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‘Celebrating our diversity’: Kwanzaa honored in Howard County with fifth annual program

As Wade Walters gently played his drums, people shuffled into the Banneker Room of the George Howard Building on Thursday night, finding their seats for the fifth annual Howard County Kwanzaa Celebration.

Wade, 12, who’s been playing the drums since he was a toddler, was tasked with filling the room, traditionally used for County Council meetings, with background noise as everyone took their places.

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About 200 gathered Dec. 26 in the Ellicott City building for the county’s annual Kwanzaa Celebration, co-hosted by the Office of Human Rights and Howard County Executive Calvin Ball.

“Giving African Americans the much-needed opportunity to celebrate ourselves, our history, culture and humanity, [and] inspired by traditional African harvest festivals, Kwanzaa is seven days of community,” said Yolanda Sonnier, one of the event’s coordinators from the Office of Human Rights.

Kwanzaa, a holiday celebrated every year from Dec. 26 through Jan. 1, was created by Dr. Maulana Karenga in 1966 in an effort to create an African American and Pan African holiday that celebrated community, family and culture.

In Kwanzaa, there are seven principles, one for each day of the holiday: umoja (unity), kujichagulia (self-determination), ujima (collective work and responsibility), ujamaa (cooperative economics), nia (purpose), kuumba (creativity) and imani (faith).

Sonnier opened the evening’s remarks with an overarching explanation of Kwanzaa, referencing some of the principles before introducing the Rev. Eric King, a pastor at Goshen United Methodist Church in Gaithersburg, for the libation.

During King’s remarks, he referred to the audience as “the village,” and asked for the youngest person in the room to be held up in the air and the room clapped in celebration of the village. Then, in order to continue, King sought out permission of the oldest person in the audience; a woman in the back of the room stood slowly and gave permission to continue.

According to Marla Moore, an outreach coordinator in the Office of Human Rights and Columbia native, the youth and the elderly are a focus of the celebration because the village prospers together. It’s a collective effort, she said.

“In ancient African and current societies, children belong to everybody,” Moore said. “Similar to Christmas, Hanukkah and other holidays, [Kwanzaa is] about bringing families together and having faith and love and food.”

County Executive Ball also provided brief remarks, calling attention to the light that holidays like Kwanzaa bring to the community and the county.

“Not just tolerating, but celebrating our diversity and inclusion on this first night of Kwanzaa, being an example of unity, is who we are, not only as a people but as a county,” Ball said.

As the program continued, local youth presented each of the seven symbols — mkeka (mat), kinara (candleholder), mishumaa saba (the seven candles), kikombe cha Umoja (the unity cup), mazao (crops), muhindi (ears of corn) and zawadi (gifts) — while their meanings and importance were described to the audience.

Outside the Banneker Room before and after the program, food was served. Local vendors were selling their products, and a coloring room was set up for kids to learn about the meaning of the colors of Kwanzaa, another emphasis on the importance of youth.

Tinera Sterling, a Columbia native, brought her two children in the hope they would begin to understand Kwanzaa. Both children spent time in the coloring room learning about the traditions of Kwanzaa, she said.

“This was a new holiday that came about, so as I got older, I tried to get an understanding of it and just tried to incorporate it,” Sterling said. “I always have a display set up at home in addition to our Christmas decor, so they can just understand where our heritage came from.”

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At home, she set up a kinara, a seven-branched candleholder; each candle symbolizes one of the principles. Similar to the Jewish tradition of lighting a menorah for Hanukkah, a new candle is lit each night.

“It’s pretty much what all cultures want, just a peaceful time to enjoy everybody and unite and understand that principles can go over to the next year,” Sterling said.

Stacey Dyce, a designer for Regal Clothes — a Baltimore-based clothing company that specializes in tribal print clothes and accessories — had a booth set up during the event to sell jewelry and clothing, including headwear.

“We use ankara, fabric sourced from Ghana, which we’re trying to make more ubiquitous, so we’re trying to make it like plaid by making it every day, by selling items that can be worn every day by the average person. And that’s important for us to contribute to a cultural fashion trend,” Dyce said.

She was dressed in a Regal Clothes peplum belt, a hybrid of a belt and a corset, and called it the perfect introduction to a neutral wardrobe and a way to “add some kind of cultural identity to your wardrobe.”

When asked about the cultural appropriation of traditional African clothing — when people who aren’t African or of African descent wear items considered to be elements of the African culture — Dyce said people can stop appropriating “by knowing where it came from.”

When people can say they know where the clothing comes from, she said, “I think that takes away that sense of appropriation and then you can wear it proudly because you have knowledge of where you bought it, who you bought it from, where they got their materials from, and it frees you to wear it as freely as you want to.”

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