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Modern Kwanzaa Festival Honors the Black Heritage

Times Staff Writer

While most Americans celebrate the beginning of a new year on Jan. 1, many blacks in this country mark the new start on Dec. 26 with a weeklong celebration called Kwanzaa.

Some celebrate the holiday using symbolic straw mats, candleholders and ears of corn in warm family gatherings. Others join in processions, feasts, bazaars and concerts emphasizing African food, art, clothing and music.

But, whether they participate in family or community events, tens of thousands of Angelenos, and an equal number in New York, Chicago and other cities, will join in the 23-year-old festival to celebrate the black past.

The holiday, beginning Monday and continuing through Jan. 1, was created in 1965 by Los Angeles black activist Maulana Karenga. Its purpose was, and is, to promote black pride.

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“Kwanzaa is a black image, and what black people need more than anything else at this time . . . are successful black images,” said Akile, chairman of the Kwanzaa People of Color organization.

Karenga, chairman of US, a Los Angeles-based black cultural organization of activists and a visiting lecturer in ethnic studies at UC Riverside, selected the African harvest season for the holiday and called it Kwanzaa, or “first fruits” in Swahili.

The idea was quickly accepted, and the popularity of the concept blossomed into a series of diverse observances.

One of the largest events is the annual procession, or parade, which sponsors say can attract as many as 20,000 spectators when it starts at 11 a.m. next Saturday.

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Encourage Music Players

Spectators, who are also invited to participate, will watch college students and other marchers in authentic African masks and gowns. The festive marchers start at Crenshaw and Exposition boulevards and wend their way 1 1/2 miles south on Crenshaw, their numbers growing as they go.

“We encourage observers to bring instruments and to play,” Akile said. “When the last unit passes, you are supposed to join right behind and march to the end.”

When the marching finishes in Leimert Park at the corner of Crenshaw Boulevard and Vernon Avenue, performers play jazz, reggae, rhythm-and-blues and African music at 2 p.m., and vendors offer Afro-American and African books, masks, jewelry and batiks.

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Other spectator events begin days before the procession. On the day after Christmas, a 12:01 a.m. candle-lighting ceremony in Leimert Park welcomes the Kwanzaa season just as the Times Square celebration brings in the New Year on Jan. 1.

African Goods Market

Later that day and throughout the week, a Kwanzaa market, offered for the first time this year, will sell African art, clothing, jewelry and handicrafts. From 11 a.m. until dusk, vendors will be in two locations: Monday-Thursday at the Elegant Manor mansion, Adams Boulevard and Arlington Avenue, and Friday-Sunday at Leimert Park.

On Dec. 31, many karamus, or feasts, will provide African food, music and entertainment. Karamus will start at 6:30 p.m. at Southwest Community College, 1600 W. Imperial Highway, Los Angeles; at 8:30 p.m. at the Omowale Ujamaa Northwest Community School, 1415 N. Raymond St., Pasadena, and at 9 p.m. at 1903 84th Place, Los Angeles.

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Then at 11 a.m. the next morning, Jan. 1, jazz, gospel and other Afro-American music will be performed in Leimert Park.

While community celebrations of Kwanzaa are most visible, many families also observe the holiday at home.

Discuss Different Themes

“Everything is done in the traditional manner--foods in the African style, eaten without European utensils,” Akile said. “We bring pillows and sit on the floor; we dance African dances, listen to African music, tell African stories . . . and drink from the kikombe (unity cup). . . .”

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Celebrating families place traditional items on a straw mat, including ears of corn (symbolic of children) and a unity cup and discuss one theme each night. The themes, known by their Swahili names, are Umoja (unity), Kujichagulia (self-determination), Ujima (collective work and responsibility), Ujamaa (cooperative economics), Nia (purpose), Kuumba (creativity) and Imani (faith).

“If the theme is self-determination,” said Jitahadi Imara, vice chairman of US, “the family sits down and discusses how it will . . . define, speak and create for itself.

‘Pursue My Own Interests’

“It starts with simple things. A child might say, ‘When I go to school I am going to pursue my own interests rather than fall in with those who commit crimes.’

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”. . . If the theme is collective work and responsibility, that child might say, ‘I am going to do more around the house, to pick up more paper in the neighborhood, and I am going to help my sister more.’ ”

Isidra Person-Lynn, the director of public affairs for radio station KACE, said her celebrations usually involve 25 to 30 people.

“Usually you move back all the furniture in the living room,” she said. “It’s like any family dinner. You might have several generations. It’s a way of being close and giving seriousness to principles.”

Trips to the Woods

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The reunions of families and friends during the holiday, Los Angeles actor-artist West Gale said, “are like Thanksgiving. You come together and celebrate and you have a certain feeling of belonging.”

Makungu Akinyela remembers special holiday trips to the woods, which started a family tradition that he believes will live for generations.

“Because we were so close to the mountains when we lived in Pasadena,” he said, “we would take our children there to gather wood. We would find logs or driftwood and show them how to make candleholders.

“The pieces of wood were twisted and had holes in them, and we would sand and varnish them. They would be very beautiful and last for years. Our family has had the same kinara (candleholder) for six years, and I plan to pass it on to my child.

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“Kwanzaa,” Akinyela concluded, “is very valuable for people who value traditions and want to give their child something they can pass on.”


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