Many people in Baltimore's black community will be asking that ritual question Wednesday with the start of Kwanzaa -- the annual seven-day celebration marking the cultural unity and liberation of African-Americans. It means "What's happening?" in Swahili, and the response will be umoja (unity), one of the seven key principles intended to inspire and guide black families and individuals.
"It's a time to harvest our minds and our spirits . . . a time to pause and reflect," explains Charles Dugger, a teacher at Lombard Middle School, who is conducting six Kwanzaa celebrations at various Pratt library branches around town.
Typically, in the ceremony, the pulsating rhythm of drums calls celebrants, as the leader sets out the Kwanzaa symbols on a table: a straw mat on which are placed fruits and vegetables; a candleholder with seven candles, preferably alternating red and green with a black candle in the center (the colors of African nationalism or unity); ears of corn, symbolizing children and the continuity of generations; and a unity cup.
Kwanzaa, created by Maulana Ron Karenga, a black activist and educator, combines African cultural traditions with black nationalist themes. The first Kwanzaa, conducted by the Urban Survival organization, was held in 1966 in Los Angeles. The name was taken from the Swahili term for "first fruits" and refers to the harvest festival celebrated by certain African peoples.
The American observance is markedly different, however, and has no religious connotation. Still, many African-Americans view it as a welcome counterpoint to Christmas.
"Kwanzaa comes at a time of year when we're already celebrating Christmas, a time of great fellowship," Mr. Dugger says.
The ceremony begins with a libation, water poured from the unity cup onto the ground, usually a potted plant, in remembrance of those who have passed on and who, through their intellect, courage, creativity, devotion and wisdom, have strengthened and nourished the race and all humanity.
As the drums intone softly, Mr. Dugger will call out names from the black pantheon of heroes -- Nora Zeale Hurston, Paul Lawrence Dunbar, Lorraine Hansberry, Ralph Bunche, Malcolm X, Martin Luther King. The list goes on.
"We have to pay attention to our history," Mr. Dugger says. "Too long in this society we've been relegated to an inferior position and we don't know anything about our accomplishments. When we study our history, we find we've done some mar
The lighting of the candles follows, and then the leader discusses the importance of the seven principles: umoja, kujichagulia (self-determination), ujima (collective work and responsibility), ujamaa (cooperative economics), nia (purpose), kuumba (creativity) and imani (faith), the overriding principal sustaining the others.
The ceremony usually ends with the reading of poetry and the singing of songs, from "Lift Every Voice and Sing," regarded as the anthem of black Americans with lyrics by James Weldon Johnson, to a camp song with lines such as "Deep and wide, there's a love flowing . . .," with participants acting out the words with their hands.
Following the observance, people share the fruit.
In a home setting, the father or the head of the household typically leads the ceremony. Mr. Dugger says grandparents and other family elders are encouraged to take on the responsibility as a way of instilling respect for the aged among the younger generation.
On New Year's Eve, which falls on the sixth day of Kwanzaa, adults have their feast and celebration of giving. Children are feted the following day, during which they receive presents. Gifts, created by the giver, are preferable to store-bought items, according to Mr. Dugger, because they include the giving of oneself.
Proponents of Kwanzaa feel the celebration is especially important for young people as a way of teaching positive values.
"The sad thing about this society is that eating seems to be the focus of almost every holiday," says Mr. Dugger. "Kwanzaa is not just a time for eating. It's bigger than that. Our children, who are our future, have to sit still and listen to the words of wisdom, so they can pass it all on."
4 p.m. to 10 p.m.: The Palladium, 2901 Liberty Heights Ave. Citywide Kwanzaa Ceremony and Celebration. With African dance and music, storytelling, fashions, vendors, food and items for sale. Performers including storytellers Umoja Sasa! and Mary Carter Smith. $1 donation. Call 367-6862.
6 p.m.: New Era Education Center, 4516 Manordene Road. Call 233-5100.
7 p.m.: Arena Playhouse, 801 McCulloh St. Program by the Kawaida Community Project includes the play "El Hajj Malik," African dances by the Sankofa Dance Theater, reading by poet Toni Richardson and traditional ceremony. Admission is $10 in advance and $15 at the door. Call 728-5509.
6:30 p.m.: Walbrook Community Library, 3203 W. North Ave. Call 947-2726.
2 p.m.: Northwood Community Library, 4420 Loch Raven Blvd. Call 323-2122.
Through Dec. 28
City Hall rotunda: Kwanzaa exhibit.