Philly museum celebrates the spirit of ‘unity’ on the first day of Kwanzaa

Maisha Ogonza at the first day of the African American Museum in Philadelphia’s Kwanzaa celebration. (Tennyson Donyéa, WHYY)

Maisha Ogonza at the first day of the African American Museum in Philadelphia’s Kwanzaa celebration. (Tennyson Donyéa, WHYY)

Kwanzaa is a weeklong holiday that celebrates Black culture, freedom, and family, beginning each year on Dec. 26. 

Born out of the Black Power movement and the African American struggle for freedom, it has been a tradition since the late 1960s, especially in Philadelphia.

“We were organizing, and we were looking for ways to mobilize and re-Africanize ourselves,” said Maisha Ongoza, who recalled learning about Kwanzaa while attending an early Black Power movement conference in Philadelphia back in 1968.

First day of the African American Museum in Philadelphia’s Kwanzaa celebration. (Tennyson Donyéa, WHYY)

Ongoza is known locally as “Mama Maisha” and has been teaching people about the holiday for decades with the Kwanzaa Cooperative, serving Greater Philadelphia, New Jersey, Delaware, and New York. 

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On Sunday, she taught a “Kwanzaa 101” course at a celebration hosted by the African American Museum in Philadelphia

To open the ceremony, Ongoza lit the first candle on the kinara, which represents the first principle of Kwanzaa, “umoja” or “unity.” 

Then, she poured libations in honor of African ancestors and the souls of the unborn. 

“[Kwanzaa] is the only tool to survive after the 60s, the Black Power era,” Ongoza said. 

Maisha Ogonza at the first day of the African American Museum in Philadelphia’s Kwanzaa celebration. (Tennyson Donyéa, WHYY)

“It shows you we can find common ground, a shared value system that we can organize around, despite our religions,” Ongoza said. “Kwanzaa is the instrument that has demonstrated we have the capacity to do that.”

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Kwanzaa was first organized in California, following a deadly riot over police brutality. Maulana Karenga, an activist and scholar, designed the holiday to empower communities grappling with anti-Black racism. He based Kwanzaa on the seven core principles of the Afrocentric “Kawaida” philosophy — which encourages unity and collaboration amongst people of African descent. 

The term “Kwanzaa” comes from the Swahili phrase “matunda ya kwanza,” meaning “first fruits” and the season of harvest in parts of Africa.

Fred Tooks, a lifelong North Philadelphia resident, said his family had embodied the principles of Kwanzaa since he was a young man. 

He said his parents, who owned a local fresh produce company for decades, stressed the importance of core values like collective economics and collective work and responsibility in their everyday lives. 

“[My parents] exemplified unity, building for self, and doing in the community for close to 49 years,” Tooks said. “Everyone, if they can — and I’m not knocking working for someone — if you can, try to do for yourself, so you can turn around and hire in the community. ”

Nearly two dozen people attended The African American Museum’s annual Kwanzaa celebration in person and several more joined virtually. 

The day of festivities also featured a drum circle and a health and wellness workshop. 

The museum plans to host daily Kwanzaa activities throughout the week at Franklin Square. In addition, its organizers have scheduled a similar program at the museum on Arch Street Thursday at 10 a.m.

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