Ashley Cooper says her daughters’ elementary schools stress the importance of attending college one day, but that’s far from the only positive long-term message she wants the girls to soak in.
The Baltimore mother wants Ky’anah Bishop, 11, and Kymah’ni Burrell, 7, to grow up valuing their own cultural heritage, curious about the world around them and confident in their creativity — all of which she says explains why she brought them Saturday to the Kwanzaa African-American Cultural Celebration at Morgan State University.
Cooper, her mother, Gwendolyn, and the two girls worked on crafts as they watched a succession of dancers, vocalists and speakers take to a stage and celebrate values considered central to the African-American holiday, including unity, self-determination and faith.
“With all the negativity that’s going on, this celebration is just such a positive influence,” Cooper said. “It’s a way of exposing the girls to our heritage. And they get to experience a college campus and see what college kids are like.”
The family was among the estimated 1,800 people who attended the free five-hour celebration in the university’s student center. It was the 26th time Morgan State has sponsored the event.
Established in 1966 by Maulana Karenga, a Maryland-born activist and leader in the Black Power movement who eventually became a university professor, Kwanzaa is a seven-day celebration founded to remind Americans of African descent of the wisdom and beauty of the heritage from which they come.
As conceived by Karenga, the holiday — which begins on the day after Christmas and ends on New Year’s Day — commemorates Nguzo Saba, a set of seven principles rooted in African cultural history, including collective responsibility (ujima), purpose (nia), self-determination (kujichagulia), creativity (kuumba) and faith (imani).
Recent research has shown that between 500,000 and 2 million Americans celebrate Kwanzaa each year, taking part in activities that range from the lighting of seven ceremonial candles and the use of fabrics featuring the thematic colors of green, black, and red, to displaying African art and exchanging gifts.
The purpose, says Charles Duggar, is to pass on to kids the sense of community, family, purpose and clarity that allowed previous generations of Africans to thrive — and has encouraged African-Americans to endure in the United States and elsewhere the United States in the face of slavery, bigotry and hardship
Duggar, a longtime English teacher in Baltimore City’s public schools who has been teaching the principles of Kwanzaa for three decades, began the festivities when he stood before the crowd and asked for a volunteer to light the first of the festival’s seven candles.
“Kwanzaa, Kwanzaa, celebrate Kwanzaa,” Duggar proclaimed in a singsong voice, as 15-year-old Kytwuan Heckstall of West Baltimore stepped forward and lit the candle for umoja, or unity, the first of the holiday’s seven principles.
Kytwuan, a sophomore at the Knowledge and Success Academy in West Baltimore, was one of 28 boys and girls between 8 and 18 attending with the adult leaders of One More One Less Mentoring, a nonprofit organization for youths headquartered at Belmont Elementary School in West Baltimore.
Mentor Charles Pratt said there were good reasons to bring his charges to the event for the third straight year.
One More One Less (the name means “one more young person on the right path, one less going in a negative direction,” Pratt says) helps young people after school and on weekends with academics, promotes life skills and family involvement, and offers fitness programs.
Pratt says the celebration helps bring the kids out of their circumscribed worlds.
“We want to expose them to more than just what’s in their own little neighborhood, to show them their own culture,” he said. “It’s a way of instilling pride, and it’s about embracing their past, who they are. And hopefully, in turn, they’ll do the same for others some day.”
As Pratt helped 6-year-old Aydin McGowan of Baltimore paint an African-themed cardboard mask, the culture swirled around them.
Brothers from several-social service fraternities took the stage to deliver step performances, twirling and stomping in unison as they celebrated the histories of their organizations and extolled the virtues of various Kwanzaa principles.
Karanon Tubo of Alpha Phi Alpha fraternity, which was established at Cornell University in 1906, stepped away from the dancing, took a microphone and urged audience members to remember that “we are kings and queens — we have our crowns, and they will never be tilted.”
Tubo, a senior biology major from New York, said it isn’t enough to live for oneself; living in the right way means “taking what you have and giving it to another brother or sister, mentor or family member, to uplift them.”
The fraternity doesn’t celebrate Kwanzaa per se, but its principles are in alignment with those of the holiday, especially nia, or living with purpose, he said.
Teams of African drummers and instrumentalists later took the stage, followed by the school’s dance team, the Morganettes, the students in the university’s fashion club, and a variety of vocalists and storytellers.
In another part of the building, officers of the Morgan State English Society — a student club that celebrates reading and literature and promotes literacy in the community — gave out scores of the 300 children’s books they’d collected for the occasion.
Club leaders Kesla Elmore and Chloe Colbert read aloud from several of the books, adding a taste of storytelling to the giveaway.
Elmore said one group of kids fidgeted a bit during the reading, but once it ended they flocked to the book table and helped themselves.
“Whenever we meet with kids, we hear many of them say, ‘I hate to read.’ Our No. 1 goal is to change that, to increase the literacy rate. When they each took a book, we were so happy,” she said.
Ky’anah and Kymah’ni worked with their mother and grandmother painting ceramic African-themed masks, as a disc jockey on a nearby stage played African and Caribbean music.
Ky’anah paused, looked up from the project, and sounded every bit like a young lady taking in what her elders were trying to convey.
“There’s a lot of creativity here,” she said. “There’s a lot you can learn from Kwanzaa. And it’s fun.”