Kwanza African-American holiday focuses on global family in the intimacy of home

December 26, 1992|By Linell Smith | Linell Smith,Staff Writer

As the winter light trickles into the Bolton Hill townhouse, Nataska Hasan and her sister Rashida Forman-Bey arrange their seven children into a unity circle. They pass around drums, a musical clay pot and a balaphone, grandmother of the xylophone. They summon those rhythms which dwell in the soul. They sing Zulu words of resistance. They smile and hug as if this moment were a reunion.

Here before an altar of candles, fruit, corn and African cloth, these families marry present to past. Today they will join thousands of other families across the country in marking the first day of the African-American celebration of Kwanza, which means first fruits of the harvest in Swahili.

A non-religious holiday, Kwanza was created in 1966 by Maulana Ron Karenga, a California professor of black studies, to express cultural pride and pay tribute to the diverse origins of America's black populations. Mr. Karenga borrowed many African rituals to tailor a celebration just for African-Americans.

And its popularity seems to be spreading. Djenaba Bahar, manager of Pyramid Books in Mondawmin Mall, marks the increasing interest through the proliferation of Kwanza books, cards, cassette tapes and ceremonial kits.

Each of the seven days of the holiday -- it runs through Jan. 1 -- is dedicated to a different African principle of tradition and reason: unity (umoja), self-determination (kujichagulia), collective work and responsibility (ujima), cooperative economics (ujamaa), purpose (nia), creativity (kuumba) and faith (imani).

More than 5 million people celebrate at least some Kwanza rituals -- such as the daily lighting of candles -- according to "Kwanzaa: An African-American Celebration of Culture and Cooking" by Eric Copage.

A professional storyteller and musician, Nataska Hasan gives Kwanza demonstrations to groups of all ages around Baltimore. She talks less about the particulars of the holiday than about its genesis. She considers her mission to tell her audiences about their African ancestry and remind them why the slave masters erased their past.

"There was a need for doing Kwanza because people were so disconnected from their heritage and their language," she says. "It gives the Africans in North America something which belongs to them alone. The calendar is full of days like St. Patrick's Day and Oktoberfest and Chinese New Year and Fourth of July. We needed a time to reflect on our culture and history, to look where we've been and where we're going, to honor our ancestors."

"And to remember that we have a language other than English," says her sister, Rashida Forman-Bey.

"And to remember that, yes, we are special. Yes, we are wonderful," adds Ms. Hasan.

"People who celebrate themselves will be productive and not destructive -- to themselves and others," Ms. Forman-Bey says.

The two sisters run World Arts Productions, an agency which books educational and cultural programs primarily for children.

Ms. Hasan works as a storyteller and performs lecture concerts on such subjects as "Heroes and She-roes of the Glorious Past" and "Music of Black Composers Born in Captivity." They conduct workshops designed to empower women and lead African rite of passage programs.

And they carefully instruct their children in the history of their own African and Native American ancestors. At one of the sisters' frequent gatherings, 7-year-old Omari Forman-Bey leads his siblings and cousins in the daily recitation of the African Pledge:

"I pledge allegiance to my people the African race, the original man and woman of the earth, and the founders of civilization. I pledge to continue the struggle and to help bring my beloved brothers and sisters to total freedom. I pledge to study and discipline myself mentally, physically and spiritually so that I may grow into a soldier for justice because my people need strong warriors. I pledge to live my life standing tall, for a person on his or her knees is not respected. If I'm challenged, I must say that I will not surrender my position or my dignity but instead I will endure until the final victory is won. Harambe! (We all stand together)."

The holiday of Kwanza is not merely about the past, Ms. Hasan points out, but also about the current struggle of African-Americans to gain strength and recognition.

Kwanza uses symbolic objects which become the centerpiece for a daily ceremony. Seven candles symbolizing the seven principles of Kwanza are placed in a seven-branched candle holder representing the continent and peoples of Africa.

Other ritual symbols arranged in an altar-like display include a straw mat, which signifies the foundation of African-American culture; fruits and vegetables, which represent the rewards of labor; and a libation cup, which symbolizes reverence to ancestors and family unity.

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