The mainstays of the annual Kwanzaa celebration in Denver were so happy to be together in person this year. COVID pushed the gathering into virtual territory in 2020. This year, face masks couldn’t contain the emotions inside Cleo Parker’s Robinson Dance Theatre.
“We are empowered as individuals to create the space we need and want for ourselves,” Kameelah Sims-Traylor told the crowd on Sunday night. “We are doing it right now. We do it here.
Sims-Traylor, who is finishing a law degree at the University of California, Hastings, grew up in Denver but hasn’t been able to return home as much as she’d like because of the pandemic. Although many things, like classes, can be done virtually, it was a time she was determined to return to in person.
“I was very emotional when I arrived,” she said after the show. “I came in hot!”
Sims-Traylor is driven by social justice. This is what motivated her pursuit of law and, she hopes, an eventual career as an international investigative journalist. Her professional goals revolve around a desire to strengthen community values and steer society away from the consumerism she sees destroying the planet and disenfranchising people. But you don’t need a law degree to effect positive change, she said. This theater, filled with people committed to each other, is a place where this work has been going on for a long time.
“It absolutely amplifies people’s resilience and power, and it allows us to come together and see that we’re strong together and we’re strong separately,” she told us. “We are strong as individuals and we are strong as a collective.”
Kwanzaa was born out of a struggle over 50 years ago. People here said his message is as relevant today as it was in the 1960s.
Brother Jeff Fard, a major figure in Denver’s black community and Sims-Traylor’s uncle, was quick to point out that the holiday is not religious. On stage, he reminded visitors of his foundation.
Kwanzaa, he told them, was a product of Watts Rebellion that erupted in Los Angeles in 1965, protests generated by a traffic stop that quickly turned into mass unrest over police brutality. In 1966, California State University, professor at Long Beach Maulana Karenga created the party as a pathway to community healing, Fard told the crowd. It was an effort to build unity at a time of social fracture.
Each of the seven nights of Kwanzaa is anchored by a single value. The seventh night, “Imani”, talks about faith in the community. The sixth night, “Kuumba”, is dedicated to creativity and working to improve this community. The fifth night, “Nia”, is all about finding purpose. The fourth night, “Ujamaa”, is centered on the “cooperative economy”, eliminating individualism from the creation of wealth. On the third night, “Ujima” is about collective responsibility. The second night, “Kujichagulia”, focuses on self-determination. And the first night, presided over by Fard Sunday, is “Umoja,” or unity.
These ideas, Fard told us, are universal principles. Anyone of any creed or race should feel welcome in celebrating Kwanzaa. On the one hand, people who have no connection to the holidays are invited to participate as they would at the Dragon Boat Festival in Denver or Cinco De Mayo. But Fard said these ideas could go far beyond cultural immersion.
“In 2021, this country is more divided than it has ever been. This country needs unity right now. This country must have a sense of identity, self-determination, cooperative work and responsibility. All of these principles could heal the political divide, the social divide,” he told us. “Kwanzaa, these principles, are more relevant today than they were in 1966.”
Beyond these universal truths, Sunday night was a time for Denver’s black community to keep its history alive.
Fard spoke about America’s original sin, slavery, and how it set the stage for the country we live in today.
“Water is the friend of all living things, and we’ve come a long way. They say six million of our ancestors are buried at the bottom of the Atlantic, those who did not survive,” he said, ceremoniously pouring droplets into a plant on stage. “We remember them and say, ‘Ashe.'”
Ashé, for the uninitiated, means “be with usor “Amen”.
The struggles that black residents of America have faced since many of their ancestors were forcibly brought here were present throughout the evening.
But the celebration was also a moment to recognize members of the community who have long championed unity and self-determination. Sims-Traylor placed knit sashes around the shoulders of newly inducted “Circle of Wisdom” elders in her community.
And Yasmeen Nkrumah-Elie, who was on stage with the Intergenerational Women’s African Drumming and Dance Ensemble, dedicated a warrior dance to someone dear to her.
“We dedicate this dance to one of our newly enthroned ancestors. Dr. Sharon Bailey,” she told the crowd, fighting back tears. “Dr. Bailey was one of our silent storm freedom fighters. She fought and fought on our behalf, in the halls of education, at the Denver School Board. At the Department of Colorado Education and Denver Public Schools.
Bailey, who died this month, wrote a scathing report on the racist infrastructure of Denver’s school system that held back both students and teachers of color. She was known as the district’s ‘moral compass’ and, in this room, was a symbol of the power of the community.
As she addressed the room full of children and elders, Sims-Traylor reminded everyone that they have the ability to harness this kind of influence.
“You can really create the environment you want to see,” she said. “I really just want to be able to empower people and allow them to recognize that the power is within and it’s always there. We are resilient. We know that. But let others know too.
Correction: “Ashé” was originally misspelled.