On its 50th anniversary, Kwanzaa celebrations promote pride and provide 'a safe space'

50 years in, Kwanzaa's adherents say the holiday has as much meaning as ever.

This time of year, 14-year-old Amir Ralph is all about Kwanzaa. He not only embraces the celebration of African culture, which is marking its 50th anniversary this year, but he works tirelessly to spread the word about the holiday, visiting schools and communities throughout Baltimore.

He and his mother, Tiffany, will be lighting the kinara, whose seven candles represent the seven days and seven guiding principles of the holiday. There will be gifts and lots of celebrating. But ask Amir what makes Kwanzaa so special, and none of that comes up.

"It's a holiday surrounding community and family," says Amir, who lives in Bolton Hill with his mother and attends the Baltimore Design School. "It's also one of the only holidays that connects me to my heritage, and to my past."

Fifty years since Kwanzaa was created by Maryland native Maulana Karenga, its adherents say the holiday holds as much meaning as ever, offering the African-American community a chance to celebrate its accomplishments and remember where it came from.

Kwanzaa — which officially begins Monday and runs through Jan. 1 — is centered on seven guiding principals, known as the Nguzo Saba: unity (in Swahili, umoja), self-determination (kujichagulia), collective work and responsibility (ujima), purpose (nia), creativity (kuumba), faith (imani) and collective economics (ujamaa). During the weeklong celebration, stories are shared, with music and dance often a key part, and presents are exchanged, often books on African-American history and culture.

"Kwanzaa was intentionally created for the African-America population," says Jeff Menzise, an associate professor at Morgan State University's Institute for Urban Research, "as something cultural, something to help with better understanding of their cultural origins, and a practical way of applying it to their daily lives."

Like Christmas and Hanukkah, other major holidays with which it shares a season, Kwanzaa has its symbols. Besides the kinara (which evokes comparisons to the Jewish menorah and Christian Advent wreath), there are fruits and vegetables, corn, and a cup (called the kikombe cha umoja, or unity cup), all traditionally placed on a mat (mkeka) laid atop a piece of African cloth.

But it's the underpinnings of Kwanzaa, and its proud embrace of African identity and pride, that seem to speak the loudest to those who celebrate it.

"That is exactly what Kwanzaa provides," says Menzise, who will be speaking on the principal of nia (purpose) at the Reginald F. Lewis Museum of Maryland African American History & Culture on Friday. "It provides a culture and a sense of legacy to people who, for a long time, had their legacy begin with the plantation, or on a slave ship. It gives you sort of permission to embrace something African that could also be popular. ... It provides, to some people, their first exposure to something that's authentically African."

That sense of identity, of pride in a culture too often neglected, has always appealed to Sallah Jenkins, an art teacher living in Northeast Baltimore who has been celebrating Kwanzaa with her family — which now includes eight children and 12 grandchildren — since 1976. Even this year, with none of her children living at home anymore, she'll be setting up a Kwanzaa table, complete with a kinara and all the accompaniments. It's for when the grandchildren come by, she says.

"I always felt a spiritual aspect to it," says Jenkins, 58. "When we were doing Kwanzaa, we shared everything. People would talk about our history and culture all the time."

Charles Dugger, a high school teacher living in South Baltimore, has spent much of the past several weeks setting up Kwanzaa celebrations at various branches of Baltimore's Enoch Pratt Free Library. By the time he's done, he will have visited 18 libraries, sometimes singing and clapping and leading kinara lightings before packed houses, other times playing to audiences of only one or two.

He's on a mission, Dugger says, to stress the principles of Kwanzaa — especially to young people, who he says can use all the positive role models they can get.

"You learn about people who took nothing and literally turned it into something," says Dugger, whose appearance last week at the Brooklyn branch library included the invocation of more than a dozen names of African-Americans who have made a difference, from Paul Robeson and Paul Laurence Dunbar to Muhammad Ali and Emmett Till.

