Celebration of Kwanza is also a chance to learn Girl, 10, teaches her family and others

December 27, 1992|By Rafael Alvarez | Rafael Alvarez,Staff Writer

When white people would ask Brenda Jefferson of Northeast Baltimore to explain Kwanza, she didn't know what to say.

Ms. Jefferson, a 41-year-old black, did not know herself.

Yesterday, at the city's Fort Worthington Elementary School on the first day of the week-long Kwanza holiday, she said: "I work at a Towson day-care center that's predominantly white, and they always ask me about Kwanza -- they just expect me to know. I came here so I could learn. I brought my children so they could learn too."

The Jeffersons went to the school on Oliver Street in East Baltimore and found the cafeteria transformed for the celebration of African heritage.

To learn about the holiday, Brenda Jefferson had a lot to choose from on Oliver Street: "griots" or story tellers, local poets, reggae bands and vendors selling African-inspired clothes and art. Or she could sit down at a lunch table with 10-year-old Tierra Thornton.

Tierra, a student at Fort Worthington Elementary, was spilling over with Kwanza information.

One after the other, the fifth-grader rattled off the names for the seven days of the holiday and the philosophy attributed to each:

* "Umoja, that means unity," she said.

* "Kujichagulia: Self-determination.

* "Ujima . . . hmmm, ujima . . . I forget. Wait a minute! I got it -- cooperative economics.

* "Ujamaa: collective work and responsibility.

* "Nia: purpose.

* "Kuumba, creativity.

* "And Imani, that means faith," Tierra said.

The young student said she learned all of this from her teacher, a white woman.

"I think Kwanza should be for all Americans," she said. "In America, everybody is free to come and learn" about each other.

All of it was new to Tierra Thornton's mother.

"I never knew any of it until she came home all excited and I got enthused because she knew so much," said Cynthia Thornton. "I think it's good for [blacks] to remember that they're African. It brings unity."

Kwanza in the United States was created in Los Angeles in 1966 by black nationalist Maulana Ron Karenga. It originated in southern Angola, where the locals thanked the Kwanza River for the first fruits of the harvest time. Symbols of the hol

iday include fruit representing the harvest and a straw mat for the history of the African people.

Yesterday's celebration was sponsored by the City-Wide Kwanza Committee and the Fort Worthington Community Improvement Association. To gain admission, people brought canned goods for Bea Gaddy's work feeding the homeless, and a stainless steel table in the middle of the room was crowded with cans of pink salmon, fruit cocktail, and sweet peas.

Private Kwanza observances were also being held elsewhere in Maryland and across the country.

"A lot of people misinterpret this as a religious holiday, that it makes people choose between Kwanza and Christmas, but that's not true," said the disc jockey for the party, a man who identified himself as Imani. "It's simply a way that African-Americans can annually celebrate our shared heritage. It's a synthesis of all the best things from Africa."

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