For many Black Americans, the holiday is a time for bonding, joy and repose. The Times visited five households to see how people cook and gather, engage and reflect.
Kwanzaa is more than an end-of-year display of deep orange and burnt burgundy Dutch wax-print fabrics, and righteous images of fruit bowls sitting near wooden cups. It’s an edifying lifestyle choice.
“More people are starting to focus on who they are, and what they want their families to experience — empowering cultural stories that get our brains from up under the foot of oppression,” said Janine Bell, the president and artistic director of Elegba Folklore Society in Richmond, Va.
The holiday — observed by people of all ages and religious affiliations — resonates in a year of racial upheaval and the Covid-19 pandemic, which has killed more than 30,000 Black Americans, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. This year’s tone is virtual ceremonial pomp and circumstance, followed by bottles of apple cider or sparkling wine.
Kwanzaa, which starts on Dec. 26, was founded in 1966 by Maulana Karenga, then a leader of a community organization in Los Angeles called Us, and modeled after the harvest or “first fruits” celebrations in ancient Egypt, West Africa’s New Yam Festival and other celebrations on the African continent.
Mkeka, the woven natural colored mats, and kinara, the wooden candleholder flickering with seven flames, are standard for veteran Kwanzaa devotees. For many new observers, trimming a long table plays second fiddle to living the Nguzo Saba, or seven principles of Kwanzaa.
“It’s an absolute time of freethinking and openness,” Ms. Bell said. “A sense of spirit is centered — being grounded and elevated at once.”
One of Kwanzaa’s core ideals is bonding with loved ones. The seven days of celebration are both loud and quiet, humble and large, with Black Americans getting together around the nation, from suburban enclaves outside of Atlanta to cities along the banks of the James River in Virginia, to the Center Street community in Des Moines and mansions in Los Angeles’s Baldwin Hills.
Libations, a moment of silence for the ancestors, songs, dances, speeches, poems, harambee or the unity chant are activities during Kwanzaa nights. Slow-cooked meatless collard greens, crispy seasoned tofu slabs, whole spicy grilled fish, Trinidad-meets-New Orleans bread puddings and rum punch are devoured under the sound of drumming or groovy musical playlists. Young kids are encouraged to participate in all aspects of the festivities.
A time of feasting and candle-lighting are a soft pillow to collapse into after the long-haul duties of supporting Black-owned restaurants, organizing social justice direct actions, nurturing elders and dancing through pain and triumph. Black Americans reposing for seven days and bookending the time with a bounteous meal is communal self-care.
The Times visited five households around the country to see their Kwanzaa food traditions and explore how their families celebrate.