“Kwanzaa is essentially a family holiday, whether it be the nuclear family, the extended family, or the communal family.”
— Jessica B. Harris
Merry, Merry Christmas to you and yours and an early Happy Kwanzaa. As my present to you, here’s a brief primer on Kwanzaa as we celebrate almost 50 years of the African-American cultural holiday. To start with, it is not a religious celebration, but rather an African-American and Pan-African holiday created in 1966 by Dr. Maulana Karenga to celebrate family, community and culture. The celebration starts Dec. 26 and runs through Jan. 1. The name Kwanzaa is derived from the phrase “matunda ya kwanza” which means “first fruits” in Swahili and its origins are in the first harvest celebrations of Africa.
Based on seven principles, or Nguzo Saba, Kwanzaa is a way for people to gather as a community around lessons that are relevant for people of all races and backgrounds, especially those in the LGBT community.
- Umoja (Unity): To strive for and to maintain unity in the family, community, nation and race.
- Kujichagulia (Self-determination): To define ourselves, name ourselves, create for ourselves and speak for ourselves.
- Ujima (Collective work and responsibility): To build and maintain our community together and make our brothers’ and sisters’ problems our problems, and to solve them together.
- Ujamaa (Cooperative economics): To build and maintain our own stores, shops and other businesses and to profit from them together.
- Nia (Purpose): To make our collective vocation the building and developing of our community in order to restore our people to their traditional greatness.
- Kuumba (Creativity): To do always as much as we can, in the way we can, in order to leave our community more beautiful and beneficial than we inherited it.
- Imani (Faith): To believe with all our hearts in our people, our parents, our teachers, our leaders and the righteousness and victory of our struggle.
Kwanzaa also has seven basic symbols. Each represents values and concepts reflective of African culture and contributive to community building and reinforcement.
If you’d like to learn more about the holiday, Philly Black Pride will be among a number of local groups staging an annual Kwanzaa celebration Dec. 26 at the William Way LGBT Community Center. We took a moment to speak to the organization’s president, Le Ferria Lee Thomas.
PGN: How would your parents describe you as a child?
LT: Oh wow, I think my mother would describe me as talented, and a kid who loved TV. On both sides of the family, including my mother and father, they’re pretty loud but I’ve always been on the shy side. I was OK being by myself in the corner [laughs], though I got a little crazy when I had chocolate! In high school, I was in “Little Shop of Horrors” and I played the plant. My family was like, “Oh my God, was that Junior?” They weren’t used to me being bold back then. Nowadays if you see me dance or perform, you get to see more of my character. Dancing allows me to be free; I don’t think about anything else, it’s just me and the music.
PGN: Tell me about the fam.
LT: I grew up with my dad’s side of the family. My mom’s mom passed away early and she was taken care of by her mom’s best friend. When my parents met, his mom took her in as a daughter and his sisters became her best friends.
PGN: That’s great.
LT: Yeah, she had four siblings: two brothers who passed away and two sisters who decided to buy a house together with her. It brought us all closer together.
PGN: What did you want to be when you grew up?
LT: I wanted to be a lawyer. It stayed with me until I got to college. I was an English/pre-law major freshman year. I added English because during a career-day event I met a judge who said that not a lot of lawyers knew how to speak proper English, but I found the English workload to be really heavy. There was an overwhelming amount of reading. So I changed majors three times until I settled on marketing and fashion merchandising.
PGN: [Laughs] But that’s not what you do now either!
LT: No! Now I’m a pharmacy technician at Hahnemann Hospital, something I just stumbled into. I worked at the Gap for eight years and TJX for some time and, after a while, I just lost the passion for it. I still like fashion on a personal level, but not as a career. I didn’t want to move to New York and hustle the way you need to — although nowadays, they have all those fashion shows that can act as a short cut. I did enjoy the work that I did as a visual specialist for the Gap; I did all the overhead displays and the windows and it was cool looking at a mannequin and then making it come to life with an outfit.
PGN: What’s the oldest piece of clothing you own?
LT: Oh God, I still have most of my old Gap jeans from when I started there in 1998! And they still fit! Some may be a little high-waisted but it’s OK; they’ll come back and then I’ll have them instead of having to search for them. As long as they fit, I keep them.
PGN: Have you lived in town all your life?
LT: No, I grew up in Chester. After college I moved to New Jersey for a few years and then into Philly.
PGN: How did you get involved in Philadelphia Black Pride?
LT: Since I was a little kid I was always involved with a variety of different causes and activities. When I started working, I felt like something was missing; I wasn’t doing anything other than work. I saw an ad for a general meeting to help with a PBP celebration. I went to a few meetings and volunteered for two years when the position of president opened up.
PGN: What’s the importance of Philly Black Pride?
LT: It’s important because there are a lot of things that happen in the community that don’t affect us all the same — not just the LGBT community but in the community at large — and when that happens, people or groups can get lost with all the other things that are going on. We try to educate people from our perspective so that they’re aware and that we know best how to handle things. It’s never about just us, it’s about creating collaborations and bringing people together.
PGN: What are some of your programs?
