Carla Bristol didn’t grow up with Kwanzaa, the annual celebration of Black culture and values that got its start in the era of the Civil Rights movement and surge in Black pride and identity.
But for the past eight years, Bristol has made it her mission to host first-day events focusing on unity to mark the festival that begins Dec. 26 and ends New Year’s Day.
For the Guyanese-born artist and owner of Gallerie 909, which showcases art from the African diaspora, her commitment to the annual observation that’s rooted in the first fruit celebrations of Africa was a natural pursuit. She’s also the passionate leader of the St. Pete Youth Farm, a program for high schoolers in a predominantly African-American area where residents subsist without a supermarket.
This year, Bristol’s Gallerie 909 and the St. Pete Youth Farm will help kick off a series of programs that celebrate Black culture, families and community. Kwanzaa at the Farm is one of several St. Petersburg events planned at sites that include churches, a mosque and Tropicana Field. For the first time, Bristol is responsible for coordinating the calendar of local Kwanzaa events, accessible on Facebook at Kwanzaastpete.
Bristol held her first Kwanzaa celebration in 2014 at Gallerie 909. In the years since, she moved it to various businesses, then to the Youth Farm.
“Last year, at the farm, it was incredible,” she said, adding that participants savored the outdoor venue they said created a feeling of Africa.
“It was touching the earth,” Bristol said.
“This year, I’ll be harvesting some cassava. I will be harvesting sweet potato. What will be greeting them is an entire fence lined with pigeon peas. It’s beautiful. Where there was nothing, we have 70-plus fruit trees.”
In fact, it’s only been about a year since the Youth Farm has been able to permanently settle on the land at 1664 12th St. S, owned by the city. The property required remediation, which meant the farm had to initially operate in temporary space at Pinellas Technical College.
“It’s been choppy, but now we’re finally home,” Bristol said this week. “We have a greenhouse that has to be built. It will be built in January and a food processing center is expected to be complete by June.”
Since moving to its permanent home near the Enoch Davis Center, the Youth Farm has touched more than 1,000 people, Bristol said. Last year’s Kwanzaa program was the farm’s first event, followed by programs for Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. Day, Black History Month, Women’s Appreciation Day and Earth Day. “For Thanksgiving, we did food demonstrations. We’ve also done classes and workshops,” Bristol said.
She spoke of feeling compelled as the owner of a Black art gallery to nurture Black culture and hence observe Kwanzaa. For many African Americans, though, Kwanzaa is still new, and probably a mystery to most outside the Black community. But it’s growing in recognition. The popular American Girl line of dolls now offers a panoply of Kwanzaa-inspired essentials for a “Joyous Kwanzaa,” including African-inspired clothing, the unity cup, a kinara – the candle holder for Kwanzaa ceremonies – and black, red and green candles to be placed in it.
The National Museum of African American History and Culture in Washington, D.C., offers information about the relatively new festival, including educational children’s videos and suggested activities. The museum’s website explains that Kwanzaa was created in 1966 by Maulana Ron Karenga and that its ideas and concepts are expressed in Swahili, one of the most widely spoken languages in Africa. Kwanzaa comes from the Swahili phrase, “matunda ya kwanza,” it says, and is rooted in first fruit celebrations found in cultures throughout Africa in ancient and modern times.
Celebrations highlight one of seven principles, or Nguzo Saba, on each of the seven-day observation: Umoja (Unity); Kujichagulia (Self-Determination); Ujima (Collective Work and Responsibility); Ujamaa (Cooperative Economics); Nia (Purpose); Kuumba (Creativity); and Imani (Faith).
Families and communities light a candle to highlight the principle of the day. Celebrations typically include special food, African drumming and readings.
Without even realizing it, the high schoolers who work at the St. Pete Youth Farm five days a week after school are learning and practicing the principles of Kwanzaa. They share the food they grow with the community. People pay what they can, if they can. They’ve created a food pantry of canned goods for neighbors in need. And the community at large gives back.
Each week, Positive Impact Ministries gives the farm 30 buckets of food waste for composting. Mount Zion Progressive Missionary Baptist Church recently also began contributing food waste. The farm received gifts of banana trees after asking for donations to supplement the single one it had planted. And City Council Member Brandi Gabbard, a supporter of the program, donated an avocado tree.
“There’s something about the energy of the farm,” Bristol said. “It’s a natural level of enjoyment that happens with people that discover the farm.”
Bristol went on to tell a heartwarming story of generosity. Last week, a volunteer left Christmas cards for each of the farm’s 12 students. He had put two $100 bills in each card.
“I’m too emotional to even call him. We have a lot of angels all over the place. I am humbled and blessed by that,” she said.
Bristol herself has set an example with her commitment to Kwanzaa and its values that emphasize unity, education, responsibility, and pride in one’s culture, community and history – solid principles for these times.
Habari Gani? (What’s Happening?) Kwanzaa in St. Pete
Day 1, Umoja (Unity)
10 a.m., Sunday, Dec. 26, Unity Temple of Truth, 511 Prescott St. S.
2 p.m. to 5 p.m., Gallerie 909 hosting at St. Pete Youth Farm, 1664 12th St. S. Contact Carla Bristol, (727) 565-3930
Day 2, Kujichagulia (Self Determination)
6 p.m., Dec. 27, Bethel Community Baptist Church, 2901 54th Ave. S.
Day 3, Ujima (Collective Work and Responsibility)
6 p.m. to 7:30 p.m., Dec. 28, My Brother’s Keeper, CoHort of Champions & Community Co-Op, Kwanzaa Black Male Summit, 642 22nd St. S.
Day 4, Ujamaa (Cooperative Economics)
4 p.m. to 6 p.m., Dec. 29, Skyway Marina Mall, 4301 43rd St. S
Day 5, Nia (Purpose)
6 p.m. to 8 p.m., Dec. 30, St. Petersburg Islamic Center, 3762 18th Ave. S. Contact, Imam Sadiki, (727) 692-3342
Day 6, Kuumba (Creativity)
5:30 p.m., Dec. 31, Women of Black Wall Street, 2184 Ninth Ave. S. Contact Shundra Allison, (727) 600-5778
Day 7, Imani (Faith)
10 a.m. to 3 p.m., Jan. 1, 2022, Saturday Morning Shoppe, Tropicana Field, Lot 4. Contact satmorningshoppe.com
6 p.m. to 8 p.m., Enoch Davis Center, 1111 18th Ave. S. Contact, J. C. Devine, (727) 657-1913