Kwanzaa, a celebration of Black struggles, cultural heritage and the nurturing of community excellence, was on full display in San Quentin in December.
The name stands for “the first fruits of the harvest.” It is observed around the world by people of the Black diaspora (common origin) and is a weeklong (Dec. 26-Jan. 1) event that commemorates the ancestors of people of African descent.
Dr. Maulana Karenga―an activist-scholar and professor of Africana Studies at California State University, Long Beach and chair of The Organization Us and the National Association of Kawaida Organizations―created this unique holiday in 1966 as a celebration of Black culture.
Some people have the misconception that Kwanzaa is somehow a substitute for Christmas. However, Dr. Karenga said his goal was to “give Blacks an opportunity to celebrate themselves and their history …”
The SQ event on Dec. 29 began slightly late and had a small crowd due to weather complications. In spite of that, the ceremony’s emcee, SQNews Editor-in-Chief Marcus “Wali” Henderson, opened things up by welcoming everyone and explaining the meaning of the holiday and why it’s so important.
“Kwanzaa is about celebrating the best of us as a people and knowing the seven principles to move to a better future,” said Henderson. “It’s about healing a people to help to heal others we call humanity.”
After the playing of a couple of beautiful African hymns, SQNews staffer Steve Brooks graced the stage and read the first of seven Kwanzaa principles, Emoja. “Kwanzaa is a reminder that we are our ancestors’ first fruits,” he stated after reading its meaning.
Kwanzaa has seven central principles called the Nguzo Saba:
Umoja (Unity): To strive for and maintain unity in the family, community, nation and race.
Kujichagulia (Self-determination): To define ourselves, name ourselves, create for ourselves and speak for ourselves instead of being defined named, and spoken for by others.
Ujima (Collective Work and Responsibility): To build and maintain our community together and make our sisters’ and brothers’ problems our problems and to solve them together.
Uja maa (Cooperative Economics): To build and to maintain our own stores, shops and other businesses and to profit from them together.
Nia (Purpose): To make our collective vocation the building and developing our community in order to restore our people to their traditional greatness.
Kuumba (Creativity): To do always as much as we can, in the way we can, in order to leave our community more beautiful and beneficial than we inherited it.
Imani (Faith): To believe with all our heart in our people, our parents, our teachers, our leaders and the righteousness and victory of our struggle.
“Let us challenge the idea of race … Let’s challenge Black and White people to challenge racism,” said La’Mavis “Shorty” Comundoiwilla, a SQ resident who gave a moving speech following the reading of the second principle, Kujichagulia. “We are all one people … If [there are] those who believe that we aren’t, then check your DNA. We’re more connected than you may think.”
Later on, a jazzy musical performance was put on by SQ residents Leonard “Funky Len” Walker and Ammen Shinti.
The program also included conversations about community, responsibility, generational wealth and supporting each other’s endeavors during the presentations of principles three and four, Ujima and Uja maa.
The next two principles, Nia and Kuumba, were read, followed by a poem and musical performances.
A high point of the night was an emotional speech from special guest Adamu Chan, a former SQ resident, who spoke about being out for two years and how his experiences on the street have been eye-openers.
“I’m thinking about waking up every day, setting intentions,” said Chan, after talking about how in high school he would wake up every day and recite the Nguzo Saba in the mirror.
Chan said that staying “connected as a people is within us” and that “we must work hard at nurturing that connection.”
He expressed the difficulty of coming back to The Q as a free man. “… I think about all the love I experienced in here, so it’s hard to think about now wearing these free clothes and not being able to bring my brothers with me [every time he leaves the prison].”
Finally, a Hip-Hop performance by three SQ residents got the crowd jumping before the conclusion of the ceremony.
Henderson brought the night to a close with the reading of the final principle, Imani. “One thing I know about God,” he said after the reading, “no matter what you believe in, we are sent through fire in order to come out on the other side who we are today. … It took a long time for me to love myself. But I love Wali …,” he continued.
“Imani means faith. We have to keep our faith, brother. That’s how we stay strong as a people.”