“Kwanzaa, to me, is all about the coming together of people. Not just African-American people because I would like to see the whole community come together for this event. I really believe that these principles are for everyone,” says Edith Hilliard. “It’s about learning about each other and embracing our different cultures.”

Hilliard, an executive assistant at the Goodman Community Center on Madison’s near east side, is getting set to, once again, host a large Kwanzaa celebration this Sunday, Dec. 18, 2-5 p.m. at Goodman.

“I’ve celebrated Kwanzaa for 50 years …. all of my [adult] life,” Hilliard tells Madison365. “I remember that first Kwanzaa and I didn’t really know much about it. I had heard about the riots that were in Watts, [California], and I heard about this man who wanted to bring the community back together with this thing called Kwanzaa. I was just out of high school and so I gathered up all my little buddies and we decided we would do Kwanzaa.”

Dr. Ron Karenga
Dr. Ron Karenga

Kwanzaa was created by Ron Karenga and was first celebrated from December 26, 1966 to January 1, 1967. It was created as the first specifically African-American holiday with the goal of “giving blacks an alternative to the existing holiday and give blacks an opportunity to celebrate themselves and history, rather than simply imitate the practice of the dominant society.” The name Kwanzaa derives from the Swahili phrase matunda ya kwanza, meaning first fruits of the harvest. The choice of Swahili, an East African language, reflects its status as a symbol of Pan-Africanism, especially in the 1960s.

Hilliard, a lifelong Madisonian, longtime community organizer and advocate, and winner of Dane County’s 2006 Martin Luther King Humanitarian Award, has been involved with Kwanzaa since the very first one and she remembers celebrating it in Madison. They ended up using a Hanukkah Menorah, she remembers, because they didn’t really have anything for Kwanzaa back then. “We put it together the best we could and we celebrated it that first year,” Hilliard says. “As the years went on, of course, I learned more and more about Kwanzaa. In the beginning, it was mostly just African Americans who were celebrating it.”

Edith Hilliard
Edith Hilliard

In 2006, that changed. Hilliard was on the board of directors at Olbrich Botanical Gardens and decided that Kwanzaa would make for a great community event. She would soon help organize Madison’s first citywide celebration of Kwanzaa which was held at Olbrich that December.

“I thought it would be a good idea because looking at the principles of Kwanzaa, they represent everyone – not just African Americans,” Hilliard says. “So, I wanted to bring the whole community in and let them know what Kwanzaa was all about.”

They hosted that Kwanzaa event at Olbrich Botanical Gardens for six years and each year it got bigger and more diverse. After a few years off, the urge for a resurgence came this year energized by the 50th anniversary of Kwanzaa.

“Goodman Community Center is a great place to do it because it’s a real community of people who come here on a daily basis,” Hilliard says. “To me, where it says community here – that should be bold and underlined.”

Hilliard started to work at the Goodman Community Center in April of this year in what she calls her ‘third career.”

“Everyone comes to Goodman and we help everyone. For me, it has just been a joy working here,” she says. “I remember one day we had an African Naming Ceremony and a Jewish celebration and some Native American drummers. We had three different cultures all in the building at the same time. And that’s the way it is in here every single day.”

Edith Hilliard and Fabu host a citywide Kwanzaa Celebration at Olbrich Gardens back in 2010.
Edith Hilliard and Fabu host a citywide Kwanzaa Celebration at Olbrich Gardens back in 2010.

Hilliard is hoping to see that diversity at the Evjue Center of the Goodman Community Center for the Kwanzaa Celebration this Sunday.

“We’re looking forward to having a huge crowd come out,” Hilliard says. “Kwanzaa is celebrated from Dec. 26-31, so we thought we would do it early. Basically, what we wanted to do is to show people the way to do Kwanzaa so that they can do it in their own homes or in different venues.”

Like those past events at Olbrich, this event is being organized by Hilliard, along with Dana Warren and Fabu.

Karlton Porter, a retired teacher from the Madison Metropolitan School District, will talk about the history of Kwanzaa.

“Deborah Garrett Thomas will provide entertainment and Fabu will do the lighting of the candles and elaborate on the principles of Kwanzaa,” Hilliard says.

Violinist Lexus Carter will entertain the crowd and Umoja Publisher Milele Chikasa Anana will do the Libation Ceremony.
The seven basic Kwanzaa principles for living will be explained at the event. Those principles are unity, self-determination, collective work and responsibility, economic cooperation, purpose, creativity, and faith.

“Food Fight [Restaurant Group] has donated the seven Kwanzaa cakes; we are very grateful to them,” Hilliard says. “We’ll have cake and punch and mingle. There will be five vendors at the events selling unique gifts and foods.”

Dr. Charles Taylor's "Kwanzaa: How To Celebrate It In Your Home"
Dr. Charles Taylor’s “Kwanzaa: How To Celebrate It In Your Home”

Those vendors will include Lucy Brewoo (African Artifacts), Jasmine Banks (Perfect Imperfections), Latisha McDuffy (Mo’ Better Butter Cookies) and Jennifer Lawrence (homemade items). Dr. Charles Taylor’s Kwanzaa books will also be on sale and Women in Focus will be passing out free books to kids as they have done in years’ past.

“We really just wanted to bring the community back together like we onces did at Olbrich and to honor the 50th anniversary of Kwanzaa,” Hilliard says.

“There are lots of great components to this. People will be able to learn about Kwanzaa, support local businesses, be entertained, and eat delicious foods,” Hilliard adds. “It’s always good to get people together just so they can form some relationships with each other and help build our community.”

Come out and celebrate the 50th anniversary of Kwanzaa this Sunday, Dec. 18, 2-5 p.m. at Goodman Community Center. For more information about the event, e-mail [email protected]