Storyteller Obakunle Akinlana, draped with cream and gold African garments, stood before the small crowd and said, "We're all walking around with a deadly disease called culture amnesia."
With that, he captured the night's theme.
Some 30 people gathered Friday evening in St. Mary's Catholic Church's Bannon Hall to celebrate the first day of Kwanzaa. They heard stories, sampled African food and filled the building with music.
For the second year in a row, the local group Citizens Organized to Reach Restore and Empower Communities held the celebration.
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The name Kwanzaa comes from the phrase "matunda ya kwanza," or "first fruits" in Swahili. California State University professor Maulana Karenga created the seven-day festival in 1966, basing it on African first-harvest celebrations.
"It's an attempt to help folks connect and reconnect with their African heritage," said Citizens Organized co-founder Kashaka Kikelomo. "It's not religious. It's not to replace Christmas."
"It's celebrated during the holidays because that's when families traditionally get together," said Ron Dunnemann, also a co-founder. "It's open to anybody."
Kikelomo, whom friends call "Mr. K," started the night with an explanation of Kwanzaa. He then lit the first of seven candles -- the black candle, which represents people of African ancestry.
One of the other six red and green candles is lit each night until the celebration's end.
Each day of the ethnocentric festival honors one of seven principles - umoja (unity), kujichagulia (self-determination), ujima (collective work and responsibility), ujamaa (cooperative economics), nia (purpose), kuumba (creativity) and imani (faith).
Akinlana on Friday shared stories with the audience, then doled out traditional African instruments, recruiting members for what he dubbed "The Last Minute Get It Together Rock Hill Kwanzaa Band."
The audience clapped and danced as Akinlana, pounding drums, led the group in a spirited performance.
"It really felt like a celebration," said Carol Brown, who was in town visiting from Florida. Brown, who said she has been to several Kwanzaa celebrations, added she was impressed with the small crowd's energy.
Before dismissing the audience, Kikelomo challenged people to connect with their heritage as well as each other.
"Tell your friends and family what they missed," he said. "And make sure they come next time."
Shelitha Cole plans to.
Friday's celebration was the 29-year-old's first Kwanzaa experience. She said she was impressed and plans to make it part of her family's tradition.
"This was just the beginning for me," she said.