for Montclair Local

A procession of percussionists entered the Montclair Public Library auditorium with their drumming echoing the heartbeat of African American culture as hundreds of attendees decked in red, green and black cheered.

The 53rd annual Harvest Festival of Kwanzaa at the Montclair Public Library on Sunday, Dec. 15, was a pre-celebration of the Dec. 26 holiday created by Ron Maulana Karenga, the Black Power activist and professor of African studies at California State University. 

The harvest holiday includes seven symbols of community and faith: Mazeo (crops), Mishumaa Saba (seven candles for seven principles), Muhindi (corn), Mkeka (a placemat), Kinara (candleholder), Kikombe Cha Umoja (unity cup), and Zawadi (gifts).

The Kwanzaa celebration at the library included a market with African American entrepreneurs, including Kyisha’s Korner, crafts by Charles Wellborn, and Mama Yaa.

The event began with the libation ceremony at the ancestral table. Honoring elders is a key part of the table setting, which includes photographs of relatives. Attendees were instructed to pause and say their names.

“I’m going to open the doors and let all your ancestors come back to us today,” said Kellia Sweatt, the master of ceremonies and founder of Parents Protecting All Afrikan Children (PPAAC) in Montclair.

She called the names of her parents as well as civil rights leaders Malcolm X and Martin Luther King Jr. as the audience enthusiastically answered “Yaw!” in honor. Sweatt encouraged attendees to set up ancestral tables at home and talk about their elders’ lives, accomplishments, struggles and sacrifices. Relationships are an exchange of energy between generations, she noted.

Instead of featuring a reading of the Nguzo Saba, the seven principles, the event featured dancers from Pyramyd Dance Company of West Orange incorporating the seven principles into choreography: Umoja (unity) for family, community, nation and race; Kujichagulia (self-determination) to define, name, create and speak; Ujima (responsibility) through collective problem solving; Ujamaa (cooperative economics) through building and maintaining businesses and profiting together; Nia (purpose) through restoring traditional greatness through collective vocations; Kuumba (creativity) used to beautify the community; and Imani (faith) in the heart of parents, teachers, leaders and the righteousness and victory of the African American struggle.

Stilt dancers move across the floor at the MPL Kwanzaa celebration Dec. 15, 2019. ADAM ANIK/FOR MONTCLAIR LOCAL
Stilt dancers move across the floor at the MPL Kwanzaa celebration Dec. 15, 2019. ADAM ANIK/FOR MONTCLAIR LOCAL

The choreography blended ancient African dance with a modern twist and included tribal vocalizations as the dancers reached peak of energy and emotion in performances. The dances were adopted from at least 13 African nations as well as from Jamaica and the Amazon. The youths rehearsed for weeks before the event, noted Mama Yaa, Pyramyd’s artistic director. “It’s important for the young people to remember where we came from and to stand on firm ground for their future,” she said.

A special proclamation in honor of Dolores Riley, Montclair’s first African American councilwoman who served two terms in the 1980s, was read by Mayor Robert Jackson and Fourth Ward Councilwoman Renée Baskerville.

Expressing joy over the day’s performances, Riley, 89, spoke about taking pride in African American culture and history. She praised the young female dancers celebrating the undisputed beauty of entering their womanhood in song and dance. 

“I love the sound of our music. We celebrate all other holidays… St. Patrick’s Day, Thanksgiving, Christmas, New Year’s.  Nobody is going to pass over ours. We had a part in creating and celebrating all of them. I’m not ashamed of praising our people. God made me this color and he doesn’t make mistakes,” Riley said, before reading the Langston Hughes poem “The Negro Speaks of Rivers.”

“It’s a true blessing to be here and celebrate a village mother who helped me find my voice and use it for good. Whenever there was injustice, she paved the way. We are celebrating a season of promise, proclamation and affirmation. I recommit myself to use my voice to fight for justice and rid the world of hate,” Baskerville said.

During intermission, the Rudy Walker Jazz Ensemble performed. Walker noted that he participated in the first Kwanzaa celebration in 1967, when he was 20 years old. He underscored the importance of the roots of jazz in connection to the African American experience. 

“It all started from the blues which was in response to hard labor and low pay. The blues evolved into jazz,” Walker said before the trio performed McCoy Tyner’s “Blues on the Corner.”

A karamu feast featuring traditional African American food was served. 

Event attendee Gloria Mills, 70, of Newark, said she was impressed by the celebration. “Seeing youth involved in passing on these traditions and the town people showing talent for the culture is a positive involvement that keeps them focused on who they are and where they came from,” Mills said.