Year, etc. To help fill that void, Kwanzaa was established. It essentially celebrates and rehearses our African-ness as a part of other ongoing efforts such as the wearing of Afrocentric clothing, the use of “kente” clothes at certain events and the like.

What do you enjoy the most about the holiday?

I think it’s a little more of a phenomenon in cities with larger, centralized black communities such as those in the Bay Area. But it is a time for many blacks to take on a renewed sense of unity, progressiveness and rededication to our connection to Africa.

Are there any traditional events in Fresno in celebration of Kwanzaa?

Yes, for over 20 years, the African American Museum has featured Kwanzaa activities commencing December 26th and running to January 2nd. Those wanting more information on this Year’s event, can contact the museum or board member, Charles Frances at cheesefrancis134@gmail.com.