Kwanzaa's principles still resonate 45 years after its creation

12/30/2011 12:00 AM

12/30/2011 6:41 AM

The beat of West African drums pulsated through the Valley Hi Library on Wednesday – the third day of Kwanzaa.

Angela James lit three candles, performed with the Fenix Drum and Dance Company and made up a song using the seven principles of Kwanzaa, emphasizing each melodic syllable.

"I say U-mo-ja, means unity! Ku-ji-cha-gu-li-a, self-determination! U-ji-ma, collective work and responsibility! U-ja-ma-a, cooperative economics! Ni-a, purpose! Ku-um-ba, creativity! I-ma-ni, faith!"

James says the holiday, which runs through Sunday, and its principles are relevant today. It was invented 45 years ago by an African American professor in Southern California and once epitomized black pride, power, roots and community.

But Kwanzaa has changed as racial barriers have come down. While celebrated by several million worldwide, it has lost some of its political steam.

"Ten or 20 years ago, it was more of an activist tradition celebrating black pride and pan-Africanism," said Sam Starks, director of Sacramento's annual Martin Luther King Jr. celebration. "Only those who were culturally literate or hip practiced Kwanzaa. Now businesses say 'Happy Kwanzaa.' It's more mainstream as non-African Americans become more accepting of African American values."

Starks said his family values Kwanzaa's principles without celebrating the holiday. And some African Americans don't celebrate Kwanzaa because it seems too complicated, or because their kids aren't exposed to it in school.

Complicated or not, James and others say Kwanzaa's principles – which emphasize actions, not material things – resonate in tough economic times when many families can't afford to buy Christmas gifts.

"Kwanzaa's your little blueprint for living 24/7," said James.

She learned about Kwanzaa from an African American who brought the tradition to her native Trinidad in 1973. The principles, she said, "are like the seven commandments, but not what we can't do – what we shall do."

At Valley Hi, celebrants spanned race, faith and generations, and came to shake gourds, honor their ancestors and raise their hands to the skies as they chanted each of the seven principles.

The celebration was one of 20 Kwanzaa events playing out in the Sacramento region this week at libraries, churches, museums, galleries and community centers. Today the Kwanzaa principle of "purpose" will be observed at the Brickhouse Art Gallery in Sacramento.

Kwanzaa, which runs from Dec. 26 to Jan. 1, was born in 1966. James said it grew out of civil unrest and racial tension and was intended to inspire a sense of self-worth.

Kwanzaa's founder, Maulana Karenga, chair of Africana Studies at California State University, Long Beach, took the Swahili phrase "matunda ya kwanza" meaning "first fruits" and created a holiday devoted to family, community, culture and kinship with the environment.

Summer Thomas, 34, is one who finds the holiday too difficult and complicated. She is a Sacramento State sociology student and a mother of four. She works for the Department of Motor Vehicles and realizes that Kwanzaa takes time.

"As a black woman, Kwanzaa is something I should celebrate and embrace," she said. "But I don't."

Thomas was exposed to Kwanzaa as a child in West Oakland and the purpose was to instill a sense of self-worth, to teach children to to love who they are. "That it's not a burden to be black," she said. "That it's something beautiful."

Her dad used to celebrate it, but now Thomas doesn't know where to begin. "It seems confusing, and not everyone takes the time," she said.

Her kids, ages 4 to 12, never mention Kwanzaa, Thomas said. "It's not really something that's taught in the Elk Grove School District," she said.

She said as society becomes more integrated, Kwanzaa can be see as emphasizing cultural differences. "A lot of people associate it with being an African deal," she said, "and it becomes racial, seen as separating from the norm," she said.

To Sacramento community activist Robbin Ware, the holiday is fading. He said, along with its African flavors, Kwanzaa is an amalgamation of Judaism and Christianity.

"It's an attempt to give African Americans their own uniqueness and identify with something other than white European culture," he said. Kwanzaa serves its purpose, but "it's like a fad, it's slowly dying," Ware said.

Kakwasi Somadhi, a transplant from Los Angeles, will host tonight's event. She said Kwanzaa has "hung on for 45 years because it strikes a chord in most African Americans, even those who are not considered radical, revolutionary or left-leaning.

"They come around even if we don't see them all year because they want to connect," she said. "The human mind and spirit has a need to celebrate itself and Kwanzaa takes its place in that spectrum, along with Hanukkah, Christmas and Chinese New Year."

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