About 150 people packed the Robert Crown Community Center gym Monday for the Kwanzaa Festival to mark the first day of the weeklong holiday. Kwanzaa, inaugurated by activist and professor Maulana Karenga in 1966, is an occasion to celebrate African history and heritage.

Lucia Luckett-Kelly, a drama instructor and performing artist, said the Kwanzaa Festival was livelier this year. Credit: Manan Bhavnani

After being livestreamed last year, the festival returned in person Monday.

“I think it was more energetic this year with an audience. You could feel it,” said Lucia Luckett-Kelly, a drama instructor and performing artist who introduced performers at the event.

She called the festival “a gathering of old and new friends” and an opportunity to interact with people.

The first day of the holiday, which celebrates seven values in African culture, is centered around the spirit of “umoja” – Swahili for unity. The festival Monday featured dance, music and storytelling performances, as well as about 20 vendors selling everything from spices to shirts to Jamaican food and more.

Tony “Toneji” Garrett leads a drum circle. Playing together is important for community, he said. “Nowadays with social distancing, everybody has gotten separated.” Credit: Richard Cahan

For Evanston drummer, songwriter and teacher Tony “Toneji” Garrett, the occasion held great significance.

“Kwanzaa to me means a new invigoration of the spirit of Africa,” he said.

Garrett led a drum circle during the festival and also accompanied nationally recognized storyteller Stephanie Davenport as she performed the book Seven Spools of Thread by Angela Shelf Medearis.

Garrett stressed the role of drums in Kwanzaa and in African culture. Drums serve as a medium of communication and as a symbol of unity, he said. “Drums are spiritual, drums are social.”

Shelby Preister (left) and her mother Dereka Ross sold shirts at the Kwanzaa Festival. Credit: Richard Cahan

Evanston business owner Dereka Ross said she and her daughter don’t usually celebrate Kwanzaa at home, but the holiday is important to them.

“The seven principles is something that should empower everybody and should be part of everybody’s life,” Ross said.

Ross is the owner of Reka’s Crafty Creations, which sells “statement tees” – T-shirts with a message.

Ross and her daughter, Shelby Preister, celebrate the holiday at Family Focus, the Evanston-based nonprofit that promotes early childhood development and supports families.

The festivities Monday at Robert Crown brought together people across different communities.

Kwanzaa “gives us qualities to live by. It’s inclusive. It’s for everybody,” said Andrea Vinson, artistic director of Najwa Dance Corps, a Chicago-based group that specializes in dances from the African American diaspora that were performed at the community center.

Paul Sexton and his son, Caleb, 7, attended the city’s Kwanzaa Festival for the first time on Monday. Credit: Manan Bhavnani

“I think it was interesting and entertaining” to experience another holiday and a different culture, said Evanston resident Paul Sexton, a software engineer who brought along his 7-year-old son, Caleb, to the festival. It was their first time commemorating Kwanzaa.

Manan Bhavnani

Prior to joining the RoundTable, Manan Bhavnani covered business and technology for the International Business Times, with a focus on mergers, earnings and governance. He is a double Medill graduate, with...

Leave a comment

The RoundTable will try to post comments within a few hours, but there may be a longer delay at times. Comments containing mean-spirited, libelous or ad hominem attacks will not be posted. Your full name and email is required. We do not post anonymous comments. Your e-mail will not be posted.

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *