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Seattle Celebrates Kwanzaa’s 50th Anniversary

Northwest African American Museum in the Central District hosts visitors of all cultures, teaching the holiday’s seven Pan-African principles.

December 30, 2016

Visitors recently gathered within the halls of the Northwest African American Museum to learn about and celebrate Kwanzaa, while creating arts and crafts that embrace the holiday’s special meaning. Seattle resident and NAAM volunteer Stacie Ford-Bonnelle played traditional African music and joyfully interacted with the small group.

“I grew up in North Carolina and Kwanzaa wasn’t a holiday I knew anything about until I turned 15 and moved to the West Coast, where I learned about the holidays Juneteenth and Kwanzaa,” says Ford-Bonnelle, explaining the wintertime holiday — now in its 50th year — didn’t receive the same recognition from members of the African-American community as it does today.

The harvest celebration, created by Dr. Maulana Karenga, a professor and chairman of Black Studies at California State University at Long Beach in 1966, was a response to the riots in the Watts neighborhood of Los Angeles over a six-day period during that year and the need to bring his community together in a positive way. Kwanzaa is a word derived from the term “matunda ya kwanza,” which means “first fruits” in Swahili, a language widely used in East Africa and the official language across many countries in the continent of Africa. 

Kwanzaa is celebrated with seven “Nguzo Saba” common principles: Umoja (Unity), Kujichaguilia (Self-Determination), Ujima (Collective Works and Responsibility), Ujamma (Cooperative Economics), Nia (Purpose), Kuumba (Creativity) and Imani (Faith).

“This is not just an African-American holiday — this is for everyone to celebrate,”  says Ford-Bonnelle, who has volunteered with NAAM for about four years. “For me, thinking about something that’s become commercialized like Christmas, Kwanzaa is more values-based, and the principles are a clear expression of those values. It’s really important for the African-American community to embrace the principles, but I think everybody can take from those — it’s truly an American holiday.”

Patrick Johnson and his daughter Queen, 7, sit at a table together and use various markers to color their own version of a Kinara, the seven candle holder that is used to illustrate the principles of the holiday.

“This is my first year celebrating Kwanzaa with my daughter,” says Johnson, who learned of the celebration from his wife, and will now be celebrating both Christmas and Kwanzaa with his family in the future. “We’ve learned much of its history today and it’s a great way to celebrate our African culture.”

For others like Sarah Hamilton, this afternoon spent at Northwest African American Museum is a way to teach her daughters Lily, 6, and Adelina, 3, about cultural diversity.

“We live in the neighborhood and are always seeking out ways to experience different traditions, cultures and forms of art,” Hamilton says as her kids color a Kinara together and design their own bookmark listing the Nguzo Saba. “Besides, this is a fun way for us to spend time together.”

Various children’s books about Kwanzaa are also showcased nearby to teach kids about the holiday, each in its own unique way. Throughout the rest of the museum visitors can be seen milling about and experiencing African-Amerian history in the Pacific Northwest through numerous interactive exhibits and displays.

Linda Battles, a longtime resident and board member with Seattle’s Low Income Housing Institute, is visiting on this particular day for the Kwanzaa celebration, but finds herself inside the city’s historical Colman School building where NAAM is housed on a regular basis.

“This is the heart of the community for me. This space allows me to get back to my roots whenever I want,” says Battles, who moments before was conversing with volunteer Stacie Ford-Bonnelle.

Although Ford-Bonnelle believes all of Kwanzaa’s Nguzo Saba to be important, Umoja is in the forefront of her mind as we enter a new year with some significant changes promised for the United States.

“If we’re going to put the principles in order of importance, unity right now is the one I hold highest. We’ll celebrate Martin Luther King’s birthday next month, the first African-American president will end his two terms next month,” Ford-Bonnelle says  introspectively  as she begins to  think about the past and our future collectively as Americans.


Matt Mills McKnight

Matt Mills McKnight is a visual storyteller and journalist who covers a variety of political, social and environmental issues in the Pacific Northwest. He enjoys finding stories in his own South Seattle neighborhood, as well as researching projects throughout the rest of the city and region that he believes will inspire thought and discussion among viewers. Matt joined the KCTS 9 team in December, 2016. Previously he was a photo editor at MSN News and a freelance photojournalist covering many of the region's major news stories for a variety of news organizations.

More stories by Matt Mills McKnight