Asked what Kwanzaa was, 18-year-old Jarod “Black Majik” Gainey could only shrug.
This was at the Douglass Theatre on Sunday night, where the Macon-based Kwanzaa Cultural Access Center was staging a talent showcase to observe the second day of Kwanzaa, the seven-day celebration of African-American culture.
Gainey had come to perform with his rap trio, Dark Circus. He could be forgiven for not knowing much about Kwanzaa — an informal survey of young performers there indicated that the holiday is not exactly woven into the fabric of their lives.
Another Dark Circus rapper, Damian “Royalty” Horton, 18, knew that Kwanzaa was “a black holiday” that had a positive message, like his group’s music. But he had never been to a Kwanzaa event before.
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Anita Smith, 13, had come with the Miller Middle School dance team to perform an African dance, She knew that Kwanzaa had something to do with unity, but didn’t know much else about it. Fellow dancer Jamesa Moreman, 13, said Kwanzaa never comes up in conversations with her friends.
Kwanzaa was invented in 1966 by African-American activist Ron Karenga. It is a secular holiday observed from Dec. 26 to Jan. 1, with each day devoted to a different uplifting principle called by its Swahili name. For example, Sunday’s principle was kujichagulia, which means self-determination.
In one sense, Kwanzaa has caught on. Public Kwanzaa events are held all over the country. U.S. presidents from Clinton to Obama have made “Kwanzaa messages,” the U.S. Postal Service has issued Kwanzaa stamps and Hallmark sells Kwanzaa cards.
In another sense, Kwanzaa hasn’t caught on. It doesn’t move merchandise like Christmas, Valentine’s Day or Mother’s Day.
Marcy Spencer, assistant manager of Wanda’s Hallmark on Presidential Parkway, said her store carries Kwanzaa cards, “but we don’t sell that many in this particular store.”
But card-giving is not a big part of Kwanzaa. Uplifting the black community is.
Marie Smith, a Detroit resident visiting family in Macon, attended Sunday’s event at the Douglass. Unlike some of the young performers there, Smith knew all about Kwanzaa. She has been celebrating it for about 30 years.
“I like it because it’s an alternative to the commercialism of Christmas,” Smith said. “Commercialism is destroying the spirit and minds of our children.”
About 100 people — almost all black — attended Sunday’s event, which began with a ceremony on the stage. Vinson Muhammad stood behind a table which was adorned with symbolic objects, including a candleholder called a kinara, a basket of fruit, chalices and a flag colored red, black and green.
Muhammad asked the crowd to call the names of African-American ancestors — famous people as well as family members. With each name Muhammad poured a libation from a chalice into a potted plant and led the crowd in the traditional response: “Ashe’.” He also asked for volunteers to read the meanings of the seven principles of Kwanzaa.
Muhammad’s father, George Fadil Muhammad, is president of the Kwanzaa Cultural Access Center and has been closely involved with organizing public Kwanzaa celebrations in Macon since they began in 1992.
George Muhammad said he believes strongly in Kwanzaa because “it’s a very good way of energizing and inspiring black people to do good things.”
George Muhammad said attendance at Macon’s public Kwanzaa events has held steady over the years and private celebrations at home are growing, although people seem to be “more comfortable as observers.”
Muhammad, who is Muslim, said he has seen some stand-offish attitudes toward Kwanzaa from local ministers, but several local churches have hosted Kwanzaa events over the years. He has also seen some resentment from white Maconites.
“They say, ‘You’re having something racially exclusive. If we had a white holiday, how would you feel?’” George Muhammad said. “But most of what goes on in America is based on Eurocentric values. You don’t have to say, ‘white this, white that’ because it’s already there.
“I want to invite the Caucasian community to check out Kwanzaa and take a look at what we’re doing to improve ourselves. We’re not about ‘Let’s blame white people.’ We have to look at what are we going to do to improve our condition.”
George Muhammad also wanted to point out that an upcoming Kwanzaa event is not called Black Power Tuesday, as previously reported, but Black Dollar Power Tuesday. It celebrates the principle of Ujamaa, or cooperative economics, by encouraging people to support black-owned businesses.