I first learned about Kwanzaa in 1977. I was 37 years old, and my then-wife and I were raising a son together in Harlem. He attended an alternative school focused on African heritage and culture, and the school hosted a Kwanzaa celebration. This event opened the door to a new way of life for me: the Nguzo Saba, the Seven Principles, of this week-long celebration resonated with me, given their focus on culture, family, and community.
It was not easy to be a black lesbian couple raising a child together in 1977. Many of us were cast out of our families, while others faced opposition from family members (often our mothers and grandmothers) who feared that our decision to live openly as lesbians threatened our safety. Same-sex adoption was not legal at the time, and in-vitro fertilization was not an option. Yet with our lesbian partners, many of us were raising children from former relationships. When my wife and I attended the Kwanzaa celebration with our son's classmates and their families, we were the only lesbian couple in the room. For many attendees, we were the first lesbians they had ever met. Yet we were welcomed into that room. This was a life-changing event for me. It was one of the first times I felt accepted by a straight black community. At the same time, through the principles of Kwanzaa, I could understand other people's children as children I was responsible for, and I felt that I was part of a community where previously I had not. I was inspired to learn more.
Kwanzaa was created as a week-long celebration, beginning the day after Christmas and running through New Year's Day. In 1966 Dr. Maulana Karenga, a leader in the Black Power movement, created Kwanzaa (sometimes called the "Festival of the First Fruits") to provide African Americans with an official celebration through which community and culture could be affirmed and strengthened. When I look back, I can see that it was a radical proposal at the time. The Seven Principles, Umoja (unity), Kujichagulia (self-determination), Ujima (collective work and responsibility), Ujamaa (cooperative economics), Nia (purpose), Kuumba (creativity), and Imani (faith), can be applied to every facet of black life. They emphasize that success is not measured by the amount of money you make, the titles you have, or the letters you have behind your name. It is measured by the commitment one has to one's family, to one's community, and, ultimately, to one's people. Kwanzaa offers the broader black community a way to reflect on principles that had in essence been taken away from us through slavery and colonization, and to move forward as a community after centuries of shared oppression.
There is no way that Dr. Karenga could have known what the impact of his contribution would be on the black LGBT community. Once I learned about Kwanzaa, I introduced the idea of a Kwanzaa celebration at a meeting of Salsa Soul Sisters (the oldest black lesbian organization in the United States, founded in New York City in 1974, which is now called African-American Lesbians United for Social Change). My new sisters embraced the idea of Kwanzaa as a project that we could take on. Several of the women had heard about the holiday. Cassandra Grant, another member of Salsa Soul Sisters, helped me organize the first Kwanzaa celebration in our community.
We began by gathering our chosen families to celebrate together in seven different homes over the seven days of the festival. There was so much Umoja (unity). There was so much Ujima (collaboration). Kwanzaa gave us a way to promote our own value system and take time together, safe in each other's homes, to name our fears and our hopes. Kwanzaa became a training ground for the principles we wanted to live by in the coming year, in community together. From the beginning, there was an emphasis on connecting to our ancestors and forming intergenerational ties. Most of us were in our 20s or 30s at the time, though we also had a few youth and elders involved. One of our elders served as an adopted mother or counselor for several women in the group. And our exploration of the Nguzo Saba stressed that if we were willing to invest in ourselves and in our children, we would reap the benefits, as a community, for years to come. Salsa (as we affectionately referred to our organization) members supplied everything that was needed for the celebration. Some brought fruit and set up the Kwanzaa Table. Others brought enough food and drink to last us for 12 hours! Sisters came to New York from all over the country to celebrate with us, even some from as far as Los Angeles. One member taped the evening's discussions and aired them on WBAI -- this was groundbreaking, to have a black lesbian program aired on the radio in the 1970s! And the evening was made complete with African drummers playing until sunrise.
As our traditions took root in our community, our celebration expanded. We began to designate the third Thursday of December as "Pre-Kwanzaa," a tradition that continues even to this day. The Pre-Kwanzaas were all about the children. We painted their faces, dressed them in African clothes, played drums with them, taught them African songs and dances, told them Anansi stories, and then listened to the amazing stories the children created. Very often, the children would perform original skits that expressed the meaning of each of the Seven Principles.
Before the '70s were over, Kwanzaa was a household concept in black lesbian, gay, bisexual, and transgender families and communities. And by the 1980s, we expanded our celebration to include other local groups, including men's organizations like Gay Men of African Descent (GMAD), and other black and people-of-color LGBT organizations like the Audre Lorde Project. These collaborations, along with the leadership of organizers such as the late Candice Boyce (one of Salsa's co-founders), kept the tradition of Kwanzaa alive in our community over the past 34 years.
In New York City, the tradition of Kwanzaa in the black lesbian community continues with a celebration on Jan. 1, 2012 at the LGBT Center. And I have documented a deeper history of Kwanzaa in black gay and lesbian families in my new book, Kwanzaa in the Lesbian and Gay Family.
Many of us have been deeply influenced by the principles of Kwanzaa and the way of life they dictate to become the responsible, cultural, and political elders that we are today. And we recognize that we walk with our ancestors, who constantly remind us to connect with family. That is who we are. That is our African heritage. Kwanzaa in the LGBT family is our legacy, and we can pass it on to our children and to our children's children.