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Kwanzaa and the Ujamaa Bookstore
By W. David Hall
Ujamaa Bookstore, 1206 N. High Street (as well as 1511 E. Livingston Avenue)
is all about faith, community, and outreach.
Holidays are, for the most part, culturally and community specific. Hanukkah belongs to the Jewish community. Christmas belongs, primarily, to believers in the sacred birth of Jesus Christ. The spirit of Thanksgiving will be lost on most people who are not American. January 1st, New Years Day for many in the world, is about the only one we can all celebrate the same way, but even then, there are marked differences. Some will eat cabbage, some will toast auld lang syne, and others will gather around the kinara, sip from the Kikombe cha Umoja, and meditate.
The kinara (the candles and holder) and the Kikombe cha Umoja (unity cup) belong to Kwanzaa, the holiday honored by many African Americans from Dec. 26 to Jan.1. The spirit of Kwanzaa (Swahili for “first fruits”) is reflection and helping out others in the community, a spirit that is shared year-round with Mustafaa Shabazz, owner of the Ujamaa Bookstore, located at 1206 N. High Street.
The spirit is so closely tied to Kwanzaa that Ujamaa takes it name from the Nguzo Saba, or the Seven Principles designed to “introduce and reaffirm communitarian values and practices which strengthen and celebrate family, community, and culture,” according to Dr. Maulana Karenga, creator of Kwanzaa and chair of the National Association of Kawaida Organizations.
Briefly, Kwanzaa was created to “reaffirm and restore our rootedness in African culture,” writes Karenga on his Web site www.officialkwanzaawebsite.com. One way to get that “rootedness” is to refer to the events and symbols of the seven day observance by their Swahili names instead of their English counterparts.
Also important is the focus on giving of the heart, starting with the children who are given gifts of books so that they understand the importance of knowledge. Any other gifts given during this holiday are all hand-made. Finally, the holiday week should give people time to strengthen their bonds with each other, thus strengthening their relationship to both local and world communities.
It seems that, after talking with Wendy Anuba, OSU graduate and the bookstore's public relations spokesperson, Ujamaa Bookstore's business philosophy reflects these tenets, as well as the Seven Principles: Umoja, Ujima, Nia, Kujichagulia, Ujamaa, and Imani.
Karegna writes that one reason that Kwanzaa is growing in popularity among those of African descent is that it “brings us together from all countries, all religious traditions, all classes, all ages and generations, and all political persuasions on the common ground of our Africanness in all its historical and current diversity and unity.” For Shabazz and the staff of Ujamaa, that means offering a true variety of texts not found in the Black Studies section of, say, Borders or Half-Price Books. A quick browse will uncover such titles as Children of the Matrix, The Philosophies of Marcus Garvey, Metu Neter (considered by some to be the original text on which the Hebrew bible is based). There are also coloring books for the kids, as well as educational board games (including Nguso Saba, a game based on the Seven Principles of Kwanzaa). Visiting authors also frequent the shop, offering a mix of local writers and such bigger names as Nikki Giovanni and Omar Tyree.
Ujamaa's goal for unity also extends to cultures outside that of African American. The shop was opened to give other cultures a feel for the plight of black people and Anuba also hopes that Ujamaa has an atmosphere that allows people the chance to ask questions about the culture.
“You cannot prosper with just paper. That's the philosophy. But it starts here. We want to help people deal with each other, not on a hostile basis, but in a way that spreads more knowledge” about black influence, from the Civil War to hip-hop,” said Anuba.
That openness was one of the things that attracted Anuba to go to work for Shabazz.
“When I first walked in, I noticed that there were many people who weren't African American buying these books,” Anuba said. “I hadn't seen anything like it and wanted to be a part of that.”
Ujima (collective work and responsibility)
Being a part of that meant working at the bookstore, of course, but also helping others with their struggles for employment. A philosophy behind Ujima is that in order to better the community and the world, we must all take responsibility for the community through our work. One way to do that is through business ownership and Shabazz has done that, running two Ujamaa bookstores (the second one is located at 1511 E. Livingston Ave.).
Another way to accomplish this goal is by helping those who need work find it. Within the building that houses the bookstore on High Street are a large conference room, two seminar rooms, and a computer area. Training for entrepreneurial skills, seminars in public speaking, tutoring for GED study, and courses for computer literacy are offered through the bookstore. They also offer a unique bibliography therapy program. Ex-felons, said Anuba, can come to the bookstore, identify problems they may have or may be facing as they attempt to re-enter society, and be directed to certain readings. This is an example of what Karenga calls “building and maintaining our community together and making our brothers' and sisters' problems our own and solving them together.”
