For some in Memphis, the recent celebration of Kwanzaa was the continuation of a 40-year-plus tradition. And as is the case each year, others involved themselves in the seven-day cultural observance for the first time.

Whether veterans or newbies, the measurement of the outcome invariably was the same – a rewarding time celebrating family, community and culture.

“This was a beautiful celebration this year,” said Osupa Moon of Mid-South Kwanzaa, Inc.

“It seems as though our people are getting the messages that are being sent from the powers that be, that it’s time to come together and stop looking for a someone to come and save us. It’s time to become the leader you’re looking for. I really believe we’re heading in the right direction.”

The weeklong observance began Dec. 26 with the celebration of the principle of Umoja (unity) at the Auction Block downtown and ended on New Years Day with the celebration of Imani (faith) at the Panhellenic Building on the campus of the University of Memphis.

In between, were observances of the other five celebrated principles: Kujichagulia (self-determination), Ujima (collective work and responsibility), Ujamaa (cooperative economics), Nia (purpose) and Kuumba (creativity). The settings included the Board of Education auditorium, the New Chicago Performing Arts Center, Slavehaven, the Josephine K. Lewis Senior Center, Exum Towers, Orange Mound Senior Service Center, The African Place, Lester Community Center and the Java Complex.

Ekpe Abioto, who was involved in creating the musical backdrop for much of the celebration, said every observance was beautiful, particularly noting a visit to an area prison.

Kwanzaa king and queen
Celebrating imani (faith), the last day of Kwanzaa, with the day’s King (Dr. Jebose O. Okwumabua) & Queen (Dr. Theresa M. Okwumabua) on the campus of the University of Memphis. (Photo: Tyrone P. Easley)

“We spent about four hours (at the prison)…I’ve been going to Kwanzaa for over 40 years. That was one of the best I’ve ever participated in. The brothers up there were receptive. They did spoken word, there was a keyboard player, there was a singer. We did some African music, we did some Stevie wonder. There was so much talent there, and love.”

Dr. Carnita Atwater hosted the celebration of the principle of Umoja at the New Chicago Performing Arts Center.

“The jury is still out on whether there is progress in getting African American people as a whole to embrace the principles of Kwanzaa as an everyday thing,” she said during the Imani observance on the final day.

“We’ve got some work to do,” said Atwater, one of the seven people honored on the final day in association with the seven principles celebrated during the annual  cultural observance.

“We need to get a plan, a community plan; and work our plan,” adding that she had faith in ultimate success.

The honorees and their principles were: Rev. Earle J. Fisher, Umoja (unity); Dr. Atwater, Kujichagulia (self determination); Van Turner Jr., Ujima (collective work and responsibility); Chef Gary Williams, Ujamaa (cooperative economics); Caratee Mickens, Nia (purpose); Jackie Murray, Kuumba (creativity); and Karanja A. Ajanaku, Imani (faith).

After several years of mostly separate Kwanzaa observances, Mid-South Kwanzaa, Inc. and Memphis Kwanzaa International combined their energies for the 2017-18 celebration. After paying tribute to the late Dr. Kaia Naantaanbuu, former president of Memphis Kwanzaa International, Omar Baruti spoke to the co-mingling of the efforts during the Nia observance at the Lester Community Center on Saturday.

Baruti some of the board members from Memphis Kwanzaa International had blended with the Mid-South Kwanzaa, Inc. board and that he was looking forward to the Kwanzaa celebration rising to even greater heights.

The imani celebration drew a packed house to the Panhellenic Building on the campus of the University of Memphis. And while the program delivered as advertised, two heating-related issues challenged the resolve of attendees.

The University was closed for the winter holiday break for 10 days from December 23 through January 2. As a result, the heating boiler serving the building had to be re-started on the day of the observance, according to a statement from the University’s communications office.

“At that time, a second issue became evident,” according to the statement. “A coupling on the heating water pump that circulates hot water to generate heat through the building was malfunctioning. A UofM Physical Plant member replaced the coupling; however, the work was completed as the event was ending. Although there was some heat on in the building, the limited heating available could not overcome the colder than normal outside temperature.”

The University has supported the Kwanzaa event for several years by providing of facilities while the campus is closed.

“Because the University was closed, however, the issues were not discovered as they would have been under normal operating conditions,” the statement continued.

“Additionally, the UofM did not have full resources available to address the issues in a more timely manner.”

Kwanzaa honorees
The last day of Kwanzaa includes a salute to seven community figures, each honored in association with one of the seven principles of the African-American cultural celebration (Photo: Tyrone P. Easley)