Music icon Kenny Gamble to hold Kwanzaa event on Saturday

PHOTOS: ALEJANDRO A. ALVAREZ / STAFF PHOTOGRAPHER Fernandez and Gamble display the poster for Kwanzaabration!!
PHOTOS: ALEJANDRO A. ALVAREZ / STAFF PHOTOGRAPHER Fernandez and Gamble display the poster for Kwanzaabration!!
Posted: December 24, 2013

PARTY CITY sells paper party supplies for Kwanzaa. You can pick up a Kwanzaa greeting card at a Hallmark store, or a book on the subject at Walmart. And who could forget celebrity chef Sandra Dee's blunder when she made a semi-homemade monstrosity that she called a Kwanzaa cake? (See video at phillydailynews.com.)

But there are still a whole lot of folks, African-Americans included, who will give you a blank stare if you ask them about Kwanzaa. Many have never embraced the holiday, worried that it's somehow anti-Christian.

Enter Kwanzaabration!! The daylong celebration scheduled for Saturday is the brainchild of famed hit-maker Kenny Gamble, of Gamble and Huff fame, and Oshunbumi Fernandez, chief executive of the city's annual Odunde festival. They've teamed up to create an event to encourage locals to celebrate the 47-year-old holiday, which begins Thursday and continues through Jan. 1.

Gamble was inspired to get involved in promoting Kwanzaa after serving as an executive producer of the 2009 documentary "Black Candle." Directed by M K Assante (son of noted Temple University professor Molefi Kete Asante) and narrated by Maya Angelou, the film discusses the birth of Kwanzaa and its proliferation throughout the African diaspora. It airs periodically on the Starz network and also is available through iTunes and Xfinity On Demand.

"Every year, when Christmas comes around and Kwanzaa is going on, I say, 'Somebody has got to promote Kwanzaa and somebody has to raise the awareness of Kwanzaa,' " said Gamble, who's also the founder of Universal Companies, a nonprofit that operates eight charter schools and has developed 1,500 affordable-housing units in Philly and around the area, among other initiatives.

No one knows exactly how many people actually celebrate Kwanzaa, although anecdotal evidence suggests that familiarity with the holiday is spreading not just in the United States but throughout the African diaspora.

Black studies professor Maulana Karenga hosted the first Kwanzaa celebration in 1966 during the height of the Black Power movement.

"It is a time," Karenga said in 2002, "for black people to come together and discuss what it means to be African . . . a time of serious and sustained reflection on the meaning and awesome obligation of being African in the world."

For seven nights, participants light a different red, black or green candle. Each candle stands for one of the principles of Kwanzaa, such as Nia, which is Swahili for purpose, and Umoja, which means unity. Commemorations typically conclude with a huge feast.

"It's a celebration of life, family, community and culture," Gamble explained.

There's also an educational component, one that Gamble believes is desperately needed to inspire disaffected youngsters to excel.

"Young people need to know that they are the descendants of kings and queens and African-Americans, and they have come from a glorious past, and that we are not slaves," Gamble said. "We are not lazy and we are not people who just don't care. We come from a great past and a great people."

Saturday's free, all-day event will take place at Audenreid High School, in Southwest Philly. It will feature a panel discussion about Kwanzaa, a Swahili term meaning "first fruits." There will be natural-hair demonstrations, a moon bounce, dance performances, a family-oriented Zumba class and a children's cooking demonstration. Each hour, a candle will be lit and a different Kwanzaa principle announced.

I'll be there, too.

Fernandez, who grew up watching her mother organize the Odunde Festival before taking over that job in 1999, will preside over the festivities.

"So many young people who you ask about Kwanzaa, they say, 'I don't do Kwanzaa,' " Fernandez said. "Somebody just told us, 'Oh no, I don't do Kwanzaa. I'm a Christian.' People need to be educated.

"Everyone thinks that Kwanzaa has a religious undertone, and it doesn't."

The first Kwanzaa

Maisha Sullivan-Ongoza was at what's believed to have been the city's first Kwanzaa celebration in 1969. It was organized by a group called the Urban Survival Training Institute.

Attendees dressed in African clothing and drank out of a communal unity cup. Sullivan-Ongoza recalled bringing baked, stuffed fish to the gathering on North Broad Street, and that her job was to explain to everyone the meaning of the Kwanzaa principle of Nia.

"I just remember it being a small, intimate celebration, but it was very meaningful," she told me last week. "I just remember being wide-eyed and watching how everything was done."

Sullivan-Ongoza is an educator and social activist who lives in Wynnefield. Come Saturday, Sullivan-Ongoza will once again be wide-eyed and watching as her 7-year-old granddaughter performs an African dance at Saturday's Kwanzaabration!!

"I like it," Sullivan-Ongoza said of the plans. "It reminds me of some of the ones we did way in the past."


Kwanzaabration!! 10 a.m.-5 p.m. Saturday at Audenreid High School, 33rd and Tasker streets. (Follow signs for entry.) Admission to the indoor celebration is free. Kwanzaa panel discussion, 4 p.m. More at odundefestival.org.


On Twitter: @JeniceArmstrong

Blog: ph.ly/HeyJen

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