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New African holiday reconnects with ancient history

by Sally J. Taylor, Tribune staff writer

For many African-Americans, it doesn’t matter that Kwanzaa is a creation of the 1960s. The seven-day holiday that begins Dec. 26 echoes the values and cultural traditions held for centuries on the African continent.

Although it has yet to gain a foothold at Lake Tahoe, Kwanzaa’s celebration of the African family, community and culture has become a central part of African communities nation-wide.

South Tahoe Middle School student Allison Roach enjoys Kwanzaa when she visits her aunt in San Francisco. At home at Tahoe, her family focuses on Christmas.



“(Kwanzaa is) not a habit for us,” she said. “(At my aunt’s house) I appreciate how much it means to me and it’s my heritage and stuff.

“Sometimes we get educational presents, computers or books.”




Although gifts can be a part of a Kwanzaa celebration, they are given primarily to children and are expected to include a book and a symbol of the African heritage.

African traditions form the foundation of the holiday created in 1966 by Dr. Maulana Karenga, professor and chair of the Department of Black Studies at California State University, Long Beach and author of “Kwanzaa: A Celebration of Family, Community and Culture.”

“As an African American and Pan-African holiday celebrated by millions throughout the world African community,” Karenga says on the Web site, , “Kwanzaa brings a cultural message which speaks to the best of what it means to be African and human in the fullest sense.”

“Kwanzaa” means “first fruits of the harvest” in the African language Swahili. Aspects of the modern holiday have origins in the first-fruits celebrations recorded in African history as far back as the ancient civilizations in Egypt and Nubia.

The seven days of Kwanzaa reinforce the Nguzo Saba, or the Seven Principles

— Umoja – Unity

— Kujichagulia – Self-Determination

— Ujima – Collective Work and Responsibility

— Ujamaa – Cooperative Economics

— Nia – Purpose

— Kuumba – Creativity

— Imani – Faith

Seven candles, or mishumaa saba, in a candleholder called kinara, highlight the principles. One is lighted each day beginning with the central black candle that stands for the African people. Three red candles to the left of the central candle, which are lighted on the second, third and fourth day, represent the struggles of the African people and three green candles to the right represent the future and hope that comes from their struggle.

The order of the candle lighting indicates that the people come first, then the struggle and then the hope that results from the struggle.

Other Kwanzaa decorations connect with the African harvest celebrations and include mazao or crops of fruit and vegetables that represent the African harvest celebrations and the rewards of productive group labor; mkeka, or the mat symbolizing tradition and history; muhindi, or corn representing African-American children and their future; and kikombe cha umoja or the unity cup that represents the principle and practice of unity that makes all else possible.

Many African-Americans are making Kwanzaa part of their lives as a way to reconnect with their cultural history that was torn away by slavery.

“African-Americans have no connection to their history, no connection to their ties, even to their religion,” Vernellia Randall, a descendent of African slaves and a professor of law at the University of Dayton, told the Associated Press. “Maybe it’s like a person with amnesia. They may have a life now and know their immediate history, but there’s a blank spot in their mind they can’t access. That’s what it’s like hitting that brick wall where our cultural history should be.”

“(The principle of ujima is) my favorite,” Randall said. “For as long as we remember and believe, any change that comes about is by collective work and responsibility.”


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