Encyclopedia of Greater Philadelphia

Christina Harris


Because of its large African American population and the presence and influence of prominent Black Nationalist individuals and organizations, the Philadelphia area has been especially active in celebrating Kwanzaa, an African cultural holiday that emerged out of the Black Nationalist Movement of the 1960s. Kwanzaa emphasizes remembering and reconstructing African identity, which was forcibly erased in the United States by enslavement of African peoples.

[caption id="attachment_22321" align="alignright" width="300"]A black and white photograph of a teacher and a group of children lighting a candle with other Kwanzaa symbols around Philadelphia's large African American population led to the city's early adoption of Kwanzaa activities. The first celebrations in Philadelphia were held in 1968. (Special Collections Research Center, Temple University Libraries)[/caption]

Created by California State University Professor Maulana Karenga (b. 1941) in 1966, Kwanzaa is a nonreligious holiday that originates from the Swahili phrase “matunda ya kwanzaa,” meaning “first fruits of the harvest.” The holiday is fashioned to represent the various harvest festivals that take place in many African communities and is rooted in a tradition that extends back to ancient Egyptian civilization. Kwanzaa is celebrated from December 26 to January 1 with each day focusing on one of seven principles that make up the Nguzo Saba—Umoja (unity), Kujichagulia (self-determination), Ujima (collective work and responsibility), Ujamaa (cooperative economics), Nia (purpose), Kuumba (creativity), and Imani (faith). While no official statistics exist, Karenga has estimated that Kwanzaa is celebrated by up to twenty-eight million people around the world.

Celebration of Kwanzaa in Philadelphia began as early as 1968, when Falaka Fattah (b. 1931) and her husband, David Fattah (b.1943), cofounded a group home for troubled African American males called the House of Umoja. This grassroots project, named after the first principle of Kwanzaa, incorporated all seven principles in daily operations as a methodology for ending gang wars in Philadelphia. The House also held an annual Kwanzaa celebration in conjunction with its anniversary. In 1969, the Urban Survival Training Institute organized one of the first large community Kwanzaa celebrations in Philadelphia. During the 1970s several cooperative groups--including the Camden Kwanzaa Committee, the Kwanzaa Planning Committee, and the Kwanzaa Cooperative--formed to organize Kwanzaa celebrations in the greater Philadelphia region.

Reginald Mtumishi (1945-2009), cofounder and chairman of the Kwanzaa Cooperative, was also an early celebrant of Kwanzaa who influenced its proliferation in Philadelphia. A student and friend of Maulana Karenga, Mtumishi brought the Kwanzaa creator to Philadelphia each year to be the keynote speaker for one of the many events he organized during the week of Kwanzaa. Additionally, Mtumishi introduced the holiday to the Philadelphia Department of Human Services and organized celebrations at the Free Library of Philadelphia each year, contributing greatly to the local growth and acceptance of the holiday.

[caption id="attachment_22319" align="alignright" width="300"]A color photograph of Baba Abiodun in clerical dress in front of a stained glass window Storyteller and preacher Baba Abiodun created one of the first documentaries about Kwanzaa, 1983's Kwanzaa: The Gathering of a People. He was chair of the Kwanzaa Planning Committee from 1971 to 1974 and continued to perform in Kwanzaa festivities with the Unity Community Center's Universal African Dance and Drum Ensemble. (Unity Community Center)[/caption]

Philadelphia area residents have been influential in promoting the principles and celebration of Kwanzaa both locally and internationally. In 1980 Baba Abiodun (also known as Phillip Harris, b. 1937) produced the award-winning film Kwanzaa: The Gathering of a People, one of the first major documentaries on Kwanzaa. Baba Abiodun also served as chair of the Kwanzaa Planning Committee from 1971-74 and performed as a griot (storyteller) at many Kwanzaa and African cultural events with the nationally acclaimed Universal African Dance and Drum Ensemble, founded at the Unity Community Center in Camden, New Jersey, by Robert Dickerson (b. 1954) and his wife, Wanda. (b. 1957). For years, the Dickersons and their ensemble participated in Reginald Mtumishi’s Kwanzaa celebrations in Philadelphia. Following Mtumishi’s death in 2009, the Dickersons took over hosting the yearly celebration that featured the ensemble and Maulana Karenga.

