Northwest Philadelphia residents looking forward to Kwanzaa this year will have multiple opportunities to celebrate with the community, including an event at Imhotep Charter School on Saturday, Dec. 28 that will bring internationally-known scholar and activist Dr. Maulana Karenga to Philadelphia.

Kwanzaa, a week-long African-American and pan-African celebration, is based on ancient principles of cooperation and community. But Kwanzaa as we know it today was founded by Dr. Karenga in 1966. Now, he's a professor and chair of the department of Africana Studies at California State University at Long Beach.

Understanding Kwanzaa

Robert Dickerson, founder of the Camden and Philadelphia-based Unity Community Center and responsible for the event at Imhotep, defines Kwanzaa as a "cultural celebration honoring the contributions of African-Americans or blacks in this country."

Running from Dec. 26 to Jan. 1, Kwanzaa is an observance of African roots that focuses on nguzo saba, or the Seven Principles: umoja (unity), kujichagulia (self-determination), ujima (collective work and responsibility), ujamaa (cooperative economics), nia (purpose), kuumba (creativity), and imani (faith).

Dickerson noted that the festivities are not limited to the United States: West African countries like Senegal and European countries like France will also take part.

This year, Dr. Karenga writes on the official website, the Kwanzaa theme is "a courageous questioning...Who am I; am I really who I am; and am I all I ought to be?"

Dance and drums
An award-winning activist, educator, and martial arts expert, Dickerson founded the nonprofit UCC in 1983, which "promotes, preserves and presents" history, culture and all types of art. The following year, under the UCC umbrella, he and his wife Wanda launched the Universal African Dance & Drum Ensemble, which will perform at the Imhotep event.

Dickerson said his group's connection to Dr. Karenga goes back 14 years. "Philadelphia is a key spot that he always comes for the celebration," Dickerson said of the professor's annual trip to the east coast.

On Saturday, a marketplace featuring educational gifts for children will run at Imhotep from 3 p.m. to 9 p.m. The Kwanzaa program, including performances by the ensemble and UCC's Little Jazz Giants, some spoken word, and addresses from "prestigious community leaders" including Dr. Karenga himself, will run from 5:30 p.m. to 8:30 p.m. Tickets $10 for adults and $7 for seniors and kids 12 and under.

Kwanzaa on Cheltenham

Enon Tabernacle Baptist Church is also hosting a Kwanzaa event, spearheaded by servant leader Dawn Martin. Enon Tabernacle has two church locations: one on West Cheltenham Avenue, and one on West Coulter Street in Germantown. Its event, also on Saturday, will run from 11 a.m. to 3 p.m. at the Cheltenham location.

Martin said the day will include a Kwanzaa ceremony, the gift of a book to every child, a meal, and a vendors' market. The celebration will focus especially on the theme of music and dance in the African tradition, beginning with drums and dance (performed by local church members who have been rehearsing for the show) and then moving into jazz, Gospel, rhythm and blues and hip hop.

Joining Sonia Sanchez

And for those who want to follow a local cultural luminary closer to Center City, Germantown poet Sonia Sanchez will be anchoring a Kwanzaa event at the Church of the Advocate at 18th and Diamond Streets on Dec. 27.

Organizer Kemah Washington, a senior warden at the church, said that it'll be another chance to see the Universal African Dance and Drum Ensemble, along with a Kwanzaa ceremony and some readings from Sanchez, who will be on hand to sign copies of her book.

The event will run from 7 p.m. to 10 p.m. General admission is $10, and tickets for the vegetarian African cuisine dinner by Chef Akeem will be available for an additional $8 (all tickets are available in advance online).

Why is Kwanzaa important?

Each of these Kwanzaa organizers in Philadelphia feels strongly about why the holiday is an important one.

"There's something that digs deep into your soul," Washington said of the Seven Principles. "It makes you think about things that are going on in this world; it makes your commitment to better the world and yourself."

"It's really important for black people to have something they can call their own," he added. "Everything else is shared or society takes from us."

"The principles are something that can be thought out and practiced upon all year long," Martin said, from economic efforts in the community to a focus on creativity to the sharing of faith. "It's a reflective moment," she said, but also a non-denominational way for locals to "embrace one another as our family."

Anyone is invited to the celebration, even if they don't have African roots: "It's not that we're being anti-anyone-else, we're just being us, speaking to that truth."

"We do a lot of school assemblies, and you'd be surprised [at how] young African-American children are not even aware of their ancestry," Dickenson added, noting that's rarely true of, for example, European or Latino descendants in the US.

He added that performance arts are "a very good vehicle" for that cultural knowledge. Kwanzaa "gives us a chance to be proud of something."

Kwanzaa with the Church of the Advocate, featuring Sonia Sanchez, is on Dec. 27 from 7 p.m. to 10 p.m., 1801 West Diamond St.

Kwanzaa with Enon Tabernacle Baptist Church is on Dec. 28, featuring a day of music and dance, 11 a.m. to 3 p.m., 2800 West Cheltenham Ave.

Kwanzaa with the Unity Community Center at Imhotep Charter School, featuring Dr. Maulana Karenga, is on Dec. 28, 5:30p.m. to 8:30 p.m., 6201 N. 21st Street.