Holidays in Philly

What’s on the Kwanzaa table at the African American Museum in Philadelphia

The “first fruits of the harvest,” displayed.

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Cassie Owens/Billy Penn
Cassie Owens, Reporter/Curator

Ah, why does the holiday season have to go?

Today is the last day of Kwanzaa, so to mark the occasion we headed to the candle-lighting ceremony over at the African American Museum in Philadelphia (AAMP).

We asked Stephanie Cunningham, AAMP’s curator of education who led the ceremony, to tell us what the museum puts into its Kwanzaa spread. The items on the holiday table, aside from the fresh fruit and vegetables, have been used in celebrations through the years.

Kwanzaa, officially in existence for 50 years now, owes its name to the Swahili term “matunda ya kwanza,” which translates to “first fruits of the harvest.” That term, Cunningham explained, is the basis not only of the holiday but any good Kwanzaa table. There should be produce to show abundance, and baskets in which to hold it. In West African traditions, a harvest calls for music and dancing, so there’s room for instruments in the spread too. The jewelry might seem out of place, but ideally, the natural materials and natural dyes used to create them come from the crops too.

The values at heart, Cunningham said, are “to harvest and grow, to be able to feed the community and sustain oneself.”

Both books on the table were written by Ntozake Shange, author of the classic play For Colored Girls Who Have Considered Suicide/When the Rainbow Is Enuf. The piece provides inspiration for an AAMP exhibition currently on display, i found god in myself: the 40th anniversary of Ntozake Shange’s for colored girls, which will leave the museum next week. Kwanzaa espouses unity across the diaspora. Cunningham said Shange’s work pushes “looking into our diaspora as black women.”

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Cassie Owens
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Cassie Owens/Billy Penn