Kwanzaa is a week long celebration of the African-American and Pan-African heritage and culture. The Black Candle is an award-winning documentary film directed by M.K. Asante, Jr. During a phone interview, I spoke with the 27-year-old director about the film and the meaning of Kwanzaa. The film explains the meaning and principles behind the celebration with narration by poet and "Renaissance woman" Dr. Maya Angelou and interviews with rappers Dead Presidents and Chuck D.
When I first stumbled upon the DVD The Black Candle I was unsure of the meaning of Kwanzaa. What invited me to watch was the possibility of learning something about African-American heritage, as I come from the opposite side of the world. Living in New Zealand, I felt I knew nothing of this different side of life. After watching M.K Asante, Jr.'s informative and relatable film, I found myself not only having learned about something completely new but I also felt really inspired to find out more about my cultural roots. The film not only informs about the African American celebration but also opens up its ideals for use around the world.
The film itself delves into the meaning behind a fairly new holiday created by Dr. Maulana Karenga. In 1966, Mr Karenga conceived of a week-long celebration between December 26 and January 1 that touched upon seven important principles and he named this celebration "Kwanzaa." In the film, we learn the reasoning behind this festive time straight from the creator himself, Dr. Karenga, who explains why he created this African American holiday.
Dr. Maya Angelou reads her inspirational words alongside interviews with rappers, activists, and people straight off the street, all of whom talk about the holiday. When I asked Asante how he felt about Dr. Angelou agreeing to work on his film, not only did he admit "I was giddy, I was like a little kid," he also said, "It was a testament to doing projects that you believe in and that have a purpose greater than just monetary. When you have that higher purpose, when you're making a project and you think it's important socially to people all over the world, then other people can identify with that and want to be a part of it." He also added that it was "a testament to the strength of the project. It was also one of the best days of my life. She's one of the greatest voices that we have and for her to be involved is just remarkable."
In the early stages of the film, we are shown how misunderstood the meaning behind Kwanzaa has been, not only by those in the non-African American community but also by those within it. We are then taken on a journey through the seven underlying principles of the holiday. The seven principles are umoja (unity), kujichagulia (self-determination), ujima (collective work and responsibility), ujamaa (cooperative economics), nia (purpose), kuumba (creativity), and lastly, imani (faith). The director notes that these principles "are universal. Here in america we participate in lots of celebrations of other cultures. Whether it's Cinco de Mayo, St. Patrick's Day or the Chinese New Year — we're celebrating their culture and it doesnt take away from our own culture."
Asante has an open mind in relation to putting these principles out in the world, stating, "The idea of celebrating African culture and African American history and culture, that's something that can be extended to everyone." If you really want to understand the underlying meaning of the film, the filmmaker explains it this way: "The proverb says 'A candle loses nothing by lighting another candle.' When you recognise and celebrate someone else's culture you don't lose anything, that candle illuminates the room."
Does celebrating Kwanzaa help the director himself feel closer to his African heritage? Asante explains his own personal vision behind the commemoration: "When we look at the history in America and other places we see not only enslavement but we're talking about a removal from culture, a removal from one's own identity as being a part of the process of enslavement. It's been historically very important for people to reconnect to that because it's been lost. It connects and reconnects people with a past that's important to understanding who they are today."
Speaking to the director, it is obvious that he is bound for greatness. At a young age he has already managed to achieve a total of three published books, two documentary films, and is a professor of creative writing and film at Morgan State University. Having reached these goals does not stop him from pushing further. "There's so much work to be done. There are so many stories that haven't been told. So I'm constantly feeling like there's just so much to do. I don't have a lot of time to think about what I've done because I'm always thinking of what there is to do," he said. He continues to push the boundaries and this film has won him the African World Documentary Best Film award and it continues to inform and impress around the world.
The Kwanzaa celebration is a time that allows family and friends to gather and give small thoughtful gifts as well as pay homage to their heritage via lighting the kinara candle that burns seven candles in total. All these candles have strong representation including the single Black Candle that stands proudly as the centerpiece of the kinara stand. Has there been any negative response to the week-long festivities of Kwanzaa? Asante responds with his energetic and warming words: "We screened this film in front of so many different audiences. In front of audiences that celebrate Kwaanza, audiences that have never heard of Kwaanza, audiences that are racially and ethnically diverse and everywhere we screened it the response has been very positive. I think what it does is opens up a dialogue. People want to have a discussion afterward and talk about the issues of the film, the issues they may be having, so I think it is representative of a larger discussion that people want to have."
In being totally blinded to the African-American history myself, Asante explains what people did before the celebration was created. "I'm sure they [celebrated] in different manifestations and different ways but there was no umbrella holiday to do that. People, I suppose, would do it in whatever way that they could or knew how to. What the creation of Kwaanza did was to give folks a time and a model on how to do that, how to engage in it and also center them around these principles."
This film invited me into the celebration of Kwanzaa and also introduced me into the possibility of using its seven basic principles for my own family celebrations in the future. The celebration has so much beauty behind its meaning and M.K Asante, Jr. has really delivered on his desire to open up the idea to so many more people in the world. As informative as it is in assisting African American people to come together and celebrate their cultural heritage, it also opens up the ideals and principles that should be considered by varying cultures around the world. It's highly educative, informative, and the director has achieved his goal of expanding the meaning of Kwanzaa out to a worldwide audience.