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'Habari Gani?': Celebrating Kwanzaa on Campus in the 21st Century

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"Habari gani?" is the Swahili way of saying "What's the news?" and it's how each day of Kwanzaa opens up, inviting the community to respond with the day's news or particular principle. We wanted to share some of the news around Kwanzaa on our college campus with the hope that it might challenge and inspire similar contemporary adaptations in other places.

Over the course of its seven days of celebration, Kwanzaa endures the change from one calendar year to the next. Therefore along with its themes of commemorating the first fruits of the harvest, pausing to reflect upon heritage, and the contemplation of the seven principles, Kwanzaa subtly teaches us about transition, progress, and the intersection of the past, the present, and the future.

Time and environment, let alone the incorporation of particular family traditions -- over time -- very often change the way that holidays are celebrated. This has certainly been the case in the way that the two of us have celebrated Kwanzaa with our families and communities over the last twenty or so years.

Whether individuals of African descent do or do not observe Kwanzaa deserves an essay unto itself as it is a complex conversation wrestling with issues of identity, class, diverse expressions of Blackness and more. That's an important internal dialogue that in some ways predates the holiday. This brief reflection seeks not to explore that question, but rather, we wanted to share with you how our celebrating of Kwanzaa has changed over time -- in ways that we think are both positive and reflective of our modern era.

Celebrating and teaching students at a college or university about the holiday can be difficult for the simple reason that students are not on campus during its official observance (December 26th-January 1st) as these dates fall over winter break when school is out of session. Thus, because of the academic calendar and the commencement of final exams at the end of the semester, Kwanzaa on our campus is celebrated three weeks early and only for one evening. Yet what seems like an inconvenience has actually become a rich blessing to our community. Instead of students finding a kinara to hold the candles, a mat to place it on, the corn to commemorate the first fruits for which the holiday gets its name, and instead of lighting each candle individually night by night, the community (and by no means is it just the pan-African community) gathers at what has become one of the most anticipated evenings of the school year to celebrate Kwanzaa together. And the reality is, it is likely that few of the students would actually celebrate Kwanzaa on their own or with their families. This is the only Kwanzaa that many in our community get.

A few hundred students, faculty, staff, and alumni gather at this annual event sponsored by our Makuu Black Cultural Center to observe the holiday together as a campus family. For many of those present (especially first year students) this is the first time that they have "done Kwanzaa" and so there is a lot of teaching that goes along with the evening. The almost entirely student-driven program begins with music from the Gospel choir and a dance performance by the student African drum and dance troupe. Students cheer for their friends and it fills the room with a contagious love and pride that sets a sweet tone for the night. As the ceremonial table is set, the symbolic significance of each item is explained by the student leaders. Before the candles are lit, the names of those whose shoulders we stand on are said aloud. This roll call includes not only well-known figures like Martin Luther King Jr., Fredrick Douglas, and Sojourner Truth, but the names of some of the earliest Black graduates, faculty and staff of the university, along with family members who sacrificed significantly so that their "babies" -- our students of today -- could have all of the opportunities before them. The echoing names are a moving reminder of the courage and endurance that often goes unrecognized in our daily travels.

One by one as each candle is lit its corresponding purpose is announced and described by a different student leader, whose organization in some way directly connects to the principle that they are sharing. It's powerful to see the holiday begin to make sense to our first year students and first-time attendees as they see the representatives of student groups -- their peers and role models -- outline the ways that the principle informs both their group's purpose on campus and their own personal story.

After the official ceremony, the karamu, or "feast," begins, where we eat the catered food (one soul food buffet and one Caribbean buffet). As the laughter grows and spirits run higher, the music turns up and we dance and celebrate the end of another semester together. It is the perfect send off for final exams preparation, providing both the physical and spiritual nourishment to help students focus their energies.

That's what the ceremony has grown into on our campus. It's transitioned from a mostly private ceremony celebrated in homes over a week to a large one-evening educational public celebration.

We are also seeing another adaptation of the holiday happen. The virtual celebration of Kwanzaa over social media is another way it's being celebrated within our community. Daily posts and tweets during Kwanzaa to students who are home resting over break, allow us to light virtual candles together and reflect upon the principles as a community even though we are spread out around the county and world. Such a simple act reminds us that we are a community no matter how far apart we may be, and each of the Nguzo Saba (seven principles of Kwanzaa) provides valuable lessons to reflect on during this holiday season and throughout the coming year.

It is our hope that this virtual reminder spreads into the homes of the students and our social media friends. Whether their families have a kinara set up and will have their own karamu at the week's end, our simple daily postings will at least provide them with the opportunity to continue the dialogue in their homes. With that, perhaps some deeper dialogues may ensue exploring: What is the value of creativity in the Black community today? How can we increase our support for and development of Black businesses? And are we truly working together in the most meaningful ways to produce the most tangible changes? Such concerns get at the heart of true family and community development, which is what Kwanzaa is all about. We'd love to hear your thoughts, so please, light a candle with us online!