While many people celebrate Kwanzaa at home with family, communal celebrating also has been emphasized. Each December, pre-Kwanzaa activities held by civic, community, religious, and education organizations have included workshops, forums, bazaars, and instructional candle lighting ceremonies to educate the community about how to celebrate Kwanzaa, provide opportunities to purchase Kwanzaa-related items, and spread information about Kwanzaa events. Celebrations have included dance drum exhibits and workshops, arts and crafts, candle-lighting ceremonies, art exhibits, storytelling, and spoken word and poetry readings.

[caption id="attachment_22318" align="alignright" width="208"]a black and white headshot of Dr. Molefi Kete Asante The MKA Institute, founded by Temple University's Dr. Molefi Kete Asante, hosts an annual Kwanzaa celebration. (Special Collections Research Center, Temple University Libraries)[/caption]

Beginning in 1986, the African American Studies Department at Temple University hosted an annual Kwanzaa celebration for its students and the Philadelphia community. Molefi Kete Asante (b. 1942), chair of the department and founder of the first doctoral program in the field of Black Studies, also began an annual Kwanzaa celebration at the MKA Institute (an African think tank and nonprofit public policy organization) in conjunction with the Philadelphia chapter of Afrocentricity International. Asante’s son, M.K. Asante (b. 1982), directed the award-winning Kwanzaa documentary The Black Candle, narrated by Maya Angelou (1928-2014).

In 2013, Oshunbumi Fernandez (b. 1974), lead organizer of Philadelphia’s annual Odunde festival, collaborated with celebrated music producer Kenny Gamble (b. 1943) to start Kwanzaabration—a community event that aimed to educate children and adults about Kwanzaa and to foster a yearlong celebration of the principles of Kwanzaa. The project carried on the goals of Kwanzaa’s founders to demonstrate and defend the cultural unity of Africans both on the continent and throughout the diaspora.

Christina Afia Harris is a Ph.D. candidate in the department of Africology and African American Studies at Temple University. This essay is derived from her research and her personal experience celebrating Kwanzaa.

ODUNDE Festival

[caption id="attachment_22354" align="aligncenter" width="575"]color photo of ODUNDE festival celebrants moving west on South Street to present offerings at the Schuylkill River. Hundreds of ODUNDE Festival celebrants move along South Street en route to the Schuylkill River to present offerings to the Yoruba deity Oshun. (Photograph by Donald D. Groff for The Encyclopedia of Greater Philadelphia)[/caption]

The ODUNDE Festival, held in South Philadelphia each year on the second Sunday in June, celebrates the history and heritage of African people around the globe and serves to instill and encourage cultural pride. Taking its name from the word meaning “Happy New Year” in the Yoruba language (placed in all capital letters by the festival founders for emphasis), the event celebrates the coming of another year for Africans in America and throughout the diaspora. From its origins in 1975, the festival became one of the largest and longest-running African American street festivals in the United States.      

[caption id="attachment_19664" align="alignright" width="300"]A view of vendors and their patrons during the ODUNDE festival. Vendors draw crowds of shoppers during the ODUNDE festival, which begins with a procession from Twenty-Third and South Streets to the Schuylkill River. (Visit Philadelphia)[/caption]

The festival grew from an idea conceived by South Philadelphia resident Lois Fernandez (1936-2017) with the help of her friend Ruth Arthur (b. 1933) after a trip to Nigeria, West Africa, in 1972. Her concept drew from African cultural heritage, specifically the Oshun Festival of the Yoruba people in Nigeria. The first event (originally called the Oshun Festival) in 1975 was made possible by a $100 grant from Philadelphia’s Southwest Center City Community Council and the support of Fernandez’s neighbors. In 1976, Councilman John Anderson (1942-83) awarded a $5,000 grant. After two years, propelled by the cultural movement sweeping the nation in the wake of the civil rights struggle, the festival grew explosively and began to draw people from around the region. “Our neighborhood needed something,” Fernandez said. “We didn’t have anything to connect to. The whites have the Mummers, Now we have ODUNDE.”

