Celebrating African heritage with Kwanzaa

Reginald F. Lewis Museum of Maryland African American History & Culture kicks off weeklong Kwanzaa.

Not only did Nia Imani Field's parents raise her to celebrate Kwanzaa. They named her after two of the seven principles honored during the weeklong celebration. Nia is Swahili for "purpose;" Imani means "faith."

The 31-year-old Parkville woman and her two children joined nearly 1,200 people Sunday for Kwanzaa festivities at the Reginald F. Lewis Museum of Maryland African American History & Culture.

Since Kwanzaa began on Saturday, Field and her husband (who was working Sunday) have lit the first two candles of the week with their children, 8-year-old Terry and 6-month-old Omani.

"We're just starting the tradition with them," Field said. "We talk about the history of our African culture, being proud to be African American and how to practice the principles every day."

The seven-day celebration of family, community and culture was established in 1966 by Maulana Karenga, an Eastern Shore-born advocate for civil rights and black power. The holiday is rooted in African traditions expressed through seven principles: unity, self-determination, collective work and responsibility, cooperative economics, purpose, creativity and faith.

The featured speaker on Sunday tied self-determination to the activism that has emerged through the Black Lives Matter movement.

Jeffery Menzise, an associate professor with Morgan State University's Institute for Urban Research, urged the audience to remember that black lives must matter most to black people every day — not just in reaction to events such as the death of Freddie Gray.

Self-determination to Menzise means eliminating self-defeating behaviors — listening to misogynistic music, dressing sloppily — that racists use to support their stereotypes.

When pulled over by a police officer, he advised, "understand he's a potential murderer" and "rise above" any provocations to avoid providing any possible justification for being abused.

Iterny Joseph, 43, a public school teacher in Baltimore County, knows that scenario well.

Joseph, who is black, and his wife, Jill, who is white, took their two children to the museum Sunday. The Towson couple want their children to appreciate the richness of their African history, in part to counter the negative racial stereotypes and institutional racism that they have seen firsthand.

On a recent drive around Baltimore County's Hampton neighborhood, the couple said, they stopped to ask a homeowner about a certain block. Minutes later, they said, a county police officer pulled them over in response to a 911 call. With their children watching a cartoon video in the back of their minivan, the couple had to explain they were house hunting.

The Kwanzaa event helps to focus on positive aspects of African culture rather than negative interactions.

"I want our kids to appreciate mom's side and dad's side and not to think one is better than the other," Joseph said.

Joseph said it's crucial that his children and his students learn about Kwanzaa so they can grasp their ability to overcome lasting legacies of racism still visible in disparities in income, health, housing and other measures.

"It's such a hole to dig ourselves out of," Joseph said. "We all have to fix the pieces we can fix."

Annie Foster, 63, of Howard County agreed. The retired Anne Arundel County public schools administrator started celebrating Kwanzaa with her children three decades ago "to make sure they were connected to other cultures and ethnicities."

"I wanted to teach them that the holidays are not just about buying gifts," Foster said.

ddonovan@baltsun.com

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