Clayborn Benson III, founding director of the Wisconsin Black Historical Society, has celebrated Kwanzaa at the Wisconsin Black Historical Society for 31 years. Here, he reflects on Kwanzaa’s core ideas, as well as the significance of the celebration to him and his community.
What is Kwanzaa?
It is the gift of life.
It was given to us by Dr. Maulana Karenga and the US Organization. out of Los Angeles, California, in 1966.
Kwanzaa means “first fruit.” The first fruit in our everyday life is that of our families. In Africa, the first fruit is a period in which you celebrate the bringing in of the harvest.
How long have you been celebrating Kwanzaa at the Wisconsin Black Historical Society?
Thirty-one years. Kwanzaa is very important to us. It is the fiber we breathe in and create our lifestyle based on those Kwanzaa principles.
Our first year, we had maybe 10 to 12 people. And it evolved to this place, this big room being packed with people.
What is the biggest misconception or myth regarding Kwanzaa?
That it’s a religious holiday. It is not a religious holiday. It is a cultural holiday that gives us a sense of belonging to our mother nature and Africa.
What are the principles of Kwanzaa?
There are seven principles called the Nguzo Saba (En-GOO-zoh Sah-BAH) and it’s a way of life.
Umoja (oo-MOE-jah) Umoja means unity and sticking together. It means understanding each other and your brothers’ concerns with family, locally and internationally and how you fit into that.
Kujichagulia (koo-jee-cha-goo-LEE-ah) means self-determination. Being determined to achieve those things that you deem are significant and important to yourself and your families. It means getting off my butt and following my dreams and aspirations wherever they are.
Ujima-(oo-jee-mah) means collective work and responsibility. Ujima means that all of us share making this work, that all of us have a responsibility to carry our load and make the difference. We have a responsibility to participate in those things we deem important — our homes, our schools, our workplaces.
Ujamaa (oo-JAH-mah) means cooperative economics. How we’re managing our money. How we are managing our fiscal and economic growth to provide for ourselves and our families’ quality of life.
Nia (nee-AH) means purpose. To have that third eye. To have that vision for tomorrow. It means one must plan.
Kuumba (koo-OOM-bah) means creativity. Yes, art is creativity. Yes, this includes painting and writing and poetry and dance and even the way I read a book. Even the way I walk is creativity. Kuumba recognizes that each and every one of us is different and that difference in our art forms tells us that we have a responsibility to be respectful to each other regardless of our status.
Imani (ee-MAH-nee) faith. To clearly have a sense of direction and purpose. When I find myself off track and when I find myself having made mistakes, which I clearly do, I’m able to lean on and ask for support and help because none of us are perfect.
If a family or individual wanted to begin their own Kwanzaa practice, where do they start?
You should start by seeing it as a way of life. Not a religious but a cultural way of life. I would start by taking every principle seriously, reading and learning it.
What do people get when they come to Wisconsin Black Historical Society for a Kwanzaa celebration?
We try to include everybody. We try to make sure that everybody is touched by this experience. From the young kids to the college students, we bring them upfront and tell them: “We love you and much is expected of you. Hang in there and we love you.”
What are the details of your Kwanzaa celebration this year?
The Kwanzaa 2019 Opening Ceremonies are taking place at the Wisconsin Black Historical Society (2620 W. Center St.) on Thursday, Dec. 26 from 6 p.m. to 9 p.m.
We will have speakers, entertainment, dancing and drumming, as well as vendors. As always, the event is free and open to the public.
This interview has been edited and condensed for clarity.
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