While some people try to avoid commercialism when it comes to Kwanzaa — handing out handmade gifts, for instance, or making their own mkeka — others embrace shopping for the holiday. At Everyone's Place on North Avenue, which prides itself as being Baltimore's "Kwanzaa headquarters," kinaras run around $30, while mkekas cost about $5 to $10. The store does a brisk business, co-owner Tabia Kamau-Nataki says — especially this year, with the holiday's golden anniversary.

"There's always a new group of people who are trying to incorporate Kwanzaa into their lives," says Kamau-Nataki, adding that interest in the holiday has been increasing steadily in the 30-some years Everyone's Place has been in business. "Kwanzaa has breath and life; it's just growing."

That must be music to the ears of Karenga, an Eastern Shore native active in the 1960s civil rights movement who created Kwanzaa in 1966, finding his inspiration in African harvest festivals.

"Kwanzaa is a celebration of freedom," Karenga, a professor and chair of Africana studies at California State University, Long Beach, said in a statement, "of the freedom struggle itself in which Kwanzaa is grounded, a celebration of our choosing to free ourselves and be ourselves, as Africans, and to rejoice in the richness of our history and culture of awesome and audacious striving and struggle."

The Lewis Museum has seen a consistent interest in such celebration, with its Kwanzaa event drawing between 1,000 and 1,300 people each year, according to Terry Taylor, manager of education programs.

Among those committed to seeing Kwanzaa grow is Fanon Hill, executive director of Baltimore's Youth Resiliency Institute, whose Youth Kwanzaa Collective is a year-round effort to promote the holiday's principles far beyond the last week in December. His organization, which counts young Amir Ralph among its members, is sponsoring a Kwanzaa celebration Wednesday in Cherry Hill.

At its core, Hill says, Kwanzaa is about inspiring and protecting the coming generations. And that makes it worth celebrating.

"Kwanzaa is all about giving people a safe space, a space where individuals are celebrated and cultures explored," says Hill, who has written a song with singer Navasha Daya, "Kwanzaa 50," in honor of this year's benchmark anniversary. "It's understood at Kwanzaa celebrations that young people are the point."

chris.kaltenbach@baltsun.com

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Kwanzaa events

'It's All About the Children' Performances by Next Generation, Wombwork Productions and more. 6 p.m. Monday at the Great Blacks in Wax Museum, 1601-03 E. North Ave. Free. greatblacksinwax.org.

Celebrate Kwanzaa Celebrations, hosted by Charles Dugger, are set for Enoch Pratt Free Library branches: Southeast Anchor, 3601 Eastern Ave. (2 p.m. Tuesday); Patterson Park, 158 N. Linwood Ave. (6 p.m. Tuesday); Herring Run, 3801 Erdman Ave. (2 p.m. Wednesday); Waverly, 400 E. 33rd St. (6 p.m. Wednesday); and Clifton, 2001 N. Wolfe St. (2 p.m. Friday). Free. prattlibrary.org.

The 2016 Cherry Hill Community Kwanzaa Celebration Enjoy music, food and crafts-making, plus door prizes. Sponsored by the Youth Resiliency Institute. 5 p.m.-8 p.m. Wednesday at the Created For So Much More Worship Center, 701 Cherry Hill Rd. Free. facebook.com/YouthResiliencyInstitute.

50th Anniversary of Kwanzaa Celebration Mark Kwanzaa's first half-century with a program that includes an African marketplace, genealogy research sessions, storytelling, performances by the Sankofa Dance Theater and a talk on "Finding Your Purpose (Nia)" by Jeff Menzise of Morgan State University. Noon-4:15 p.m. Friday at the Reginald F. Lewis Museum of Maryland African American History & Culture, 830 E. Pratt St. $5. lewismuseum.org.

Kwanzaa Celebration Master griots will tell stories based on the seven principals of Kwanzaa. 1:30 p.m.-3 p.m. Friday at the Benjamin Banneker Historical Park & Museum, 300 Oella Ave. in Catonsville. Free. (Advance registration required.) facebook.com/BannekerMuseum.

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