Even in the spirit of Kwanzaa, the variety of programs and community outreach can seem like an over-extension of what is, primarily, a place to buy books. Anuba would argue that point. Ujamaa was always intended to go beyond just dust jackets and calendars; it was a mission to provide young African American men an alternative to the violence in the area.
“We are here to re-energize minds through reading and discussions,” Anuba said. “We want to show these young men that they have a voice and help them learn to use it. This is an education that they can't get in school. They have very few heroes growing up and seeing and hearing themselves in these books helps with their self-esteem.”
Kujichagulia (self-determination) and Kuumba (creativity)
Karenga defines Kujichagulia as the ability to “define ourselves, name ourselves, create for ourselves, and speak for ourselves.” When coupled with the idea of Kuumba (“to do always as much as we can, in the way that we can, in order to leave our community more beneficial than we inherited it”), that can lead to many forms of expression, including parties and celebrations.
Perhaps the biggest witness to Shabazz's self-determination and creativity is the annual Juneteenth celebration, held every year on June 19 to mark Texas's recognition of the Emancipation Proclamation. The event is held in Franklin Park, is hosted by the bookstore, and claims an attendance as high as 65,000 people of all kinds. Each Juneteenth celebration boasts food, live music, fun and education, and it's all for free.
“Juneteenth is not a celebration for the end of slavery,” Anuba states. “It is more of a chance to honor those who have passed. For example, many people have seen the movie Glory but don't know how some slaves were spies for the union soldiers. Some slaves used things like hanging laundry upside down to signal troop movement. We celebrate that sort of thing and the freedoms that came later.”
Ujamaa (cooperative economics)
When asked where the name of the bookstore came from, Anuba proudly displays a page from a children's coloring book about Kwanzaa. The image shows children working side-by-side selling lemonade at a reasonable price. The idea is as simple as the line drawings: local business is there to help the community and community is there to support local business.
“We have a food cooperative and books to prisoners program designed to help the community,” Anuba said, explaining that the co-op proves 50 pounds of fruits and vegetables for $50 and the books-to-prisoners program works to provide prisoners with books free of charge.
One can't talk about any outreach program, whether it is designed by Shabazz or anyone else, without talking about funding. And the discussions there gets tense.
“I wouldn't call any of what we do 'political' except when it comes to funding,” Anuba said, the disappointment and frustration welling in her voice but not affecting her smile.
“Historically, America has been good about taking care of single mothers, but where are the programs for the single fathers? How do young African American men learn to be fathers? There are more African American men in prison than there are in college; and in the past 20 years, the prison systems have changed. You can't get a degree in prison any longer. All the prisoners are doing is learning to be better prisoners.”
Ujamaa was providing assistance for these men with a budget that, at one time, was around $200,000. Last year, the numbers were closer to $30,000.
“You just can't close the doors,” Anuba adds, “there too much work to be done.”
Having faith in the face of such adversity may be the most difficult part of Ujamaa's outreach. But Shabazz is out there, in the community, putting flyers in people's hands, talking about his mission, requesting donations, drumming up volunteers, all the while taking a one-on-one approach to his work. His dedication mirrors Karenga's idea of Imani, which is“to believe with all our hearts in our people, our parents, our teachers, our leader and the righteousness and victory of our struggle.”
“[Shabazz] is right there,” Anuba said, “giving people the opportunity to say what they feel, and he is right there to discuss their ideas with them.”
So, yes, the Columbus Zoo will dedicate a night of Winter Wildlights to African culture and call it a Kwanzaa celebration. Hallmark will offer a token line of Kwanzaa greeting cards and make a few bucks. But otherwise, the holiday is a relatively quiet one; and that, believe it or not, is actually the point. It isn't so much about the outward flashiness of the season, but about the content of one's inner spirit. That's the spirit of the Ujamaa Bookstore and that's the spirit of Kwanzaa.
Editor's Note: Ugamaa Bookstore is no longer located on N. High Street. They are located at 1493 E. Livingston Ave. For more information about Ujamaa Bookstore, call 614-258-4633. For more information on Kwanzaa, log onto www.officialkwanzaawebsite.com