Baltimore City

Hundreds gather for Kwanzaa celebration

Micha Broadnax has never formally celebrated Kwanzaa, but on Saturday she came to Baltimore in search of the holiday.

"It's something I've wanted to do," said Broadnax, a graduate student from Boston in Maryland visiting family for winter break, and one of hundreds to attend the Kwanzaa festivities Saturday at the Reginald F. Lewis Museum of Maryland African American History & Culture.


Broadnax, 23, said she sought out the event in part as a reaction to the recent violence, protests and riots in the wake of police killings in Ferguson, Mo., and elsewhere.

"These last few weeks I have been feeling down," she said, as drums sounded in the nearby auditorium. "I made a conscious decision to get out of the house and celebrate my blackness, instead of thinking about how it is a troubled experience sometimes."


Saturday marked the second day of Kwanzaa, a seven-day celebration of family, community and culture created in 1966 by Maulana Karenga, an Eastern Shore-born activist for civil rights and black power.

The holiday is designed to connect to African traditions and is organized around seven principles, including unity, self-determination and faith.

The museum started hosting a Kwanzaa celebration in 2006 shortly after opening, and it remains one of the institution's major events, kicking off a busy season punctuated by Martin Luther King Jr. Day and Black History Month, said Terry Taylor, education and programs manager.

About 800 people were expected at Saturday's festivities, she said. Activities included a panel discussion, craft workshop and a candle lighting ceremony that drew a standing-room-only crowd.

"I loved the dancers. It was so exciting, and I got to learn new things," said 8-year-old Giselle Piper of Catonsville.

Dana Dudley, 39, made the trip from Washington with friends and her 3-year-old daughter, even though she also said she does not formally celebrate the holiday.

"It's in our heart. … We don't do the actual lighting of the candles, but we think it's important," she said. "To look backward in order to look forward — particularly for African-Americans — that's important to do."

William Johnson, 69, of Columbia said he has seen the celebration of Kwanzaa evolve since he started observing it in college, when African dress was more emphasized. But even as the holiday changes, it remains an annual tradition for his family.


"Our heritage started in Africa. We just feel our children should know their history, just like everyone else," he said.

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Many said the holiday was a time to reflect on ways to incorporate its principles throughout the year.

Speakers on the panel called on Baltimore's African-American community to support black businesses and to take control of city schools in order to further the community's self-determination, the Kwanzaa principle that was the theme of Saturday's events.

"What we're really talking about is power. I want everyone to understand that clearly," said Ako Onyango, founder of Our Boys Institute Baltimore, which offers programs for young men.

"If we're looking for justice, [the city's African-American majority] should be represented in the businesses, in control of the education," he said. "Self-determination means we speak with a unified voice to change the things that need changing."

Panel members also asked the museum to play a greater role by offering itself as a meeting place for the city's African-American community.


"I'm going to put the museum on the spot," said Derrick Chase, who moderated the panel. "There's a lot of us here. …What we lack is the physical space and the resources to spread what we are doing — not incorrect — but what we are doing right."