Ay! Karenga

No one alive can recall a time before Christmas or Hanukkah existed. By contrast, plenty of people remember how they spent their winters before Kwanzaa emerged in 1966, and many more remain largely oblivious to it — or erroneously refer to it as “the black Christmas.”

Scholar Maulana Karenga created Kwanzaa to introduce the nguzo saba, seven guiding principles for African-American communities. On his Web site, which provides reflections on each of these values, Karenga explains that Kwanzaa and Christmas are not mutually exclusive.

Karenga also calls Kwanzaa “an African holiday created for African peoples.” But he adds that people of other nationalities are welcome to participate, if not organize. “Particular people should always be in control of and conduct their own celebrations,” Karenga writes. “Audience attendance is one thing; conducting a ritual is another.”

Co-presented by the American Jazz Museum and the Black United Front, Kansas City’s annual Citywide Kwanzaa Celebration marks the weeklong holiday in style, assigning an event to each of the nguzo saba. For example, on December 26, the first day of Kwanzaa, students from the area’s Afrocentric schools performed drum-and-dance routines to represent umoja (unity), and on Wednesday the MC Players dramatize the concept of ujima (collective work and responsibility) with an original play. Two Kwanzaas ago, the MC Players addressed breast cancer and AIDS in a comedy called That Will Kill A Cow, Won’t It?, so their take on this topic promises to be daring.

In another evening of artistic interpretation, bands and bards illustrate The Profound Purpose of the African-American Family on Thursday, with the deeply soulful jazz quartet Vibe and local laureate Glenn North heading the bill. The members of the Black Poets Collective do justice to kuumba (creativity) on Friday, and a 3 p.m. banquet on Saturday at Nefertiti Ballroom (1314 Quindaro) marks imani (faith).

Organizers encourage those attending the final-day feast to bring a dish, but it’s unnecessary to prepare for a Kwanzaa-capping gift exchange. Although it might be tempting for recent converts to mark the occasion with mass-produced Kwanzaa cards emblazoned with ethnic imagery or presents to correlate with each day’s theme, Karenga warns that such gestures dilute the holiday’s meaning. In fact, he says, making it a consumer holiday contradicts each of Kwanzaa’s tenets.

“These companies camouflage their purely commercial interest in Kwanzaa by borrowing its language and symbols to redefine it along commercial lines,” he writes. “They seek not only to sell corporation-generated Kwanzaa items, but also to introduce a full range of products as necessary for the practice of Kwanzaa.”

Serious as that sounds, though, Kwanzaa is a festive holiday, a forum for the inspiring ideas that emerge from contemporary African-American communities as well as the foods and folklore that originated in ancient Africa. The 18th and Vine District, where black jazz prodigies jam weekly next to framed portraits of the genre’s black originators, provides the perfect setting for this showcase of African-American art past and present.