By Shoshana Akua Brown
Prologue: This is just my story of the creation of Kwanzakkah. I’m sure I wasn’t the first person to think of this holiday, nor the first to say the word Kwanzakkah out loud. I imagine tons of Black Jews saying it regularly amongst their families, creating new ritual as they go. I hope one day to hear the stories of all the ways Kwanzakkah has met and sustained Black Jews in their aliveness. I would be remiss to not acknowledge the ways in which the celebration of Kwanzaa has been tarnished by the abhorrent actions of the founder. I strongly believe in the principles of restorative justice and the power of this celebration, which goes beyond any container one person can hold by themselves. Kwanzaa is and always will be about community.
After a long night of dancing, drumming, and singing as loud as she could in a gymnasium with horrible acoustics, 12-year-old Shoshana and her mom rushed home tired and achy to light the menorah before soaking in a bath and heading off to bed. She hummed the song resonating in her head from the night’s celebrations: “Black is for the color of our skin… we who are the children of the ancient Africans” blended right into “al ha’nissim v’al hapurkan.”
Growing up, I was the only person I knew who celebrated both Hanukkah and Kwanzaa. This isolation is a typical experience of mixed race folks my age. Thankfully my parents agreed on the importance of celebrating my full self and honoring my full heritage. In my home, this meant that for many years the menorah sat on the kente cloth right next to the kinara (a Swahili word meaning the candelabra used during the Kwanzaa celebration). At 15, already the hardworking organizer and also typical Sagittarius party lover, I convinced my mom to host a Kwanzakkah celebration. Equipped with homemade ritual guides to explain each part of the celebration to friends and family, we hosted more than 20 people to participate in a celebration that included pouring libations and saying brachot.
Kwanzaa is a beautiful celebration in the Black community, born in 1965 to generate a sense of pride and honor. It is a seven day celebration centering a different principle each day and using symbolic items during the celebration. These seven principles encourage us to be reflective and focus on the importance of community. The principles of Unity and Cooperative Economics move us away from the capitalist black hole of the holiday season and into community. Kwanzaa is resistance in action, not merely a recounting of the history of our white supremacist, capitalist society, but an active embodiment of the struggle against it.
Hanukkah is a beautiful story of resistance and resilience. The Hanukkah story of the desecration of a sacred site feels too close to home this year as I write this in the midst of breaking news about the desecration of a synagogue in California. In times like these, the story of Hanukkah can point us towards hope and power. The principle of Imani — Faith — during Kwanzaa, and the hope present in the story of Hanukkah, is medicine for our current political moment, inviting us to focus our minds on Faith and Hope in the glow of both sets of candles burning brightly in homes across the country and world.
Kwanzakkah, since I first imagined it, has grown into a powerful and beautiful celebration, dreamed up by a collective of Black Jews called Black Yids Matter (BYM) and celebrated across the country. This dream of Kwanzakkah, complete in its current iteration with new blessings, invitations into social justice action, and activities for building community, is powerful because of the caliber of the heart and devotion of BYM. This passionate collective of Black Jews includes organizers, liturgists, poets, academics, soon-to-be-Rabbis, and a Kohenet.
Black Yids Matter (BYM) is a collaborative initiative uniting and giving voice to Black Jews in the United States. BYM is led by Black Jews dedicated to transforming the community through cultural engagement, organizing and activism, education, and community building. We aim to support Black Jews existing in the intersection of racism and antisemitism. Our goals are to end white supremacy and ensure that all people are free to exist and thrive.
Kwanzakkah is but one project of BYM that is oriented towards our cultural organizing work and collective liberation. For us, Kwanzakkah is the not-so-secret note to all young Black Jews to remind them of commUNITY. It’s meant to inspire COURAGE to continue boldly stepping into the world as their full selves, unapologetically. I’d like to imagine this Kwanzakkah guide as a love letter to my younger self: everything I wanted and dreamed of and knew could exist— because if I was dreaming this up by myself, others must also be having this same dream.
This year, to generate community and celebration, BYM is inviting all Black Jews and their families to participate in Kwanzakkah on December 29th on a zoom call. We also hosted a live celebration on December 23rd in New York City. This event was lively, with over 25 people including young children, teens, and adults. Attendees traveled across state lines seeking community and joy, which they found in the glow of the Kwanzakkah candles.
Download, read, and share the amazing Kwanzakkah guide! For inquiries into specifics on the events email firstname.lastname@example.org.
Kohenet Shoshana Akua Brown, LMSW is a Black mixed race Jewish femme from the Bronx; a healer and organizer for the liberation of all people.