Cultivating Connection: A Kwanzaa Celebration

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Kwanzaa means a week of reflection and thanksgiving for Anna Richards and her family

Kwanzaa Celebration
Anna Richards (center) surrounded by (clockwise from left) her son, Spencer Brashears, friends Joal Broun and Lorie Clark, and her husband, LeRoi Brashears.

By Anne Tate | Photography by John Michael Simpson

If you walk into Anna Richards‘ Chapel Hill home around the holidays, you will be greeted by three full-sized Christmas trees, garland on every flat surface and 40 snowmen. Then there’s her extensive collection of African American angels, nutcrackers and Santa Clauses that’s 45 years in the making. “I am the biggest Christmas person in the world,” says Anna, who was appointed to the Orange County Board of County Commissioners in September and is the former president of the Chapel Hill-Carrboro NAACP branch.

Although she goes all out for Christmas, she also celebrates another December occasion: Kwanzaa.

“Kwanzaa has nothing to do with Christmas. It is a celebration to itself. It’s not a substitute,” Anna says. In 2020, for the first time in 40 years, Anna’s annual Christmas party was canceled. Instead of preparing her famous homemade eggnog, she and her family focused on making Kwanzaa extra special. “Last year, it was more meaningful, in some ways, with everything that was going on [with the pandemic].” Anna says her favorite part was when her 95-year-old mother told stories about how Anna’s grandparents and great-grandparents persevered in the segregated South.

Kwanzaa was first introduced to the United States in 1966 by California State University, Long Beach professor and Black studies chairman Maulana Karenga to honor African heritage in African American culture and draw focus away from the materialism surrounding Christmas. “It’s a week of reverence, commemoration, recommitment and celebration,” Anna says. “For me, it’s important because I think when you’re raising children, you want them to have certain values, and you want to reinforce a positive identity.”

During the week of Kwanzaa, Anna, her husband, LeRoi Brashears, and their adult children, Spencer BrashearsTaylor Brashears and Jamalia Brashears, who are scattered across the country, each plan a day of festivities. They are guided by one of seven principles: umoja (unity), kujichagulia (self-determination), ujima (collective work and responsibility), ujamaa (cooperative economics), nia (purpose), kuumba (creativity) and imani (faith). Last year, to honor ujamaa, they each committed to buy something from a Black business. LeRoi, who is a musician, composed a song to celebrate kuumba. And on the day of nia, they each wrote down what they believe is their purpose in life. “You have conversations that you might not have otherwise,” Anna says. Each night after sundown, Anna and her family discuss the day’s principle and light one of seven black, red and green candles on their kinara, or candle holder.

Since moving from Seattle in 2013, the family has attended Hayti Heritage Center’s Kwanzaa celebration for one of the seven nights. And on New Year’s Day – the final day of Kwanzaa – Anna hosts her “soul food extravaganza.” Family and friends gather for the karamu feast and eat dishes like catfish, jerk chicken, groundnut stew, black-eyed peas, collard greens, shrimp and grits and okra. “If you think of it as soul food, we have it on that table,” Anna says.

Anna says that the week of Kwanzaa is a good way to reinforce important values and also a time for reflection and thanksgiving. “To me, [Kwanzaa is] a very positive way to celebrate what it means to be of African descent in a world where we haven’t always had a way to define our own traditions,” Anna says. “To understand what the principles are is something that everyone can benefit from.” 

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Chapel Hill Magazine

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