Holiday celebrates African-American cultural unity

From the outside, the Amani family's spacious Colonial-style home on a tree-lined street in Columbia looks as Middle American as one can get. Two-car garage. Garden gasping its last breath before the onset of winter frost. Backyard deck overlooking a manicured lawn.

On the inside, African artworks, including prints, sculptures and paintings, line the walls and fill nearly every nook. And in a prominent place in the sun room is the Kwanzaa display.


This is the first day of Kwanzaa, a weeklong holiday during which African Americans focus on values that can guide their lives. The word "Kwanzaa" comes from a Swahili phrase, "matunda ya kwanza," which means "first fruits."

Kwanzaa is neither a religious nor a political holiday. It's a celebration of cultural unity during which African people worldwide reflect on their ancestry, family and community. It is also a time to honor the past and give thanks. Gifts are part of the celebration, but they are given most often to children, are educational and usually relate to matters of African ancestry.


The Amanis will celebrate Kwanzaa 1993 as they have for the past 23 years: Today and for the next six days, the parents and their two children will gather to discuss one of the seven Kwanzaa principles and how to incorporate it into their daily lives.

On one of the days, the family will have a feast and invite relatives and friends for a grand celebration of food, fun and fellowship.

No one knows for sure how many people celebrate Kwanzaa. What is certain is that since it began in 1966, Kwanzaa has been adopted in a growing number of homes across America and other countries where people of African descent live.

"It grows among African people in the U.S., in Africa, Brazil and other countries of South America, in Canada, in the Caribbean, in Britain and other European countries and now this year in India," says Dr. Maulana Karenga, who created the holiday. He now heads the department of black studies at California State University at Long Beach and directs the Institute of Pan-African Studies in Los Angeles.

Dr. Karenga created the holiday to "reaffirm African Americans' rootedness" in African culture, to reinforce the bonds between them as a people and to introduce and reaffirm the seven principles of Kwanzaa.

Those principles are (in Swahili followed by the English translation):

* Umoja (unity)

* Kujichagulia (self-determination)


* Ujima (collective work and responsibility)

* Ujamaa (cooperative economics)

* Nia (purpose)

* Kuumba (creativity)

* Imani (faith)

The principles can serve "as a fundamental value system" in the African-American community, Dr. Karenga says.


In the Amani household, the celebration of Kwanzaa is now as traditional as Christmas and Hanukkah.

"I happened to be one of the participants in helping Kwanzaa get off the ground," says Mwalimu Amani (a k a Samuel Dove), explaining why he values the holiday. He was a student at Fayetteville State University in North Carolina when Dr. Karenga came to spread the word about Kwanzaa.

"I'm a long-time political activist who came out of SNCC. There was a series of meetings across the country where Karenga was trying to elicit community support for the idea," says Mr. Amani, an information scientist for an aerospace company. "There was a lot of skepticism about this. It was something new," he says.

He helped to introduce people to Kwanzaa and later persuaded his wife to start this family tradition.

"We both felt we needed to celebrate our African heritage," says Kamilia Amani, a registered nurse who also is known as Lilian Dove. "And, Christmas had become so very commercial."

In the Amani home, Kwanzaa is the only holiday celebrated this time of year. Other African Americans opt to celebrate Christmas as well.


"We wanted to give our children some values we thought were really important," says Mrs. Amani, speaking of the seven Kwanzaa principles. "And these are values to be followed all year."

"This does not come at the expense of them having a quote,

normal, life," Mr. Amani says. "They participate in everyday life. Kwanzaa has not inhibited their ability to succeed. It has enhanced it."

The two children -- Kinshasha Amani-Dove, who attends Howard University, and Hamishi Amani-Dove, who goes to Rutgers -- now take turns leading the family Kwanzaa celebration.

However, they were not always willing participants.

"We moved to Columbia from New York in 1978, and Kwanzaa wasn't even mentioned in our school then," says Kinshasha, 23.


"People would say, 'What did you do for Christmas?' " she says, recalling the early years in Columbia. "I would just go along with them and say, 'Oh, we went here or there.' "

Finally, she found it easier to say: "We celebrate Christmas with other friends and family members. But in our home, we celebrate Kwanzaa.

By the time Kinshasha and her brother were older, serious peer pressure kicked in. "I remember there was a point in high school when my brother and I asked, 'Why are we celebrating Kwanzaa?' "

These days, the holiday is more widely known, and Kinshasha's feelings about it have changed. "I see Kwanzaa differently now," she says. "Now, I think it is important."

Since leaving her family's home for college, she has relied on the Kwanzaa principles the family discussed. "My family has always talked about those values," she says. Kwanzaa, she explains, reinforced them.



Call the free NOMMO African Cultural hot line at (410) 542-8219 if you are looking for community Kwanzaa events or to list one you are sponsoring.