While the black community embraced the festival, increasing gentrification in South Philadelphia led to opposition by some new occupants of the neighborhood. In 1984 a group of residents collected signatures and petitioned City Hall to remove the festival, stating that it had grown too large for the neighborhood. The city offered Fernandez a subsidy to move the event to Penn’s Landing, but because of the racial undertones of the complaints and the tradition of using the South Street Bridge to present offerings to Oshun, she refused. Over the years other residents and neighborhood groups also tried suing to stop the event, but with the support of the black community, Fernandez succeeded in keeping the festival in its original South Street location and responded to the opposition by expanding.

[caption id="attachment_19665" align="alignright" width="300"]A street-corner dancer goes airborne to the delight of festivalgoers during the annual ODUNDE festival. A street-corner dancer delights ODUNDE festival goers with an impromptu dance performance. (Visit Philadelphia)[/caption]

By 2015, the festival had grown to attract many thousands of celebrants and and more than one hundred vendors over the space of twelve city blocks. Sponsored and hosted by ODUNDE Inc., a South Philadelphia-based cultural organization established in 1983 to provide cultural enrichment for African American people, the festival sustained a communal, familial, and spiritual atmosphere through the efforts of several hundred volunteers and a board of directors, Fernandez (the organization’s president), and her daughter, Oshunbumi Fernandez (executive director). One veteran attendee, Junious Stanton, wrote in 2003 that “being at Odunde is like a mystical baptism. The festival there immerses you in a vibratory sea of blackness. You get dipped into a positive spirit of being African and come up revived, energized, and feeling good.”

The festival evolved to include a variety of pre-festival events, including networking opportunities, cultural and historical panels, zumba classes, library and museum exhibits, an African business roundtable, an African diplomatic ambassador reception. The festival officially begins with a procession from Twenty-Third and South Streets to the Schuylkill River to honor the Yoruba orisha (deity) Oshun, the goddess of the river, who is associated with love, beauty, femininity and fertility. Participants usually wear white clothing or traditional African attire and make their pilgrimage to pour libations, offer prayers and incantations, and give offerings of honey, fruit, flowers, or money while accompanied by drumming and dancing.

[caption id="attachment_19666" align="alignright" width="207"]A vendor showing off some traditional African wares during the ODUNDE festival. Vendors offering wares from all over the world gather in South Philadelphia to create a vibrant African marketplace. (Visit Philadelphia)[/caption]

The procession then makes its way back from the river to the festival area, a vibrant re-creation of an African marketplace. In the streets packed with participants, vendors from all over the African diaspora sell African and Caribbean food, crafts, clothing, art, and jewelry. Performances on two main stages—one on South Street and one on Grays Ferry Avenue—feature entertainment ranging from rap and hip hop to fashion shows to tap dancing to African drumming and traditional dances. Impromptu street performances occur on nearby street corners.

In 2011, Oshunbumi Fernandez (b. 1974) created ODUNDE 365 to build a cultural movement beyond the festival. This organization promotes the principles of the festival year-round through African drumming and dancing classes for children, African arts courses, a self-esteem program for young girls called “I AM BUMI” (Beautiful, Unique, Magnificent, Individual), and a program called “My Story,” which promotes success through local, influential professionals sharing their stories with young people. In 2013 the organization collaborated with Philadelphia music legend Kenneth Gamble (b. 1943) to create Kwanzaabration, an event to educate children and adults about Kwanzaa and the holiday’s seven principles.

Although it started from humble beginnings, ODUNDE evolved into a prominent community staple and celebration of the cultural heritage of African people around the globe. Seeking to instill and encourage cultural pride throughout the year, the festival has demonstrated the impact that committed individuals may have on their local, national, and international communities.

Christina Afia Harris is a Ph.D. candidate in the Department of Africology and Africana Studies at Temple University. This essay is derived from her research and her experience as an ODUNDE participant.

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