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A Celebration With African Roots : Kwanza: Black families observe a Christmastime tradition as part of an effort to pass down racial pride to their children.

SPECIAL TO THE TIMES: <i> Szymanski is a regular contributor to Valley View</i>

The 3- to 5-year-olds led songs, the preteens read poetry and a woman in African dress with her hair wrapped up in a turban spoke the tribal language of Kiswahili. Mothers prepared a feast of spiced rice, beans, roast beef and dozens of other dishes while fathers caused a lot of laughter during their somewhat flat versions of Christmas carols.

Then, Koko Ekong, 18, and two of his friends had the whole group clap their hands to keep a beat as he read his poem about identifying with Rudolph the Red-Nosed Reindeer. Ekong, a Pierce College student sporting a high flattop, drew nods of approval as he recited his Rudolph rap with lines such as:

When you are dif-fer-ent in any so-ci-e-ty,

They tease you and disrupt you ‘cause you are what they try to be.

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It was this year’s Kwanza celebration--a Christmas tradition for black families--held by the San Fernando Valley chapter of Jack and Jill of America. Forty black families gathered earlier this month at Sutter Junior High School in Canoga Park to commemorate Kwanza--a seven-day celebration with African roots.

“It comes from the African celebration of the harvest, and Kwanza means ‘first fruit of life’ and ‘to be thankful,’ ” said Eloise Pinckney of Newbury Park, who named her daughter Kwanza. The girl, now 13, is learning about African customs through the Jack and Jill, a group dedicated to passing down racial history and developing social consciousness among black children. Once a Jack and Jill member herself, Pinckney brings her daughter to the monthly youth meetings.

The Jack and Jill organization was founded in Philadelphia 53 years ago “by a group of middle-class black mothers who wanted their children to interact because they were living in a predominantly Caucasian neighborhood,” said Pinckney, who came to the Kwanza celebration wearing a loose-fitting red print Nigerian dress and long necklace made from pods and animals carved from wood. “Our family has been involved in Jack and Jill chapters all across the country.”

Thousands of black families are members of 199 chapters throughout the country, and the San Fernando Valley chapter has helped establish pride in children since 1978, said chapter president Beverly Williams, who is also a role model to the youths by being both mother and a lawyer.

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With minimal parental guidance, the children in Jack and Jill decided to do community service this past year. The projects included adopting foster families, volunteering at senior citizens centers and earning money by recycling. They also learned things about their African heritage that they would never learn in school, Williams said.

“We don’t want them to go off and become doctors and lawyers and forget about their heritage,” Pinckney said.

So, between skits, songs and speeches at the recent Kwanza ceremony, black history questions were asked of both parents and children. And when a question such as: “Who led the Civil Rights movement in the 1960s?” was asked of the small children, a few of the teen-agers in the back of the room caused some laughter by answering “Bill Cosby” and “Eddie Murphy.”

“Being involved in a group like this is fun, but it’s true that some of my friends just wouldn’t really get into it,” admitted Koko Ekong, a Taft High School graduate who lives in Woodland Hills. “I was reluctant at first, but then, I’m reluctant about everything.”

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Now a member for two years, Ekong said, “It’s made me more socially active, and if you don’t know much about your African background, this will open your eyes.”

A new chapter is being formed in Ventura County, so families living in predominantly white areas won’t have to drive so far to meet with other black families.

“We had our first meeting and we attracted about 20 families,” said Ventura County’s new president Emma Duah, a guest at the Valley meeting. “We have not lived close enough to a chapter, so we are starting our own. We have such a strong history to be proud of, many of us just don’t know it.”

Duah and her African-born husband, John, have three children, ages 14, 5 and 1, and have been celebrating Kwanza for years--lighting one of seven candles each night for seven days, much like the tradition of a Jewish menorah.

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Kwanza was started in the United States in 1966 by Maulana Ron Karenga, a California Pan-African studies professor who wanted to combine the traditional African culture with modern ideals and issues of black families. On each of the seven days of Kwanza, which officially starts Wednesday, a candle is lit and one of the Kwanza principles is discussed.

Actress and model Dwan Fortier of Sylmar explained the seven principles, asking the children to repeat the words in Kiswahili, a dialect of Swahili spoken by 8 million Africans. The seven principles are “umoja,” meaning unity; “kujichagulia,” self-determination; “ujima,” collective work and responsibility; “nia,” purpose; “kuumba,” creativity; “ujamaa,” cooperative economics; and “imani,” faith.

“I’m so grateful to wear these clothes and wrap my head again,” said Fortier, with her head sheathed in a turban, showing how Islam has influenced African culture. “I’m so glad to once again say I’m black and beautiful.”

Fortier and her firefighter husband, Nate, have a son, Andre, 7, who is a Jack and Jill member, and daughter, Ayanna, 18, a student at Tuskegee Institute, an all-black college in Alabama.

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“This is the kind of gang I want my children to get involved in, a gang of culture,” said Fortier, a regular on the ABC-TV daytime soap opera “General Hospital” and one of the first black models on television commercials. Fortier said she would never again straighten her hair for her profession as she had done in the past.

“We have to teach our children to be proud with who we are and what we look like,” Fortier said. “We had our history ripped from us, and we lost a lot of it through integration. We have to teach our children why some are taller and some are darker and we need to be proud of it if we’re going to live in a white society.”

Fortier noted that the Sylmar Public Library, for example, was recognizing Kwanza in its holiday programming. (The library marked the holidays of Kwanza, Christmas and Hanukkah in a combined program Tuesday.)

At the recent Jack and Jill celebration of Kwanza, Fortier pointed to children in front of the audience holding up huge cards spelling “AFRICA.”

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“They’ll never forget moments like these. They’ll never forget what they’ve learned here,” Fortier said, recalling how she was a Jack and Jill member in Jackson, Tenn., in the late 1950s. Then, Fortier smiled proudly, “See the young man on the far left, that’s my son.”

Seven-year-old Andre Fortier took the place where his mother had just given her inspiring rendition of the seven Kwanza principles. He took a deep breath, held up his card and began reciting, “A is for our ancestors. . . .”


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