Celebrating Kwanzaa: How one Brooklyn family observes this tradition
When the Boyce family celebrates Kwanzaa at their home in the Clinton-Hill section of Brooklyn, N.Y., it is more than a celebration of their cultural heritage. For Conway Boyce and his wife of 25 years, Deborah, the rituals and festivities from Dec. 26 to Jan. 1 also celebrate the true spirit of Thanksgiving, Christmas and New Year’s. Kwanzaa, say the Brooklyn natives, has become intertwined with the Christian values with which they raised their four children, Gavinn, 24, Malcolm, 15, Keila, 14, and Quincy, 10.
“It is a life lesson of honoring our elders. It reminds us of who we are as a people [and it] solidifies our beliefs in a higher order,” says Deborah.
Kwanzaa was started in the 1966 by Black Power activist Maulana Ron Karenga, Ph.D., author and professor and chair of the Department of Black Studies at California State University, who wanted to create a celebration that recognized and linked the cultural traditions and heritage of African-Americans to their African roots. Its origins are in the first harvest celebrations of east Africa. The very name Kwanzaa is derived from the Kiswahili phrase “matunda ya kwanza,” which means “first fruits.” The first Kwanzaa established the principles of unity, self-determination, collective work and responsibility, cooperative economics, purpose, creativity and faith. Collectively called Nguzo Saba, or seven principles, in Kiswahili, they are a formula for relating to each other and rebuilding our lives in our own images. Each of the seven days of Kwanzaa is dedicated to one of these principles, marked by the lighting of a candle.
For the Boyces, the principles are the foundation of a positive and fulfilling life. “As a parent you have a duty to teach your children how to be responsible, loving, and respectful adults,” says Deborah. “When you incorporate the principles into your life, they become your truth and your foundation. Once they are embedded in your life, they are part of your reflection, and it is seen in everything you do every day of your life.”
The Boyces contend that too many holidays have become commercial opportunities and have lost the connection to what is really important in life: family and community. Last April, Conway was officially ordained as a minister. He and Deborah have founded Brooklyn Covenant Ministries Inc. at 138 S. Oxford St. in Brooklyn, where Conway serves as pastor. Through their church, the couple plans to extend the Kwanzaa celebration to the larger community in the hope of reaffirming the importance of family and community togetherness. They insist that the seven principles can be embraced by every culture.
The children of the Boyce household are steeped in the cultural richness of their African-American heritage. Their brownstone home is filled with African and African-American art. Bookshelves are packed with works about the Black experience. In such an environment, Kwanzaa is eagerly anticipated every year. While Malcolm sees it as an opportunity to really enjoy being in the bosom of the family and to spend time with the elders, Quincy is more down-to-earth. “My favorite part is explaining what each principle means to me and why they are important,” he says. “I also like the food. I tell my friends that this is a special time to celebrate with family and friends.”
Indeed, the passion with which they treasure and celebrate their culture comes across forcefully in every member of the Boyce family. “What I would want anyone to walk away with is the pride and love of being African-American,” says Deborah, who serves as executive director of programs for Brooklyn Covenant Ministries. “I didn’t have that growing up, in addition to what was already stolen from our ancestors as they were brought to this country. It boils down to taking pride in who you are so that no one can make you feel less than what you are.