For Montclairians, Kwanzaa means family
New Year’s Day was more than the beginning of 2023 for Tsihai Hanson of Montclair. It was also the completion of her annual observance of Kwanzaa.
She has celebrated the sacred traditions each year since she was a child. When she was growing up, Kwanzaa was a time where aunts, uncles, cousins and grandparents came together.
“The immediate and extended family came together to really celebrate and relish values that we held close as a Black family and a Black family that has roots in the United States, but also roots in the West Indies, in Jamaica and in Africa,” Hanson said.
Throughout the eight days of Kwanzaa, the words “Habari Gani!” (What is the news?) are used to greet others. Depending on the day, the response may be “Umoja” (unity), “Imani” (faith) or “Kuumba” (creativity).
According to the National Museum of African American History and Culture, Kwanzaa was created in 1966 by activist Maulana Ron Karenga. The principles of Kwanzaa: Umoja, Kujichagulia, Ujima, Ujamaa, Nia, Kuumba and Imani are Swahili words that guide the seven days of Kwanzaa. The holiday is celebrated by the African American community from Dec. 26 to Jan. 1 and includes such practices as reciting writings of Black writers or sharing a meal. Throughout the week, the table is decorated with a Kinara which is a candleholder, a Mkeka which is a mat, Muhindi which is corn that represents the children, Mazao which is fruit and Zawadi which are traditional handmade gifts. On each day of Kwanzaa, families light a candle on the Kinara to commemorate the day.
The purpose of creating Kwanzaa for Karenga was not only for Black people in the U.S. to partake in the holiday but for Black people everywhere. His intention was to unify African and African American culture.
For Hanson, Kwanzaa was another way for her to take pride in her identity. “We were always raised to have an awareness of our African heritage and to be proud of it,” she said.
Now that Hanson has a family of her own she is passionate about upholding and acknowledging the holiday in her household. For Hanson, Kwanzaa celebrates a set of values that she feels everyone should aspire to. Principles like self determination, collective work and responsibility and purpose. It was important for Hanson to instill those values in her own children, she said.
“One thing that we do is, we always center the children in the celebration and in the acknowledgement of Kwanzaa,” she said.
Hanson’s 3-year-old daughter played a vital role in this year’s Kwanzaa. She got to light a candle and speak about what the principle for that day meant to her. Hanson also incorporated a quilt that her daughter made at school to honor Native Americans. Including the quilt on the table for Kwanzaa represented creativity and cultural identity, she said.
Like Hanson, town leaders like former school board president Latifah Jannah and former fourth ward council woman, Dr. Renee Baskerville, look forward to gathering with their friends and family every year to celebrate.
For Jannah, Kwanzaa honors family traditions and helps pass them on to the next generation.
This year, her family got together over New Year’s to commune over foods that are culturally significant to the Black community, like fried chicken, collard greens, rice and peas.
Baskerville held an intimate gathering on New Year's Eve to honor the last principle of Kwanzaa: Imani or faith. She invited her friends to leave shoes and phones at the door before partaking in the gathering that Baskerville says is “reaffirming our faith and our confidence that we will always triumph over struggle,”
Now that the holiday season has come to an end, the residents of Montclair have honored their values regardless of culture.
“I think what's so unique and special about a place like Montclair is that we obviously have a very diverse population and diverse cultures,” Hanson said. “I've always appreciated the ways in which school leaders and community leaders and parents especially have always intentionally sought out ways to celebrate all cultures.”