116 3rd St SE
Cedar Rapids, Iowa 52401
CEDAR RAPIDS — The day after Christmas, many Iowans will take down their Christmas tree and replace it with decorations for Kwanzaa, a holiday in celebration of African American heritage and strengthening families and communities.
Rachel Collins, of Cedar Rapids, began celebrating Kwanzaa 20 years ago with her son as a way to learn more about Black and African culture, she said. It is a recognition that knowledge of Black history is worthwhile.
“It connects me to what I consider my Motherland, and helps me frame who I am,” Collins said.
Kwanzaa was created by Maulana Karenga, a professor of African studies, in 1966, and its roots are tied to the Black power movement, advocating for racial pride, self-sufficiency and equality for Black people. It is not rooted in any religion.
It begins each year on Dec. 26, and ends Jan. 1, modeled on African harvest celebrations. Each day of Kwanzaa represents a different principle: unity, self-determination, collective work and responsibility, cooperative economics, purpose, creativity and faith.
During Kwanzaa, it is customary to greet others by saying “Habari gani?” which means “What is the news?” in Swahili. When asked the question, someone should answer with the principle of the day.
During Kwanzaa, Collins especially embraces the principle of creativity. When her son was younger, they had a tradition of making gifts for each other.
The principle of cooperative economics is also a reminder to support Black-owned businesses, Collins said. These principles should be observed year-round, but are especially important during Kwanzaa.
Collins, who graduated from Jefferson High School in Cedar Rapids in 1997, said it was up to her to educate herself about her own culture, which is outside of “mainstream” education. When she was in college, she was “thirsty for an understanding of my own culture,” she said, which lead her to begin observing Kwanzaa.
Now a school counselor at Kennedy High School in Cedar Rapids, Collins believes it’s important for schools to not only offer classes such as Black history and African American literature, but incorporate it into traditional language arts and history curriculum.
Historically, U.S. history textbooks have been slow to incorporate Black humanity in the curriculum, and focus on slavery narratives.
“Sometimes it’s easy for us to forget where we came from,” Collins said. “Many of our peoples were brought here unwillingly, and it’s important to recognize where we came from and the richness of the land and beauty of history we’re not always taught.”
There are many traditions to celebrate Kwanzaa.
Observers are encouraged to decorate by using the colors black, red and green and with traditional African items. Black represents the people, red represents blood shed for freedom and green represents hope for the future. A black, red or green candle is lit on each of the seven days of Kwanzaa.
On the sixth day of Kwanzaa, Dec. 31, it is customary to have a feast called Karamu and serve traditional African dishes and foods. And on the final night of Kwanzaa, a cup of water is poured out as a way to “give back to the earth and give thanks for life,” Collins said.
The ceremony is a way to honor and remember loved ones who have died. It’s a “precious little two minute ceremony,” and one of Collins’ most fervent Kwanzaa traditions, which she carries out whether she’s alone or with a group of people for a New Year’s Eve celebration.
It’s not known how many Iowans celebrate Kwanzaa, said LaNisha Cassell, executive director of the African American Museum of Iowa in Cedar Rapids. Kwanzaa still is fairly new compared to other traditions, she said.
There are anywhere between 500,000 and 2 million people in the United States who celebrate Kwanzaa, according to a 2012 Public Policy Polling poll, the last available data.
The African American Museum of Iowa, 55 12th Ave. SE, Cedar Rapids, is displaying a traditional Kwanzaa "table" this season. The museum is open Thursday-Saturday from 10 a.m. to 4 p.m.
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