Hartford Kwanzaa celebration shares traditions, the joy of ‘a very strong and beautiful heritage’

HARTFORD — You could hear the infectious joy and laughter as children listened to Kwanzaa tales by Master Storyteller Andre Keitt and then danced to the drumming performances by the Sankofa Kuumba Cultural Arts Consortium with their dancer Mellissa Craig.

The children captured the mood of all the community members who attended the Kwanzaa Community Celebration program at Hartford Public Library’s Albany Avenue Branch. The event was held there as the main branch downtown was closed due to extensive water damage that occurred Dec. 24.

“We need something to tell us that we are good and positive people, That we come from a very strong and beautiful heritage...we need to regain our traditional greatness,” co-host Leslie Manselle said.

The event began with Keitt telling three Kwanzaa tales in honor of the holiday, during which he commanded the room and had community members participate in certain parts.

After the stories, Craig doubled as host, and conducted the drum call with the Sankofa Kuumba Cultural Arts Consortium drummers.

She explained that the drum call is a signal to everyone that there is an event going on, as a welcoming to Kwanzaa.

Craig also poured a full vessel of water into an empty vessel, as a part of an acknowledgement and confirmation of a cycle of life, as a symbolic gesture to honor their ancestors in Africa.

While she poured the water into the empty vessel, she had community members say statements that they agree with, along with giving thanks to their higher power that leads them through each day, and that included giving thanks, praise and paying homage to their ancestors in the continent of Africa, paying homage to ancestors scattered throughout the Earth, giving thanks and praise to ancestors who died crossing the Atlantic, crossing the Middle Passage and moving in ships to lands, giving thanks and praise to ancestors whose names they do not know, the ones who came before and led the way and struggle for freedom.

After the statements, Craig led the community members to ask the eldest community members to continue the Kwanzaa celebration, as it is tradition to ask and seek their wisdom.

Manselle gave the community members a Kwanzaa presentation, where she spoke about the holiday and its importance.

Manselle said that Kwanzaa is an African American holiday, and is celebrated from Dec. 26 to Jan. 1 and along with celebrating for seven days, there are also seven corresponding principles that go with the lighting of each of seven candles.

Craig explained the seven principles of the holiday, which are Umoja (Unity), Kujichagulia (Self-Determination), Ujima (Collective Work and Responsibility), Ujamaa (Cooperative Economics), Nia (Purpose), Kuumba (Creativity), and Imani (Faith).

She said that the seven principles are important because they represent the knowledge that ancestors and elders are trying to impart towards the community today, and all those things wrapped up are kind of a way to live. “It’s not just about the holiday, it’s not just about December, it’s about an opportunity to invest in ourselves and strengthen ourselves for the coming year with the spirit of the community at heart,” she said.

Manselle also spoke of how the Kwanzaa table is decorated, starting with the Kinara (candle holder), which holds the red, black, and green candles. The candle colors represent the African flag made by political activist Marcus Garvey.

She said that the African flag colors have meaning as well. Red represents the blood of the African people and for the struggle that African American people go through every day. Black represents the face of the African people, and Green represents the home of mother Africa and achievement.

These are placed on the table with the mat, with other symbols of the holiday, including ears of corn to represent children of the community, woven bowl of fruit and vegetables to represent the time of harvest, a gift of a musical instrument or something educational — such as a book, as a reward for good works done well.

Lastly, she explained the importance of the holiday within the Black community, as it is an encouraging holiday that reminds them to be proud of who they are and that they are positive and good people.