For many Black Americans, the holiday is a time for bonding, joy and repose. The Times visited five households to see how people cook and gather, engage and reflect.
By Nicole Taylor
Photographs by Nydia Blas, Celeste Noche, Brian Palmer and Timothy Smith
Kwanzaa is more than an end-of-year display of deep orange and burnt burgundy Dutch wax-print fabrics, and righteous images of fruit bowls sitting near wooden cups. It’s an edifying lifestyle choice.
“More people are starting to focus on who they are, and what they want their families to experience — empowering cultural stories that get our brains from up under the foot of oppression,” said Janine Bell, the president and artistic director of Elegba Folklore Society in Richmond, Va.
The holiday — observed by people of all ages and religious affiliations — resonates in a year of racial upheaval and the Covid-19 pandemic, which has killed more than 30,000 Black Americans, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. This year’s tone is virtual ceremonial pomp and circumstance, followed by bottles of apple cider or sparkling wine.
Kwanzaa, which starts on Dec. 26, was founded in 1966 by Maulana Karenga, then a leader of a community organization in Los Angeles called Us, and modeled after the harvest or “first fruits” celebrations in ancient Egypt, West Africa’s New Yam Festival and other celebrations on the African continent.
Mkeka, the woven natural colored mats, and kinara, the wooden candleholder flickering with seven flames, are standard for veteran Kwanzaa devotees. For many new observers, trimming a long table plays second fiddle to living the Nguzo Saba, or seven principles of Kwanzaa.
“It’s an absolute time of freethinking and openness,” Ms. Bell said. “A sense of spirit is centered — being grounded and elevated at once.”
One of Kwanzaa’s core ideals is bonding with loved ones. The seven days of celebration are both loud and quiet, humble and large, with Black Americans getting together around the nation, from suburban enclaves outside of Atlanta to cities along the banks of the James River in Virginia, to the Center Street community in Des Moines and mansions in Los Angeles’s Baldwin Hills.
Libations, a moment of silence for the ancestors, songs, dances, speeches, poems, harambee or the unity chant are activities during Kwanzaa nights. Slow-cooked meatless collard greens, crispy seasoned tofu slabs, whole spicy grilled fish, Trinidad-meets-New Orleans bread puddings and rum punch are devoured under the sound of drumming or groovy musical playlists. Young kids are encouraged to participate in all aspects of the festivities.
A time of feasting and candle-lighting are a soft pillow to collapse into after the long-haul duties of supporting Black-owned restaurants, organizing social justice direct actions, nurturing elders and dancing through pain and triumph. Black Americans reposing for seven days and bookending the time with a bounteous meal is communal self-care.
The Times visited five households around the country to see their Kwanzaa food traditions and explore how their families celebrate.
Rashad Frazier and Keita Orr Frazier
“My late Aunt Beverly was the Kwanzaa snob in our family,” said Rashad Frazier, a personal chef living in Portland, Ore. Beverly Cureton Graham died in February of causes unrelated to Covid-19, Mr. Frazier said. “We have not seen friends or family since her funeral. Kwanzaa is the perfect way to celebrate her memory.”
Mr. Frazier, 40, is from Charlotte, N.C., and his wife, Keita Orr Frazier, 38, grew up in Ridgeland, S.C. Their children, Ellis, 6, and Zora, 2, are observing Kwanzaa for the first time. “In my mind, the idea of Kwanzaa speaks to me, the principles and direction, and self-reflection,” Ms. Frazier said. “I have not thought about the trimmings of tables and candles.”
Bid whist, spades, rest and escape can be found in Black homes all over America at holidays, as it was in Ms. Frazier’s home at Christmas when she was growing up. December, when everyone comes together, allows for rare culinary indulgences — preserved fruit- and jelly-layered cakes, pineapple upside-down cakes, red velvet cakes — and Kwanzaa is no exception. “This year taught me to slow down and think about what memories I’m giving my kids,” she said.
The Fraziers will introduce their children to Kwanzaa through crafts projects and by getting them involved in preparing the special meal, or karamu. Traditionally, the feast takes place on the day dedicated to kuumba (creativity), but like most people nowadays, they’re opting for the day that’s best for them.
There is no one set tradition for the food either. On the menu is Mr. Frazier’s coffee-rubbed whole fish, perfected this summer during family camping trips that also served as research for Camp Yoshi, their venture focused on guided outdoor experiences for people of color, especially Black people. For Generation X and Millennials, self-identity and lineage is the Kwanzaa centerpiece, minus the Instagram posts and emojis.
Recipe: Coffee-Rubbed Grilled Fish
Folami Prescott-Adams’s countertop karamu spread has evolved since guests brought chips and salsa to her first celebration in Atlanta in the early 1990s. “We needed food and not snacks,” said Dr. Prescott-Adams, a community psychologist. Now, with more than three decades of experience with Kwanzaa feast hosting, she kicks off the planning with an email to 30 families, where potluck dishes are confirmed. Last year, more than 100 people gathered inside her southwest Atlanta home.
