A stilt-walker leads the crowd celebrating Kwanzaa in the auditorium of the African American Museum in Philadelphia

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Philly got serious about showing up for Kwanzaa this year. At the African American Museum in Philadelphia, where festivities have been held annually for more than a decade, organizers saw triple the attendance compared to 2018, they told Billy Penn.

On Thursday, the first night of the celebration of African American family, community and culture, the museum at 7th and Arch in Center City was overflowing with nearly 400 people — all enjoying food and drink, storytelling and music and dance.

“It’s the biggest I’ve seen,” said E. Rebecca Stone, a museum volunteer who has performed in the event for the last three years. “There was a line outside. I had to sneak in the side door.”

So many people showed up that it presented a literal fire hazard. Usually held in the museum’s auditorium, the free bash was expanded to the entire building to accommodate the crowd. Attendees were surrounded on all sides by folks playing their drums, singing both historic and contemporary tunes — even walking on stilts.

Nearly 400 people showed up to celebrate the first night of the secular holiday Credit: Michaela Winberg / Billy Penn

To kick off the holiday, created in 1966 by California State University professor Maulana Karenga, educational programming manager Hannah Wallace greeted the crowd with the traditional “Habari Gani?” — the Swahili term meaning “What is the news?”

On display was the traditional Kwanzaa table, decorated with bowls of fruits and veggies and the Mishumaa Saba, a set of black, red and green candles referred to as a kinara.

A musical performance outlined the seven principles of Kwanzaa, celebrated each night in succession:

  1. Unity
  2. Self-determination
  3. Collective work and responsibility
  4. Cooperative economics
  5. Purpose
  6. Creativity
  7. Faith

Stone and other museum staffers weren’t sure why 2019 attendance saw such a sudden jump. There are several other neighborhood Kwanzaa celebrations around the city, and while the AAMP does some advertising around the fest, there wasn’t a specific increase in promotion this year, she said.

The hundreds of unexpected attendees brought plenty of joy, but also a few complications, including lots of noise. Stone was supposed to sing a tune in the auditorium, but it got so loud that she couldn’t project over them.

Upstairs at the museum there were art projects for kids Credit: Michaela Winberg / Billy Penn

Still, the way Stone sees it, the high turnout enhanced the celebration. When her two granddaughters played their violins in the lobby, there was an entire audience ready to listen. The whole thing felt dynamic.

“They’re drumming upstairs, they’re performing, dancing, stilt-walking all over the museum, because of so many people coming,” Stone said. “It’s a really nice turnout.”

The big crowd helped the AAMP better accomplish its goal of passing on the traditions of Kwanzaa on to the next generation, she said.

“It’s a really, really wonderful coming together,” Stone said. “As a community and as a family and as a people, it’s an uplifting situation.”

The traditional Kwanzaa table Credit: Michaela Winberg / Billy Penn
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Michaela Winberg

Michaela Winberg is a general assignment reporter at Billy Penn. She covers LGBTQ people and culture, public spaces, and transportation and mobility. She also sometimes produces radio and web features...