Baba Eli Hoenai, a founding member of the MUNTU Dance Theater, led the roughly 120-people packed tightly inside Sankofa Cultural Arts Center’s Mandela Hall in a drum call.
The musician remembers life before 1966 — the year Kwanzaa was first celebrated. He was 17 when he first began seeking out who he was as a person of African descent.
“I realized there were a lot of things I didn’t know about myself as an African American and there was a lot I wasn’t learning in the schools,” he said during the annual Kwanzaa festival at Sankofa, 5820 W. Chicago Ave. Dec. 27.
Hoenai said that, since its founding by Black Nationalist leader Maulana Karenga in 1965, Kwanzaa has done for a lot of people what he had to do for himself when he was just a teenager.
“It has lifted the self-esteem of a lot of black people and given a lot of people purpose in life,” he said.
Lawrence Perkins, a school principal and motivational speaker, was standing at a booth in an area designated for vendors as Hoenai performed his drum roll in the big room named after South Africa’s late leader. Perkins was promoting his passion project, a children’s book called Lil Fella’s Big Dream: Overcoming Bullying with Determination.
Perkins said that, while Kwanzaa has done a lot to bring awareness to African American and pan-African culture, there’s still a long way to go.
“We need to know more about our black culture and they need to incorporate more of African American culture into the curriculum in CPS [Chicago Public Schools],” he said.
Directly across from Perkins’s table of books, Sherrie Chapman, the owner of Sherrie’s Earrings and Things, vended her wares in symbolic contention with Perkins’s point. Chapman’s table was enshrined with various kinds of Obama merchandise, including a board game called “Obama-Mania: Race to the White House.”
“Some of my suppliers have already stopped with the Obama merchandise,” Chapman said. “People need to get it now, because it will only go up in value. He’s the first black president, so these things will be keepsakes,” she said.
A glance at the Obama mementos and the Afrocentric wares — there were even copies of W.E.B. DuBois’s classic The Souls of Black Folk — and it wouldn’t be so easy to distinguish where black culture ended and American culture began.
For Marseil Jackson, a local youth advocate and candidate for 28th Ward alderman, last Saturday’s event itself was enough. Sankofa’s annual celebration each year attracts a coterie of personalities and political cliques that span the ideological spectrum.
Mayoral candidates Bob Fioretti, Willie Wilson and Jesus “Chuy” Garcia were in attendance, as were a bevy of aldermanic candidates and a host of political figures, many of whom make it a point to be here each year — U.S. Rep. Danny K. Davis (7th), Cook County Commissioner Richard Boykin (1st) and state Sen. Don Harmon (39th).
“Of course, the first day of Kwanzaa is unity,” Jackson said. “So it’s nice to see us come out and celebrate something positive. This is a happy occasion.”
But for Hoenai, there are costs of constructing too big a tent.
Although he is proud of what he believes is Kwanzaa’s ever-increasing relevance among both African Americans and within the wider American culture, he cautioned against diluting the holiday to make it more palatable to the mainstream — lest it go the way of Christmas or Halloween or Easter.
“You always have vultures who are going to try to commercialize and capitalize off of what we’re doing, but those of us who know better will do better and keep this in its raw form,” he said.