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As it nears its 50th year, Kwanzaa strives for relevance

LOS ANGELES — While many people are focusing on after-Christmas sales on Dec. 26, many African Americans in South Los Angeles will turn their attention to the seven-day “Festival of First Fruits,” otherwise known as Kwanzaa.

Throngs of residents, community organizations and businesses are expected to participate in the half-century old family- and community-centered holiday which begins the day after Christmas with a parade through the heart of the African-American community and follows up with a series of daily rituals grounded in African culture.

According to the holiday’s founder, Maulana Karenga, professor and chair of the Africana Studies Department at Cal State Long Beach, the festival, with roots in pan-African agricultural harvest celebrations, introduces and reinforces seven basic African values: unity, self-determination, collective work and responsibility, cooperative economics, purpose, creativity and faith. The Nguzo Saba, or “seven principles,” reaffirms … the best of family, community and culture,” Karenga said.

Kwanzaa was created in 1966 during the Black Power Movement “as an act of self-determination,” adding to the “conversation from an African-centered perspective and to the struggle to radically transform society,” Karenga said in his annual Kwanzaa message.

Since then, “interest in Kwanzaa and the number of its celebrants among African American people as well as Africans throughout the world has steadily grown.”

Maulana Karenga, professor and chair of the Africana Studies Department at Cal State Long Beach, created Kwanzaa during the heart of the Black Power Movement in the mid-1960s ‘as an act of self-determination.’ (File photo)
Maulana Karenga, professor and chair of the Africana Studies Department at Cal State Long Beach, created Kwanzaa during the heart of the Black Power Movement in the mid-1960s ‘as an act of self-determination.’ (File photo)

Los Angeles resident Carolyn Burleson remembers when Karenga created Kwanzaa back in the 1960s.

“We were into Black Power and they wanted something to celebrate besides Christmas, so they created Kwanzaa,” she recalled. “I was not willing to alternate.  I don’t look at it as a religion. I love the concept, but I’ve never done the rituals.”

Chimbuko Tembo, associate director of the African American Cultural Center in South L.A., told The Wave, “Worldwide, we don’t know how many people celebrate it, but USA Todaydid a report maybe a decade ago that estimated 20 million people. Our estimate is 20-30 million people, predominantly in this country.”

That figure would represent a large portion of the roughly 42.2 million African Americans in the U.S. as of July 2014.

“The holiday is growing,” Tembo added. “A ‘sister’ in Brussels, [Belgium] is in her fifth year of organizing Kwanzaa activities among continental Africans from all over Europe. We have celebrants in France, and it is really growing in Suriname (South America). Kwanzaa will be 50 in 2016, so we are really excited and looking forward to starting to make plans in terms of really extending the outreach internationally.

“Kwanzaa continues to build links between us and Africans everywhere. This time of the year people more than any other time, embrace their African-ness, even more so than during Black History Month, which doesn’t have the international or global aspect,” she said.

Gary Easely “congratulates Dr. Karenga for coming up with cultural awareness that gives somebody a sense of wellness and family,” but the instructor at L.A. Southwest College and a director for Operation 3801 Drug Addiction Resource Agency asks: “Is Kwanzaa effective? Do we have the ability to embrace it?”

To Easely, the answer to both questions is no.

“In urban areas in L.A., poor people do not celebrate Kwanzaa,” Easely said. “I know the average person in the urban community is just trying to pay bills.

“I think you probably get a lot more camaraderie or participation out of the middle and upper classes. They are comfortable to a degree so they can get the candles and embrace it, and enjoy it.

“Working-class people are too busy just trying to keep a roof over their heads. That really takes away from the essence, the feeling and spirit of unity, togetherness and love. It is real hard from one week to the next, one pay check to the next.  It is always a struggle.

“Kwanzaa is relevant to the better qualities of the human spirit and awareness. It’s a great cultural experience, but is it real down here on the firing line? No. It is not something you can touch, feel and embrace,” Easley added.

Each year, Corliss Bennett-McBride, director of USC’s Center for Black Cultural and Student Affairs, decorates the center with the Kwanzaa colors, banner and the Kinara, or candelabra, from Dec. 26 to Jan. 1.

“But we have not had our usual pre-Kwanzaa celebration for about a decade,” Bennett-McBride said. “It used to be well-attended, but USC is on the semester system, which ends in early December.”

In other words, at USC everyone has gone home for the holidays.

Kwanzaa is still relevant,” Bennett-McBride added. “The center represents the 40 African American organizations on campus. None of the individual clubs holds Kwanzaa celebrations, but separate offices, staff and faculty may have their own celebrations and decorations.”

Los Angeles native Chin Thammasaengsri said he celebrated Kwanzaa from time to time as a child.

“My parents would do things over the days of Kwanzaa, but as an adult I got out of it and ran with Christmas, the regular holiday,” he said. “Kwanzaa is a celebration of our culture and an appreciation of our history as well. Not a lot of people I know celebrate Kwanzaa, and I don’t know why. If it were a little bit more prominent, probably a lot more people would celebrate.”

Several local institutions and organizations hold Kwanzaa celebrations. The African American Cultural Center Los Angeles, headed by Karenga, will hold its Umoja or candle-lighting ceremony on Dec. 26, and its Kwanzaa Karamu on Dec. 31. Contact the center at (323) 299-6124.

The Kwanzaa Heritage Festival, Block Parade and Candle-Lighting Ceremony will take place Dec. 26. Information: (323) 789-0850.

The Lula Washington Dance Theatre will celebrate Kwanzaa atthe Nate Holden Performing Arts Center Dec. 27.  Information: (323) 292-5852.