Dr. Maulana Karenga, the creator of the pan-African and African-American holiday Kwanzaa, during a celebration (Courtesy photo)
Dr. Maulana Karenga, the creator of the pan-African and African-American holiday Kwanzaa, during a celebration (Courtesy photo)

For another year, no Pan-African functions have been scheduled to take place at the National Museum of African American History and Culture (NMAAHC) during Kwanzaa. Museum officials chose instead to host a Kwanzaa-themed family event earlier this month, much to the chagrin of faithful holiday celebrants.

Some of them, like Wautella ibn Yusuf, said the three-hour gathering on Dec. 7 didn’t suffice in meeting the demands he and other members of the Kwanzaa Now Campaign articulated to museum officials over the past year, the central one being a permanent Kwanzaa exhibit at NMAAHC.

“Kwanzaa’s not properly represented in the museum. We can’t be quiet about it,” said Yusuf, chair of the Kwanzaa Now Campaign, launched November 2018 in response to Kwanzaa celebrants, from the District and out of town, who said they noticed the omission during their visits.

Last Kwanzaa, campaign supporters circulated petitions throughout the District, including to NMAAHC officials. In April, Yusuf and others attended a meeting where they said William Pretzer, the senior curator for history, denied their assertion that the museum didn’t adequately represent Kwanzaa.

Campaign members walked away from that meeting with the understanding that they and NMAAHC would partner in hosting Kwanzaa-themed programming this year. The celebration they envisioned included front-entrance decorations, products for sale in the gift shop, and Kwanzaa founder Maulana Karenga as a guest lecturer.

However, as Pretzer and Elaine Nichols, NMAAHC’s senior curator for culture, would later come to tell Yusef in an Aug. 30 letter that he later posted on the campaign’s website, no Kwanzaa programming would happen between Dec. 26 and Jan. 1 because the department responsible for programming already solidified the 2019 calendar.

“Our people have become desensitized to these things,” Yusuf said. “Even now you got people asking why we should even respond [to the need for a Kwanzaa exhibit]. We’re taxpayers and this is our museum. Kwanzaa is a historical part of our culture. We have an obligation to speak truth [about] our history.”

In 1966, the Us organization, chaired by Karenga, hosted the first Kwanzaa celebration in Oakland, California, drawing inspiration from the First Fruits harvest and other African traditions. Starting on Dec. 26, Kwanzaa revelers celebrate the Nguzo Saba, or the seven principles deemed necessary for strengthening strong African individuals, families, and communities.

Celebratory symbols include the kinara, a candle that holds the red, black, and green candles representing the seven principles, crops, and a unity cup.

Black cultural nationalist groups throughout the United States embraced Kwanzaa soon after via the independent schools, theater and arts movements, Kwanzaa planning committees, and other entities.

The District garnered a reputation as a prominent hub for Kwanzaa celebrations during the 1970s and 1980s, thanks in part to Mama Nia Kuumba, Melvin Deal, Ishakamusa Barashango and other pioneers. Every Kwanzaa season, the United Black Community, also known as the DC Kwanzaa Planning Committee, releases a booklet outlining several Kwanzaa activities in the D.C. metropolitan region, many of which people can attend free of charge.

Today, Kwanzaa celebrants around the world are estimated to be in the tens of millions. The holiday has increased in its mainstream appeal, with the introduction of a Kwanzaa postage stamp, acknowledgments by the White House, and its recognition alongside Christmas and Hanukkah.

While NMAAHC acknowledges Karenga as the founder of Kwanzaa with a photo and blurb, the holiday itself hasn’t been presented to the liking of those vying for an in-depth, artifact-filled exhibit under the Kwanzaa Now Campaign.

Since the inception of the Kwanzaa Now Campaign, pockets of support have appeared in the District, Philadelphia, New York, Atlanta, Chicago and on the West Coast, along with other cities. Kwanzaa celebrants in the United Kingdom and the Caribbean have also joined in the call for a NMAAHC Kwanzaa exhibit.

Groups have employed various grassroots strategies, including sending emails, and making phone calls and in-person visits. During a visit to NMAAHC on Veterans Days, for instance, members of the Pointman Soldiers Heart Ministries, based in Pennsylvania, revealed to museum officials that they greatly benefited in celebrating the holiday during their tour of duty.

“They are feeling the pressure,” Baba Lumumba, a Kwanzaa Now campaign organizer, told The Informer. “They took a family day and renamed it the Pre-Kwanzaa Festival. They had one table and put one children’s book in the museum.

“We want NMAAHC to have a Kwanzaa program that Dr. Maulana Karenga has agreed to host,” Lumumba said. “We want Kwanzaa items sold in the bookstore. We want a Kwanzaa exhibit that reflects Kwanzaa as it actually is, not what they want to make it.”

Sam P.K. Collins

Sam P.K. Collins has more than a decade of experience as a journalist, columnist and organizer. Sam, a millennial and former editor of WI Bridge, covers education, police brutality, politics, and other...

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