LT: We have a lot going on, the most recent being a series of town-hall meetings in response to reported incidents of racism in Philadelphia’s LGBT living and social communities and the enormous police issues we face. We wanted to bring the community together to see how we can all work together between community members and businesses to make it better. The second meeting was to create an action plan to make the changes happen. We also have the Philly Black Pride weekend that happens in conjunction with the Penn Relays. It’s an opportunity to celebrate, network and build awareness. We have a variety of events that go with that and we average about 3,500-5,000 people. Some of our other programs are: the Strength Alliance, which works with people involved in the sex industry; Formula X, which promotes education and an understanding of history as well as encouraging civic engagement; Better Education Systems Today (B.E.S.T), which works to end bullying, build cultural literacy with both students and teachers and create safe spaces; our youth-scholarship program; and of course our annual Kwanzaa celebration, which is coming up on the 26th.
PGN: What can we expect?
LT: This will be our ninth year and it will be a good one. Last year marked a change for us; we really upped our game with entertainment. It felt different and the presentations and the music were incredible. Each performance, from the first to the last, was amazing. Jay and Julie want to build on that this year. We have Rasta Boi, singer/songwriter Ashley Phillips, spoken-word artist Terrell Kenyatta Green and performance artist Nikki Powerhouse. The seven Principles are being presented in artistic form by different organizing committees and Jay worked very carefully to match the principle being presented with the artist who will be performing.
LT: Of course! Always food. We want to make people happy and food does that. Plus, the William Way Center is open to all so this will give us an opportunity to feed people that might not otherwise get a hot holiday meal.
PGN: And you have Butter’s Soul Food catering. They just catered my father’s birthday celebration and everyone went crazy over the food. Back to you. I understand you’re a karaoke fiend. What’s your go-to song?
LT: I love karaoke. I really miss Sisters on Thursday nights, that was the best.
PGN: You know I was the host for that.
LT: Oh my God, I didn’t put it together! That was so much fun. You know, I’m not a singer-singer. I’d like to think that I am, but I know better. I grew up in the church with music and I can sing, just not the way I want to. My grandmother had a beautiful voice and all her sisters and brothers can sing; they had their own choir. Anyway, my song is from Monica: “Should Have Known Better.”
PGN: What was an early sign you were gay?
LT: Playing with boys in a way that boys weren’t supposed to play. There was a game called “Catch a Girl, Get a Girl” where you’d chase girls and if you caught them you got a hug or kiss. One time this boy was chasing me and I ran a little slower that usual so he’d catch me. I was about 7.
PGN: When did you come out to the family?
LT: I came out to my mom first because her opinion was the only one that mattered to me. It was when I was in college right before Thanksgiving and someone had asked my mom about my sexuality. I didn’t want to be the topic of conversation at dinner so I called my mom. She’d been sleeping so I told her it could wait, but she’s nosy and insisted we talk. I said, “I’m gay” and she said, “Boy, no you’re not!” I said that I was and she told me I wasn’t. This went on until she said, “Boy, I know already.” That threw me off but as long as she knew that was fine. I didn’t say anything to my father, but when my mom passed away, I think that whole side of the family figured it out with all the guys who came to support me. I did call my brother and sister to tell them and I sounded so concerned that when I finally said it my sister was like, “What? I thought it was something serious!” My brother, the wise a-s-s that he is, responded, “Do you feel better now?” [Laughs] It made me feel good.
PGN: Are you involved with anyone?
LT: No, very single. I think because growing up I was hiding who I was, I spent a lot of time developing friendships that I turned into family and sacrificed relationships in the process. I have a lot of great friends, but now at 40-plus, I’m trying to create more balance. But it’s difficult to meet someone.
PGN: Especially since you work the night shift. What is your schedule like?
LT: I go to work at 9 p.m. and get off early in the morning. I try to go to the gym before going home and getting to bed about 8:30 in the morning.
PGN: Brutal. I understand you like to cook. Did you learn from your mom?
LT: No, she wasn’t a good cook. My grandmother taught me.
PGN: Something or someone you miss from childhood?
LT: I loved coming home and watching the “Bionic Woman,” “Wonder Woman” and “Charlie’s Angels.” I loved those shows.
PGN: Ever get bullied for being gay?
LT: As a child. And I spent a lot of time convincing people that I wasn’t gay. I had a lot of girlfriends who would stick up for me.
PGN: What’s a time period you’d like to go back to?
LT: I’d love to be a part of the Harlem Renaissance. I love music, not just to dance, but all aspects of it. To be right in the middle with the Cotton Club and everything would be amazing.
PGN: An item you should throw out but probably never will?
LT: Do those Gap jeans count?
PGN: Where were you on 9/11?
LT: I was at home in Blackwood, N.J., sitting on the bed doing some merchandise paperwork for the Gap. I get distracted easily so I had the TV on mute. I could see that something was happening on the news but didn’t pay attention. My assistant manager called me crying hysterically about the planes and the towers, asking what she should do. We called corporate and they shut down all the stores. The Gap lost quite a few people in the plane and I had two friends working in the city and was worried sick about them. They ended up OK but had to walk all the way home to the Bronx.
PGN: If you could add an amendment to the Constitution, what would it be?
LT: Something that prohibited people from discriminating against other people, for whatever reason. No more hate.
PGN: Ha. An anti-Trump amendment!
The ninth-annual LGBTQ Kwanzaa Celebration will take place 6-9 p.m. Dec. 26 at William Way LGBT Community Center, 1315 Spruce St. For more information about Philadelphia Black Pride, visit www.phillyblackpride.org.