Focus on heritage, community

Young and old gather at Baltimore museum to celebrate Kwanzaa

December 31, 2006|By Chris Emery | Chris Emery,SUN REPORTER

A wide smile crept over Dominique Wallace's face as she donned a crown fit for an African queen. She had made it herself from cardboard and glossy paper printed with an animal-skin pattern.

"Mine is a cheetah crown," said the 8-year-old from Aberdeen. "Or maybe it is a leopard. I can't tell the difference between a leopard and a cheetah."

After pausing to consider the crown on her head, she added, "It is from Africa."

Dominique might have been confused about the species of her crown, but she got a key point of the Kwanzaa celebration she attended yesterday with family members: celebrating her African roots.

Held at Baltimore's Reginald F. Lewis Museum of Maryland African American History and Culture, the event featured a variety of performances, a market for African products, and children's arts and crafts focused on African culture and the traditions of Kwanzaa.

Drummers traveled the floors of the museum pounding out rhythms to which dancers in colorful African dress stomped, clapped and twisted. Storytellers recited folktales, and spoken-word poets gave the audience a taste of what was on their minds.

This was the second year the museum has held a Kwanzaa celebration. David T. Terry, the executive director, said the museum decided to celebrate Kwanzaa as a way to bring in visitors during the holidays, when families have time off school and work. "We hope to earn a place on people's calendars," he said.

Terry said Kwanzaa has moved beyond small family celebrations of the past. "Events like this are becoming one of the more popular ways to celebrate it," he said. "I see people learning about it here and then taking it home."

While rooted in African culture, Kwanzaa was the brainchild of Maulana Karenga, a university professor and social activist who was born on a Wicomico County poultry farm on Maryland's Eastern Shore.

Karenga organized the first Kwanzaa celebration during civil rights struggles of the 1960s when he was a professor of black studies at California State University, Long Beach.

The celebration was modeled after African harvest celebrations. The name Kwanzaa is derived from a Swahili phrase meaning "first fruits." The weeklong celebration begins Dec. 26. It is not a religious holiday but instead focuses on family, community and culture.

A new candle is lit each day to represent principles such as unity, self-determination, purpose and creativity. Participants typically hold a banquet Dec. 31, and parents and children exchange gifts on Jan. 1, the last day of Kwanzaa.

Shabaka Bambata of Northeast Baltimore said his 17-month-old daughter is named Imani, after the final day and principle of the holiday. In Swahili, imani means "faith."

Bambata visited the museum yesterday with two other daughters, 5-year-old Yasmin and 4-year-old Olakikan. In addition to keeping the girls entertained making necklaces and crowns, the event helps teach them that they are part of a community, he said.

"I have been celebrating Kwanzaa since the beginning in 1966," he said. "We are trying to get young people to look back and see where they come from. If all of the young brothers and sisters understood their responsibility to one another, we would not have the problems we do."

Lola "Mama Lola" Jenkins of the Irvington neighborhood of Baltimore takes a similar approach to the American-made holiday.

Along with her daughter Joanne "Sallah" Jenkins, she volunteered to help out yesterday with the arts and crafts. She showed Dominique Wallace how to make the crown out of the faux animal skin - though she could not clear up whether it was supposed to be leopard or cheetah.

Lola Jenkins started celebrating Kwanzaa in 1983 after a friend introduced her to the rituals. "We just started off very slow," she said. "Since then, it has been growing in my family and community."

"It is really important for us to know who we are and where we came from," she said. "The images of blacks in America are not very positive. Kwanzaa makes them see they have a place in this world and a duty to uplift the race."

Sitting across the table from her, Dominique had finished her crown and was getting ready to go to another craft table.

Before she left, Jenkins wanted one last look at the girl's handiwork.

"Let me see yours, baby," Jenkins said. "Turn around, model it."

As Dominique took a regal spin to show off her crown, Jenkins nodded approvingly.

chris.emery@baltsun.com

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