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Sights, sounds of Kwanzaa fill annual gathering in Detroit

Mark Hicks
The Detroit News

Detroit — From the drumming to the energetic dancing and vendors selling books and colorful clothes, Thomas Wheeler reveled in the sights and sounds that accompanied the opening Kwanzaa celebration Thursday night at the Charles H. Wright Museum of African American History.

It was the fourth consecutive year the Detroit resident and his family headed to the venue for the week-long festivities centered on the African cultural holiday they long have observed alongside Christmas. And to him, the event was the best way to close December and head into 2020.

Alkebu-Lan Village dancers perform African dance at the first day of Kwanzaa celebration at the Charles H. Wright Museum of African American History in Detroit.

"It's very important this time of year," he said. "It's an enriching cultural experience."

More than 400 people descended on the museum for the first of seven nights dedicated to marking Kwanzaa, which lasts through New Year's Day.

Launched in 1966 through efforts by African studies professor Maulana Karenga, the holiday is named after a Swahili phrase meaning “first fruits of the harvest” and has ties to ancient festivities on the continent, according to the website on its history.

Each evening centers on one of the “Nguzo Saba,” or seven principles, guiding the period.

The first is “umoja,” or unity, in the community, nation and elsewhere.

In a message to followers this month, Karenga described the concept as teaching a “deep sense of relatedness, togetherness and oneness in the world and a constant concern, work and struggle for common good and the well-being of the world and all in it.”

Alkebu-Lan Village martial arts instructor Kristian Barden, right, holds the board being broken by Ishmael Rhymes during a demonstration at the first day of Kwanzaa celebration at the Charles H. Wright Museum of African American History in Detroit .

Unity also remains imperative in 2019 and beyond as residents of African descent continue to face social and economic challenges, said Charles Ezra Ferrell, the museum’s vice president of program development.

"We have to stand up and be united in our struggle in our community against injustice," he told the packed audience during the opening ceremony in the museum's General Motors Theater. 

The gathering, presented with help from the African Liberation Day Committee, also focused on honoring the past.

Between a dance troupe performance on the theater stage and the lighting of the first candle in the traditional kinara candle holder, libations were poured for ancestors such as those who rebelled against slavery, championed civil rights and sought social change across the country and abroad.

"We’re celebrating from whence we came, who we are," Paul Taylor, the committee's chairman, told the crowd.

As vendors displayed arrays of gleaming jewelry, pyramid-shaped ornaments, biographies and kaleidoscopic gowns, participants explained the other principles highlighted the rest of Kwanzaa: kujichagulia (self-determination), ujima (collective work and responsibility), ujamaa (cooperative economics), nia (purpose), kuumba (creativity) and imani (faith).

Alkebu-Lan Village students Krysten (cq) Barden, right, and Ezrael Rhymes perform a demonstration at the first day of Kwanzaa celebration at the Charles H. Wright Museum of African American History in Detroit.

The reminder was instructive for Deaira Tooks of Detroit, who brought her three children.

"The seven principles — there are some very powerful lessons within those that we can take back to our families," she said.