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St. Louisans celebrate Kwanzaa 50 years after holiday began

Dionne Ferguson, Ni-Ammun Onyemachi, and Njoki Redding joined St. Louis on the Air to discuss Kwanzaa.
Kelly Moffitt | St. Louis Public Radio
Dionne Ferguson, Ni-Ammun Onyemachi, and Njoki Redding joined St. Louis on the Air to discuss Kwanzaa.

This year’s celebration of Kwanzaa marks 50 years after the first celebration was observed, from Dec. 26, 1966 to Jan. 1, 1967.

The first specifically African-American/Pan-African holiday of its kind, Maulana Karenga established the holiday to help African-Americans and people of African descent across the world celebrate, connect and learn about African cultural heritage.

In St. Louis, many people are observing the weeklong holiday. Several groups are organizing community meetings and celebrations to mark the seven days of Kwanzaa. On Friday’s St. Louis on the Air, we heard from three people about the holiday and what it means to them. 

Joining the program were Dionne Ferguson,  a member of Delta Sigma Theta and one of the organizers of the Saint Louis Art Museum Kwanzaa Celebration on Sunday, as well as two people affiliated with the Progressive Emporium and Education Center's celebration, Ni-Ammun Onyemachi, an engineer with Boeing, and Njoki Redding, an early childhood teacher with the St. Louis Public Schools.

The holiday, which began in California, has grown to be celebrated by some 30 million people of African descent.

“For St. Louis in the early days, in the beginning of the ‘70s, there were a number of organizations that were actively involved with the nationalist philosophy of moving forward our culture, so even in the beginnings of [Kwanzaa], we’d go to other cities like Chicago to celebrate,” Redding said. “As we continued to do that for a little bit, then we came back and began to have our own celebrations in St. Louis. It really was the determination of those of us who had a little understanding at the time to do that with our families and neighboring communities.”

For seven days, the Nguzo Saba, people celebrating Kwanzaa reflect on a principle for each day: umoja (unity), kujichagulia (self-determination), ujima (working together), ujamaa (supporting each other), nia (purpose), kuumba (creativity) and imani (faith).

“You’ll note that the language is KiSwahili, the most widely spoken language on the African continent,” Onyemachi said. “What is done is that one of those values is recognized, focused upon, each day and in doing so, all those basic values are celebrated.”

Each night, families and friends join together to light the Mishumaa Saba (seven candles) and reflect on principle of the day.

“There is one black candle representing people, there are three red ones representing our struggle and there are three green ones representing our progress,” Ferguson said. “We talk about that principle and how we live that value throughout the year and how we intend to live it further throughout the year. We also have a feast on the last day. We come together as family and friends to celebrate.”

Family and friends also exchange Zawadi, or gifts, which represent purpose and principle.

“We don’t want to confuse people because Kwanzaa is not a religious holiday at all, it really is a cultural celebration,” said Ferguson. “The Zawadi are given based on how our young people have lived their values throughout the year.”

Kwanzaa celebrations often include drum, dance and artistic creations. Those are some of the activities that have been happening in homes, community centers and schools this week in celebration of the week and will continue this weekend at the Progressive Emporium and at the Saint Louis Art Museum.

Related Events

What: Kwanzaa 50th Commemoration
When: 6 p.m., Friday Dec. 30
Where: Progressive Emporium and Education Center, 1108 North Sarah Ave, St. Louis
More information.

What: Kwanzaa Celebration: Masks and Masquerade
When: Moon to 4 p.m., Jan. 1, 2017
Where: St. Louis Art Museum, One Fine Arts Drive, Forest Park
More information.

St. Louis on the Air brings you the stories of St. Louis and the people who live, work and create in our region. St. Louis on the Air host Don Marsh and producers Mary EdwardsAlex Heuer and Kelly Moffitt give you the information you need to make informed decisions and stay in touch with our diverse and vibrant St. Louis region. 

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Kelly Moffitt joined St. Louis Public Radio in 2015 as an online producer for St. Louis Public Radio's talk shows St. Louis on the Air.
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