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Kwanzaa Marks Celebration of African American Culture, Pride - 2003-12-25

December 26 marks the first of seven days of Kwanzaa, a celebration of African American culture and pride. The holiday, begun less than 40 years ago, focuses on seven traditional values: unity, self-determination, collective work and responsibility, cooperative economics, purpose, creativity and faith. More and more African Americans are weaving those seven principles into their experience of this special season.

Not many people alive can claim to have created a major holiday tradition, especially one that competes in importance in some people's minds with Christmas, Hanukah and other celebrations of this season. But Maulana Kaurenga did invent the seven-day African American holiday of Kwaanza. The idea for the festival came to him in 1966 during the height of the 'Black Liberation' movement. "And it was a time when we struggled not only for freedom in terms of social justice, but we also struggled to return to our own history and culture as African people," he explains. "And we asked ourselves 'How do we use our past as a foundation and framework to enrich our present and enhance our future in order to introduce and reaffirm the importance of African community, philosophy and values?'"

African American community and its culture are easy to experience at the many Kwaanza celebrations held throughout the Washington D.C. area. Benita Thompson, director and founder of the Roots Activity Learning Center, watched some children dance to a Kwanzaa song at a party she organized.

"They get the celebration of themselves, the love of themselves, the love of their 'Africanness.' as well as the coming together as a family," she says.

Ms. Thompson adds that Kwanzaa has special significance for African Americans in light of their history as slaves.

"We were torn from our homeland, our families destroyed. So Kwanzaa provides the cultural glue to bring us back together... and the spiritual principles of living," she explains.

But Kwanzaa is not only for African Americans descended from slaves. Increasingly, Africans who have chosen to make America their home find inspiration in the holiday. Nii Laaye came to the United States from Ghana, West Africa.

"Kwanzaa means rededicating ourselves as a people and living together and doing for ourselves so we can love ourselves in order to love other people," he says.

There is a ritual structure to Kwanzaa. Io Clare-Handy of the non-profit African American Holiday Foundation explains that each of its seven days is dedicated to its own traditional African-based principle.

"And each day of Kwanzaa, beginning on December the 26 through January 1, a candle is lit for each principle and the family comes together, discussing those principles," she explains. "And the parents generally ask the children to attempt to live up to the principles of the day."

Professor Maulana Kaurenga explains the first of the seven principles is "Umoja," which is Swahili for "unity."

"And that means to strive for and maintain unity in the family, the community, the nation and race, and of course, ultimately, the world. 'Kujicha-gulia,' self determination -- to define ourselves, name ourselves, create for ourselves and speak for ourselves," explains Prof. Kaurenga. "The third principle is 'Ujima,' collective work and responsibility -- to build and maintain our community together and make our brothers' and sisters' problems our problems and to solve them together. The fourth principle is 'Ujuma,' cooperative economics -- to build and maintain our own stores, shops and other businesses and to profit from them together."

Professor Kaurenga continues with Kwanzaa's fifth principle, "Nia," which he translates as "purpose."

"To make our collective vocation the building and developing of our community in order to restore our people to their traditional greatness. The sixth principle is 'Ku-umba,' creativity. To do always as much as we can, in the way we can, in order to leave our community both more beautiful and beneficial than we inherited [it]. And finally the seventh principle is 'Imani,' faith -- to believe with all our hearts in our people, our parents, our teachers our leaders, and in the righteousness and victory of our struggle," he explains.

Although Kwanzaa celebrations were devised with African Americans in mind, Mr. Kaurenga and many other Kwanzaa celebrants also like to emphasize what they see as the potential universality of Kwanzaa's message.