The room grows hotter.
Abandoned pairs of cheetah-printed flats, black-leather ankle boots and red high heels lay strewn about in between the rows of chairs at Bethel AME Church. In front of the stage, barefooted women, men and children dance vigorously to the sound of eight beating drums, their arms and legs flailing to the rhythm, their bodies giving off a collective heat. They move individually, yet their kindred joy brings a sense of connectedness, their colorful, dashiki-inspired garments creating melted blurs of rapturous color.
This is Kwanzaa in Greensboro.
“Kwanzaa is not a religious holiday,” says Dawn Hicks Tafari, one of the co-founders and the public relations coordinator of the Greensboro Kwanzaa Collective. “Kwanzaa is a celebration of African-American culture.”
Born out of the Black Power movement of the 1960s, Kwanzaa is a relatively young holiday. Created by black separatist Maulana Karenga, the celebration takes place over the course of seven days, from Dec. 26 until Jan.1.; each day represents a different principle and symbol. Seven candles on a menorah-like candleholder, called the kinara, are lit in observance each day.
“Kwanzaa provides a guidebook,” says Hicks, who has been celebrating the holiday since the late ’90s. “These are seven principles that have helped African people over time. It’s about: How can we be stronger?”
The principles include the ideas of unity, self-determination, collective work and responsibility, cooperative economics, purpose, creativity and faith.
As a child, Hicks grew up celebrating Christmas. And despite having attended Kwanzaa celebrations before, it wasn’t until she met her ex-husband that she began to seriously think about celebrating herself.
“We both expressed interest in learning more about African-American culture,” Hick says. “We wanted to grow with our African-American culture and spend time reflecting. We shared this idea of not getting caught up in the capitalism of Christmas; people go broke, people go into debt, the message gets lost. Kwanzaa is about cultural pride and community service and self-love and social justice and reflection.
“A major part of Kwanzaa is asking: Who am I? Am I who I say I am? and Am I all I ought to be?,” she says. “It’s more intentionality.”
Hicks wears a bright yellow, floor-length dress that wraps jagged stripes of orange and teal around her body. She joins the group at the front of the room, her feet bare, her long locs gathered in a bun atop her head tight enough to keep them out of her face as she begins to dance.
The community gathering at Bethel AME church on Dec. 28 marks the 10th anniversary of the Greensboro Kwanzaa Collective’s celebrations in the city. When Hicks and her co-founders Niajallah Hendrix-Wilson and JamillahNeeariah Nasir started the citywide celebrations in 2010, they picked up where other Kwanzaa enthusiasts had left off organizing the holiday years ago.
“I’ve been celebrating since the 1970s,” says Dianne Bellamy-Small, a Guilford County school board member and former Greensboro city councilwoman.
Bellamy-Small, along with others in the community, is credited with helping initiate Kwanzaa celebrations in Greensboro in the ’70s and into the ’80s. When she first began introducing the holiday, she remembers people’s difficulty with pronouncing many of the Swahili words and fully understanding the meanings of each of the symbols and principles. So, she and others hosted workshops to educate the community on what the holiday represented and how to celebrate it.
“It’s so important for us to understand the importance of passing down our history and our culture,” Bellamy-Small says.
Wearing a green, orange and blue patched jacket and a red, yellow and green cap, Bellamy-Small sits in the back corner of the church room, signing a seemingly never-ending stack of Christmas cards.
“I dress like this every day,” she says. “But some people don’t feel comfortable looking like this all the time.”
She points to the clothing and the diverse hairstyles of many of the attendees — who number more than 100 — in the packed room and explains how the holiday creates a space for black community members to fully immerse themselves in and celebrate their blackness without fear of ridicule or harm.
“It’s about the community,” she says. “It’s about identifying with a group of people that look like you; it’s beautiful.”
As the sound from the drums on stage echo throughout the space, Bellamy-Small explains how she celebrates both Christmas and Kwanzaa because they aren’t mutually exclusive. She notes how she keeps her kinara displayed throughout the year.
“You’ve got to practice these principles all year long,” she says. “Kwanzaa is principles; it’s something you live by every day.”