Friday, Dec. 1, the Sadler Center’s Chesapeake B came alive with chatter and music as students gathered for an early celebration of a cherished winter holiday. The College of William and Mary’s Center for Student Diversity, along with several student organizations, hosted Pre-Kwanzaa in recognition of Kwanzaa, an annual African American holiday traditionally celebrated from Dec. 26 to Jan. 1. For the event, the room was arranged with round tables for attendees, a buffet with a variety of food and a table that held the Kinara, a candle holder, with its seven unlit candles, which are some of the primary symbols of this cultural celebration.
“Kwanzaa is a celebration that has been going on since the late 60s, early 70s, and we don’t talk about that often. That’s not on a lot of our calendars, our holiday calendar,” Assistant Director of the Center for Student Diversity Dyamond Howell said. “The objective is to learn a little more about African American history, and about the history of this cultural tradition.”
This cultural holiday further aims to bring families and communities together by focusing on seven main principles: Umoja (Unity), Kujichagulia (Self-Determination), Ujima (Collective Work and Responsibility), Ujamaa (Cooperative Economics), Nia (Purpose), Kuumba (Creativity) and Imani (Faith). Janeé Thomas ’24, one of the speakers at the event, referenced these core ideas in her opening speech.
“The seven-day observation of Kwanzaa focuses on timeless universal truths, principles that are pillars of faith rooted in our traditions and give us purpose, identity and direction,” Thomas said.
The Candlelight Ceremony is one of the major rituals of Kwanzaa, in which the community gathers on each day of the holiday to commemorate one of the seven principles by lighting one of the candles in the Kinara, beginning with Umoja and ending with Imani. On the final day of the celebration, all seven candles stand lit together.
The College’s Pre-Kwanzaa highlighted the significance of these values in African American culture through a shorter version of the Candlelight Ceremony and a variety of speeches and performances from student-run organizations like the African Cultural Society and the Black Student Organization in collaboration with the CSD.
“Imani encourages individuals to maintain faith in the face of challenges, to believe in the potential for positive change, and to trust in our collective efforts to bring about a better future,” event speaker Temiloluwa Abiodun ’25 said. “It is a reminder that even in difficult times, having faith in oneself, in the community, can be a source of strength and resilience in addition to, of course, religion.”
In connection with this principle, the Ebony Expressions Gospel Choir performed their interpretation of the hymn “Lift Every Voice and Sing,” often considered by many to be the Black National Anthem.
“I think that there’s a connection with singing in every culture and every celebration, really. It just shifts from place to place,” member of the Ebony Choir Marco Gil Harris ’27 said. “And this is a specific celebration of not only African culture, but African American culture, which is why we sing ‘Lift Every Voice.’ It means a lot historically, and it means a lot culturally.”
Harris also expressed his gratitude for being able to participate in this cultural holiday and its celebration at the College.
“I think that learning about what each candle means and what principle each day is celebrating is very worthwhile,” Harris said. “I think it’s very clearly a moment of reflection for the end of a very long year, which is pretty interesting. It’s just always interesting to learn about new cultures, but I definitely thought it was a very beautiful way of looking at it.”
Kaya Lee ’24, a member of the College’s National Pan-Hellenic Council who delivered a speech at the event, also shared her personal takeaways from the event.
“It was definitely an interesting experience, my first Pre-Kwanzaa being one where I had to speak,” Lee said. “So it was definitely a fun celebration, and I had a good time learning about Kwanzaa because I didn’t know all that much beforehand.”
An annually recurring tradition at the College, this year’s Pre-Kwanzaa has been in the works for the last three months as student organizations collaborated with the CSD to bring the event into fruition, according to Howell.
“It’s a large group effort. It’s a lot of our student organizations as we saw tonight doing the heavy lifting. But essentially we have a student emcee, our presiding griot, and we work with the student organizations to have them really make this their own and talk about what Kwanzaa means to them. We delve a little into the history of Kwanzaa. We do a little background research, but obviously, because this has been going on for years, a lot of that’s already been done for us,” Howell said.
Howell also reflected on the event’s inclusivity as it provided a space for attendees of all different backgrounds to partake in the cultural holiday and its associated traditions.
“Not everybody in this room is African American. I think that just shows that a lot of people want to learn, and whether they have time to sit in the Center, come on every day, or whether or not they are African American, they are putting in the time to learn about cultural traditions that they might not be familiar with,” Howell said. “I think this just shows that William and Mary’s students want to build community, and they’ll find that whether that’s learning or if it’s just coming together.”