Although my introduction to Black Love Day/Akoma happened several years ago, the impact of the experience still resonates with me today.

A group of close friends and I gathered on a chilly February evening in a southside home whose warmth came not from the heating ducts and insulated windows, but from the rich feelings of care and camaraderie that the gathering set forth. We told stories, ate delicious foods, played music, exchanged gifts, and spoke words of encouragement, appreciation, and support to one another.

When I returned to my home just a few short blocks away, I felt the loving energy of the gathering flowing through me; I felt a connectedness for which I had been longing my entire life. That first Black Love Day experience deepened my understanding of what it means to meaningfully gather with folks who love you.

See, I have always loved celebrations.

Birthdays, marriages, graduation parties—any reason to gather with loved ones has always been meaningful to me. This was especially true growing up in the foster care system. Traditional American holidays, such as Thanksgiving and Memorial Day, were occasions where no matter where we lived, it was a time when my siblings and I felt a sense of inclusion and rootedness. Amid the laughter, food, music, and play, we felt loved. Even if it were just for one day.

Twenty-five years after aging out of foster care, I still feel that deep joy around celebrations. However, as I have grown into adulthood, so has my understanding and acceptance of my culture and identity, as well as the historical lens through which I now view traditional “holidays.”

As I have come to think more expansively about cultural identity, I have sought experiences that reflect my own values and heritage. I am fortunate to continuously be guided in the authentic practice of many Afrikan traditions that align with the yearnings that I’ve had throughout my life—for connectedness, joy, kindness, belonging, and love.

And one of these traditions is Black Love Day. It is a celebration of love that I look forward to with great joy and anticipation each year.

Black Love Day is celebrated on February 13th. It was started in 1993 by Mama Ayo Handy-Kendi, founder of the nonprofit African American Holiday Association. It is widely recognized as a day of atonement, celebration, and reconciliation.

Black Love Day is based on five tenets: love toward the Creator, love for self, love for the family, love for/within the Black community, and love for Black people. Some refer to it as an alternative to Valentine’s Day. To me, however, its significance is much more than a Black version of a European-based holiday. It is a time of reflection and service, rooted in our collective love, growth, and worldview.

The aim is that for 24 hours we initiate and participate in acts that promote care and love in our community.

These acts can be as simple as saying “I love you,” supporting a Black-owned business, or gathering virtually with friends and family. One may reconnect with a person with whom they have fallen out of touch, or they spend meaningful time alone engaging in self-care.

“We encourage people on this day to do something very simple—–just demonstrate love for 24 hours, and celebrate and atone, offer forgiveness to ourselves and to others, and to accept the very important tenets—–what we call the Five Black Love Tenets,” said Mama Ayo in a 2016 interview with Daily Dot.

I was introduced to this tradition through the Afrikan cultural community in St. Louis, which has a deep legacy of teaching, organizing, and supporting our cultural practices in the home. With Mama Ayo’s blessing, the St. Louis cultural community expanded Black Love Day from a one-day celebration to a three-day event called “Akoma Festival” to offer more opportunities to show love to one another. Akoma is an Akan term which means “have a heart.” Akoma is also an adinkra symbol which represents love and care for one another. In the past, the three-day celebration has included festive community in-person gatherings and love-letter writing workshops.

My first Black Love Day/Akoma Festival experience was rich with learning. I experienced what it means to be human in a society that often prioritizes the idea of “romance” over connectedness, and the receiving of material presents over the giving of oneself. Although the gathering with others in my community was endearing, the simple acts of kindness, consideration, and healing were the most meaningful as I reflected on what it truly meant to feel, give, and be love.

I used to imagine what my life would have been like if, in the midst of our struggle to survive, we were aware of these traditions. They could be highlighted through “holiday” celebrations like Kwanzaa and Black Love Day and, better still, practiced every day as a manner of being.

Then I began to understand that many of the same practices—from the sense of kindness and belonging to the food, music, and storytelling—were always present in our gatherings, no matter the name of the holiday. The spirit of being together is inherent in our modern-day celebratory activities. Now, I am grateful to have an expanded perspective, cultural connection, and historical awareness that guides how and when I choose to participate.

When it is safe to gather once more, I look forward to celebrating Black Love Day/Akoma Festival again in person with my friends and neighbors. Until that time, we will continue to think, speak, and act from a place of love that keeps the care, connection, and healing ever-present in our communities.