‘A Celebration of Light’: Kwanzaa at Sumner Hall
CHESTERTOWN — Though the celebration of Kwanzaa typically begins Dec. 26 and runs through Jan. 1, Sumner Hall hosted an informative program Dec. 29 to give the community the opportunity to learn more about the history of the celebration.
“I think many people don’t really know what Kwanzaa means and how it came about and, in fact, when I started to do a little bit of research on this, I discovered things that I did not know,” Ruth Shoge said.
Shoge had the idea to host a Kwanzaa celebration at Sumner Hall. She is a member of the Education Committee, which is a branch of the Kent County Local Management Board-sponsored Social Action Committee.
The word Kwanzaa means “first fruits” in Swahili, Shoge said.
“It’s not a religious holiday. It’s a cultural celebration,” Shoge said. “And it was not meant to replace Christmas. It is in addition to Christmas.”
Kwanzaa was founded in 1966 by Maulana Karenga, a native of the Eastern Shore. Karenga grew up in Parsonburg, which is near Salisbury. Karenga is now a professor of African studies at the University of California, Shoge said.
The week-long celebration is meant to honor African heritage and culture, Shoge said. She said, Karenga created the celebration in response to “social upheaval and changes occurring (in America) in the 1960s.”
“He thought that African Americans needed something, some focus to be able to move forward,” Shoge said. “He started to design a celebration that would honor the values of the African culture and inspire African Americans who were working for progress.”
Shoge said Kwanzaa has roots in an end-of-the-year harvest celebration. There are seven principles of Kwanzaa: unity, self-determination, collective work and responsibilities, cooperative economics, purpose, creativity and faith. Each is represented by a candle, which is lit each day of Kwanzaa. For Sumner Hall’s purposes, all seven candles were lit by audience members.
Shoge also explained the meaning of items typically placed on a table for Kwanzaa. For example, the candle holder, Shoge said, is a “symbol of our
parentage. It holds us all up under the seven principles, which each candle represents.”
The unity cup is used to pour libation in “recognizing and honoring the past,” Shoge said. The table also included crops, fruit to represent agriculture while corn represents children. The table also includes gifts, which children receive at the end of the seventh day. The table also includes books and symbols from Africa along with art.
Evette Hynson, a board member with Sumner Hall, read the seven principles while the candles were lit.
Unity or umoja is to “strive for and maintain unity in the family, community, nation and race.”
Self-determination or ujima is to “build and maintain the community together and make our brothers’ and sisters’ problems our problems and to solve them together.”
Cooperative economics or ujamaa is to “build and maintain our own stores, shops and other businesses and to profit from them together.”
Purpose or nia is to “make collective vocation the buildings and development of the community in order to restore our people to their traditions.”
Creativity or kuumba is to “do always as much as we can, in the ways we can, in order to leave our community more beautiful and beneficial than we inherited.”
Faith or imani is to “believe with all our heart in our people, our parents, our teachers, our leaders and the righteousness and victory of our struggle.”
At the end of the program, Simeon Shoge, Ruth Shoge’s husband, performed the libation portion of the celebration, which was meant to honor ancestors. He performed the ceremony in Yoruba, his native language from Nigeria.
“There’s ancestral input into all of this and there’s God’s input,” Simeon Shoge said.
He said there are aspects of the Holy Trinity with the Kwanzaa libation. Where as in Christian traditions there is father, son and Holy Ghost — in Kwanzaa, there are God, ancestors and the willpower of the people in attendance.
“The blessings that connect us together,” Simeon Shoge said of the people who gathered at Sumner Hall. “Just look around. It is a wonderful gathering. It’s diverse and it’s all from the heart.”
For the libation, he used palm wine from Africa saying “to God, to our ancestors and to every being happiness, prosperity and best of wishes now and forever, amen.”
Additionally, Gretchen Knowles provided information about the process of re-creating Harriet Powers’ Bible Quilt.
Knowles is from Kent County and is a retired psychiatric nurse in Baltimore. She is a quilter with the Olde Kent Quilters Guild.
She said she suggested the guild re-create the Bible Quilt after the group said they wanted to make something different than the normal quilt patterns.
Knowles said she was first introduced to the quilt when she saw a reproduction of it 25 years ago. The original is so faded and fragile, it is kept in storage in the Smithsonian.
The group was able to visit the museum to see the original. Knowles said it took about a year and a half to research the quilt, collect fabrics and draft the patterns.
Powers was born in 1837 near Athens, Ga, Knowles said. She was born into slavery but later gained freedom, Knowles said. She and her husbanded lived on 4 acres after being emancipated.
During a period when her family fell on hard times, Powers sold the Bible Quilt, which some believe she created to tell Bible stories and spread the Gospel. There are 11 panels on the quilt depicting scenes from the Bible.
Knowles said Powers is known as one of the most famous African American folk artists for her quilts, though only two have survived. She created the Bible Quilt and the Pictorial Quilt, which are sometimes called narrative quilts.
Ruth Shoge shows what each item on the table represents during an informative program on the history of Kwanzaa. The event was held Dec. 29 at Sumner Hall. It was organized by the Education Committee within the Social Action Committee, which Shoge is a member of.
Simeon Shoge led the audience through the libation ceremony during Sumner Hall’s Kwanzaa celebration Dec. 29.