San Diego residents of different faiths, religions and cultures gathered on Sunday to celebrate Kwanzaa at the WorldBeat Cultural Center in Balboa Park.
Kwanzaa, which begins Sunday – and lasts for seven days – celebrates African American culture, history and heritage, but according to Makeda Cheatom, founder and executive director of the Worldbeat Cultural Center, the event is not just for Afro- Americans.
“Whatever your religion or color, you can come and learn about Kwanzaa,” Cheatom said. “It’s really important that the dominant culture understands our history. If we all understand each other, the world will be a lot better. “
Each of the seven days of Kwanzaa is dedicated to the celebration of seven principles. Sunday’s event centered around “Umoja”, which means unity.
“We need it,” Cheatom said. “We need it all over the world. “
The event included a traditional Kwanzaa ceremony, keynote speakers, a condensed children’s performance of “The Wiz”, poetry readings, live music, and free food for attendees. This is the first of four Kwanzaa events organized by the cultural center.
At least 100 people attended Sunday’s rally in the circular building at the edge of Balboa Park, and Cheatom said at least 200 were expected during the day.
Many attendants wore dashikis, a traditional African garment that features vivid colors and patterns. All attendants were required to wear masks to prevent the spread of COVID-19.
Alicia McElwee, a San Diego resident, said she has been attending the event for several years and this year is joining in the fun – performing with the kids in the abridged production of “The Wiz.”
“The performances are by far my favorite part,” said McElwee. “From plays to musicians, it’s just great entertainment for the community.”
On top of that, McElwee said the tradition of coming together and remembering the principles of Kwanzaa helps it stay grounded every year.
“It’s about unity, family, looking out for each other, building with each other,” she said. “These are just basic principles to not only improve yourself, but also to improve your community as a whole. “
Maxine Fischer and Laurie Renas, who live in San Diego, said they read the event a few weeks ago and thought it would be a fun way to experience a culture different from theirs.
“We didn’t know anything about it when we showed up,” Fischer said. “It seemed like a good opportunity to learn what the vacation is all about.”
Renas and Fischer said they didn’t know what to expect when they entered the center and whether they would be welcome.
“But that wasn’t the case at all,” Fischer said.
Cheatom greeted the two women as they entered and they were immediately invited to join in the celebration. They said they had seen food and live music and were eager to learn.
Poet Laureate Johnnierenee Nelson, who has written several books on Kwanzaa, its African American history and culture, said teaching Kwanzaa to others is one of her passions. She has been coming to the event for over a decade.
“Kwanzaa is not a holiday like Christmas and Hanukkah,” Nelson said. “It’s about culture. It is not about religion. There is no central figure or person to celebrate. It is a celebration of community, culture and kinship.
Nelson, who is a member of the African American Writers and Artists, Inc. of San Diego and the California Poets in the Schools program, wrote his first book on Kwanzaa in 1988. At the time, there was no authoritative literature on the celebration.
“Kwanzaa was established in 1966, and during that 22-year period there had been no volume of Kwanzaa poetry and literature,” Nelson said. “So I felt there was a hole that needed to be filled, and I could fill it. “
The Worldbeat Cultural Center will host three more Kwanzaa events this week. Each day, ceremonial candles will be lit, live music and Karamu, a traditional vegetarian soul food feast.