December 28, 2022

Arrow’s D&I Speaker Series: A Kwanzaa Conversation with Candice Raynor

Category: D&I Series

Author: Michael Gutgsell

In December 2021, Arrow residents Dorothy and James Meyers participated in an online chat with Candice Raynor, Director and Faculty in Residence of the Afrikan Heritage House at Oberlin College in Ohio to talk about Kwanzaa. Kwanzaa is a cultural holiday celebrated December 26 – January 1 with each day dedicated to a specific principle of Nguzo Saba (The Seven Principles) and the lighting of a ceremonial candle. It culminates in a joyful feast and the exchanging of culturally significant gifts. “It’s a beautiful way to bring in the New Year with your mind and spirit focused on family and community and living by these principles,” Raynor says.

Contrary to some perceptions, Kwanzaa is not a religious holiday. Rather, it is based on African harvest festival traditions from various parts of West and Southeast Africa and is often celebrated in conjunction with Christmas or Hannukah.

In the late 1960s there was growing disillusionment within the Civil Rights movement. People were not seeing the gains they’d been fighting for and as a result the movement saw groups of activists splintering off. Educator and activist Maulana Karenga saw in this an opportunity to create a holiday that connected Black people with their roots and their common struggles and hopes. Raynor said Kwanzaa is a time for Black people to “embrace who we are, where we come from, and our community as we are, as well as striving for equality.” Kwanzaa was created in 1966 in the spirit of bringing people together and looking beyond differences like socio-economics, colorism, and religion. “As Black people we’re stronger together.” 

Raynor and the Meyerses agreed that the Nguzo Saba are universal principles that all people should live by, but Kwanzaa gives Black celebrants an opportunity to look at the principles as they relate specifically to their community and the struggle for equality. For example, the very language of Kwanzaa is Swahili, one of the most widely spoken languages in Africa. Each day, a candle is lit and the corresponding principle is explained, usually in the form of a story. This makes it easier for children to understand. There’s a lot of focus on children and raising them with these principles and the importance of living by them. At Oberlin, this is celebrated in the form of different students speaking on each principle and how it relates to their life. The wooden candle holder (kinara) signifies roots. “A lot of us don’t know where exactly on the continent we come from, but it gives us some kind of connection.”

  1. Umoja (Unity): To strive for and to maintain unity in the family and community. This is the only black candle and it is lit on the first night. Raynor says that at Oberlin, this principle has become part of the vernacular, as in “In the spirit of Umoja, can you help me with my homework due tomorrow?” The remaining candles are red and green and symbolize the struggles and hope for the future, respectively. 
  2. Kujichagulia (Self-determination): To define, name, create, and speak for ourselves. Raynor shared the story of a biracial student who joined the African House to learn about Black culture. She wasn’t raised around her Black family and felt she didn’t know about that part of herself. This principle helped her define herself, in particular her own Blackness, from a confident place and how that changed her life. 
  3. Ujima (Collective work and responsibility): To build and maintain our community together and to share each other’s problems and solve them together. 
  4. Ujamaa (Cooperative economics): To build and maintain our own stores, shops, and other businesses and to profit from them together. The importance of supporting Black-owned businesses was brought up by Dorothy Meyers as a way to live this value. 
  5. Nia (Purpose): To make our collective vocation the building and developing of our community in order to restore our people to their traditional greatness. How can you find purpose for yourself but in a way that also benefits your community? Raynor used herself as an example. She wants to be teacher, so she asks herself how can I help my community reach its goals by teaching? It means going into your work with your heritage in mind and making sure you are being the best self for your community and the world. 
  6. 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. Beyond putting beauty into the world, this principle is a reminder that Black arts have often been used as a form of resistance. Raynor cited the example of field songs, which were sung by enslaved peoples as a way to communicate. For example, if an escape was planned that night, a specific song would be sung. Black creativity operates on a lot of levels that goes beyond beauty. 
  7. Imani (Faith): To believe with all our hearts in our people, our parents, our teachers, our leaders, and the righteousness and victory of our struggle.

Dorothy Meyers began the conversation by admitting she’d never heard of Kwanzaa. She’s not alone. Growing up in the South, Raynor didn’t know much about Kwanzaa until she came to Oberlin. The holiday is not celebrated widely outside of the United States, specifically Black urban areas.

However, Raynor has observed that in the past few years more people are starting to learn about, and celebrate, Kwanzaa. 

John asked Raynor at the end of the conversation, “What can we do to support the message of Kwanzaa?” Her response was simple: Talk about it! Tell your peers about it like you would recommend a good book. Word of mouth, especially among people you know and respect, can do so much to impart understanding. “Don’t undersell your ability to educate through conversation.” 

Learning about different celebrations is a way for us all to be better to one another as Americans and as international citizens. You don’t have to celebrate it to understand its value. “I truly hope that a lot more of these conversations are happening across the country and across the world,” Raynor said. “Certainly, Kwanzaa has something that can benefit everyone.”

Saint Charles, Missouri-based Arrow Senior Living manages a portfolio of communities that offer varying levels of care, including independent living, assisted living, and memory care. Each and every senior living community supports residents by focusing on dignity, respect, and quality of life. The programs and amenities offered are selected to provide only the highest standard of quality and comfort.

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