Her contribution is always the same: “I cook 10 pounds of barbecue tofu,” said the 60-year-old mother of four, the tofu painstakingly dried, sauced up and crisped. A serving line forms in the early hours of the shindig; marinated wings, nut “meatballs,” macaroni and cheese and vegan Southern-style string beans perching in uniformed platters fill her kitchen.
The dining room is headquarters for Kwanzaa bingo and the zawadi, or prizes. “I buy gifts all year at thrift stores and yard sales.” This year’s guests will commemorate the holiday at a virtual candle-lighting party.
Dr. Prescott-Adams is no-holds-barred with Kwanzaa vignettes around her home, though she understands the longstanding commentary about anti-commercialization around the holiday. “I’ve created something for my husband, kids and grandkids that feels warm and safe.”
Recipe: Folami’s Barbecue Tofu
Maati Kheprimeni Angaza
“Everything has shifted,” said Maati Kheprimeni Angaza, 21, a senior at Temple University who is finishing up her final year online in Bedford-Stuyvesant, Brooklyn. For Ms. Angaza, Kwanzaa is constant — it’s all she celebrates in December.
It’s a time when the dance major can teach her young cousins basic West African moves and choreograph routines for herself. “My personal Kwanzaa celebration includes taking a moment to take in all the blessings,” she said.
She winds downs the year by buying products from Black owned-beauty brands, spending time with her boyfriend and prepping for the karamu.
“When it comes to the feast, do what feels authentic to you,” said Ms. Angaza, a lifelong vegan. Curry potatoes, black-eyed peas and luscious desserts are traditions in her culinary muscle memory. “My stepmother makes an amazing bread pudding, with sweet potato and raisins; it’s a little dense and reminds me of a currant roll.”
Kwanzaa has also become a time for creativity in the kitchen as she’s gotten older, she said: “During quarantine, I got good at making vegan doughnuts” — cinnamon sugar, chocolate walnut, chocolate peanut butter drizzle.
“I plan to have a bunch of those on the spread this year,” she said. “Maybe red, black, green glazed?”
She is honoring her roots and having fun: “Kwanzaa food should be a piece of us.”
Recipe: Vegan Doughnuts
In the early 1980s, Janine Bell attended her first Kwanzaa community event, hosted by Branches of the Art, a now-defunct multidisciplinary arts organization. She remembers casserole dishes with sweet potatoes and corn pudding. “Not African cuisine, but food that lived on our grandparents’ table — food from the American South,” said Ms. Bell, who is a pescatarian.
Growing up in Greensboro, N.C., she was oblivious to Kwanzaa. Since 1990, Ms. Bell has been producing the Capital City Kwanzaa Festival; this year it will be a seven-night virtual event.
At home, Ms. Bell hosts an intimate Kwanzaa affair for her immediate clan. “My daughter makes sure we have the fruits and kikombe, and makes sure that we have everything in the dining room,” she said.
It’s Ms. Bell’s favorite space — olive-painted walls surrounded by her late grandparents’ furniture, crystal servingware, lace coverings, a gilded mirror and silver candelabras. African masks and a painting titled “Autumn Leaves” sit among the mmeka, kinara and Kwanzaa decorations made by her granddaughter. The room carries the energy of five generations in one place.
A 1935 family photo shows people posing around the same furnishings and eating fruit from glass salad plates stored in the sideboard — a legacy unbroken.
Kerry Coddett and Krystal Stark
Any other year, the revelers would be donning H.B.C.U. sweatshirts and snazzy backpacks shaped like an outline of Africa — not Santa Claus costumes — to follow the bullhorns at Kwanzaa Crawl.
“It’s one day dedicated to celebrating the Black-owned businesses in our communities,” said Kerry Coddett, who founded the annual event five years ago with her sister, Krystal Stark. “It highlights and brings in all the seven principles of Kwanzaa.” Attendees spent an estimated $500,000 at last year’s bar hop, which snaked through Harlem’s wide city blocks and central Brooklyn neighborhoods, the sisters said.
The sisters, who have roots in Trinidad and Guyana, said the holiday was always in their background but came into focus after the 2014 and 2016 civil unrest spurred by the killings of Alton Sterling and Eric Garner. “We wanted a way to celebrate our blackness and improve the conditions of Black people around us,” Ms. Coddett said.
Because of Covid-19 restrictions this year for New York City bars and restaurant, the opening Kwanzaa ceremony and roving bacchanal is a no-go.
Ms. Coddett and Ms. Stark share an apartment and plan to celebrate Kwanzaa with their younger brother. “We’ll get to celebrate all the way,” Ms. Coddett said. Both say they’ve missed dinners and the season’s merriment because of the crawl logistics — 5,000 participants and 35 bars and restaurants.
Ms. Stark is the better cook, and the plan is brunch. “Vegan pancakes, shrimp and mushroom lasagna (homemade vegan ricotta cheese), sorrel, Champagne are on the menu,” she said. The sisters will also be ordering callaloo, roti and plantain takeout from Sugarcane in Brooklyn, one of the restaurants featured during the 2019 crawl. Together they’ll set intentions and light the kinara.
“I want to make sure we never lose our family’s language of food and love,” Ms. Coddett said.
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