Dressed in a gold and tan dashiki shirt, William E. Lambert stepped out in front of the ritual table and spelled it out in plain terms for the gathering at the Benjamin Banneker Historical Park & Museum in Catonsville: "As they say on the corner, 'We're all in this mess together.' That's what this is all about it."
So began the ceremonies on Day Three of the weeklong festival of Kwanzaa, an observance born of black nationalism of the 1960s that has survived, adapted, mellowed and grown to see a 45th year and another generation of children lighting the seven candles on the ritual candelabra known as the kinara. Lambert, president of the organization that supports the Banneker park, kicked off an hour of recitations, storytelling and singing on Tuesday afternoon meant to emphasize the seven principles represented by the candles.
Children were featured performers in the ceremony, and they made up nearly half the crowd of about 50 people. Alone or in pairs, they stepped up to light a green or red candle and recite a proverb, a principle or quote from a prominent African-American to convey the meanings of the values Kwanzaa celebrates: unity, self determination, collective work and responsibility, cooperative economics, purpose, creativity, faith.
Robinson Burrell, 11, of Randallstown, read a quote from writer James Baldwin to express ujima, Swahili for the third principle on the holiday's third day: collective work and responsibility.
"We are responsible for the world in which we find ourselves, if only because we are the sentient force which can change it," Baldwin wrote.
Later, Burrell said Kwanzaa is meant to "celebrate about our people. Just trying to say that everybody's equal."
James Morrow, 14, of Pikesville, who read a quote from Martin Luther King on kuumba, or creativity, said the holiday was "about being together all the time."
It was a first Kwanzaa celebration for Morrow, as it was for Jocelyn Green, 14, of Baltimore, who said she had heard about the celebration years ago from her grandmother.
"It's people coming together and building something," said Green. "It's like to build something for the better."
Indeed, that was part of the vision of Maulana Karenga, the black power activist who urged in 1966 that Dec. 26 through Jan. 1 be set aside as a celebration by and for black people, focused on cultural heritage and distinct from the rest of the season's holidays.
Karenga had already founded the US Organization, advocating the same seven principles that form the center of Kwanzaa, as a way to strengthen community and emphasize connections to Africa. Karenga is now a professor of Africana Studies at California State University, Long Beach.
The holiday he established has grown beyond its strongholds in black neighborhoods and its beginnings, said Keith Mayes, who wrote "Kwanzaa: Black Power and the Making of an African-American Holiday Tradition."
Estimates of the number of people who celebrate Kwanzaa have ranged from 500,000 to 28 million. Mayes, a professor of African American and African studies at the University of Minnesota, said the festival has spread throughout the country.
"You can find Kwanzaa in every single city in the United States," said Mayes, including small Minnesota towns near the Canadian border with very small black populations.
You can also find the same sort of commercialization common to other holidays. In this case, it's the "Kwanzaa purists," as Mayes puts it, who are chagrined at the Kwanzaa-theme beer commercials, bank cards and greeting cards that appeared in the 1980s and 1990s.
Mayes and those at the Catonsville ceremony credited Karenga's concepts of the principles for much of the appeal of the celebration, which has always been cultural rather than religious.
"Anybody can celebrate Kwanzaa," said Cynthia de Jesus, program chairman for the Friends of Benjamin Banneker Historical Park & Museum. "The principles are universal."