The man dressed in black was undaunted when twice he failed to light a black candle that symbolizes unity and the beginning of Kwanzaa, the seven-day African-American cultural celebration.
So Sanifu Onaje Mwananchi, 40, principal organizer for the Association for Interdisciplinary Afrocentric Thought (TAIFA), tried again.
This time, on a stage before 70 people last night at the Arena Theatre on McCulloh Street, Mwananchi was successful.
"This represents Umoja," he said. "Black symbolizes not only unity, but us as a people."
The candle was flanked by three red candles and three green candles in a Kinara, a candle holder. Black symbolizes the collective color of all blacks, red the blood of their ancestors and green signifies land, life and new ideas.
From yesterday to Jan. 1, some 50,000 African-Americans in Baltimore and millions across the country are celebrating the seven principles of the holiday, said Mwananchi, who has observed Kwanzaa for 20 years. Numerous blacks in Europe also celebrate the holiday, he said.
Besides Umoja, the seven principles, or "The 'Nguzo Sabat," which means tradition and reason in Swahili, include: Kujichagulia, self-determination; Ujima, collective work and responsibility; Ujamma, cooperative economics; Nia, purpose; Kuumba, creativity; and Imani, faith, which ends the holiday.
During the week, a new candle is lit each day to celebrate a new principle. Also, gifts usually are given to children to symbolize the significance of the day, said Mwananchi.
He said the principles of Kwanzaa should be practiced Jan. 1 to Dec. 26, instead of the reverse.
He told the audience, "We hope you will take these core principles and incorporate them" into everyday life.
Since black nationalist Maulana Ron Karenga created the holiday in 1966 in Los Angeles, Kwanzaa has grown.
"Dr. Karenga felt the central crisis that black people face is the cultural crisis," Mwananchi said.
Mwananchi said the holiday will gain more acceptance as soon as people realize it's not an attempt to "reconvert them from Christianity."
"Kwanzaa is an African-American holiday and Christmas is a religious holiday," Mwananchi said after the ceremony. "There are some people who celebrate both. We're not telling people to replace Christmas with Kwanzaa."
Instead, he said, Kwanzaa celebrates African heritage.
Tehuti Imhotep, 27, owner of House of Wisdom, a black book store in Reisterstown Road Plaza, said Karenga's book on the holiday sold out a month ago, demonstrating the holiday's popularity. Imhotep had a display of books in the lobby of the theater.
Kwanzaa dates back to southern Angola, where the locals thanked the Kwanza River for the first fruits of the harvest time.
Symbols of the holiday include fruit for the harvest and a straw mat for the history of the African people.
Mwananchi said if the black community doesn't resolve the social, political and economical problems it faces, "we might not survive this place called America."
Paul Ford, 39, an author, attended the ceremony. It was his first Kwanzaa celebration and he said he was impressed.
"Kwanzaa is a celebration of life and we as a people need that," Ford said. "That's real important."
A free Kwanzaa celebration was planned for this afternoon at City Hall.
A Kwanzaa celebration is scheduled at Rognel Heights Elementary School, 4300 Side Hill Road, from 7 to 10 p.m. tomorrow. The program will feature performances by members of Movements Unlimited Performance Arts Company. For more information, call 624-5244.