Looking for a mind change

“I note the obvious differences
between each sort and type,
but we are more alike my friends
than we are unalike.”

Maya Angelou

Kwanzaa ignores religious and national boundaries, says John R. Hayes, president of the Asheville chapter of the NAACP. The seven-day celebration is about bringing together a diverse group of people who share a common heritage.

Maulana Karenga, chair of the Department of Black Studies at California State University, Long Beach, devised the holiday in 1966, during the height of the civil-rights movement. Karenga saw Kwanzaa as a way for people of African descent to reconnect to their ancestry, basing the new holiday on African traditions of celebrating the year’s first harvest.

The name, in fact, comes from the Swahili expression matunda ya kwanza, and translates as “first fruits.” The extra “A” got added when seven children of civil-rights activists each wanted to portray a letter in a 1966 holiday program, and there were only six letters in kwanza. And because one of Kwanzaa’s many focuses is children — i.e., the fruits of the family — Karenga consented to the minor change in spelling.

The celebration is from Dec. 26-Jan. 1, with each day representing one of the Nguzo Saba, or Seven Principles: Umoja (unity), Kujichagulia (self-determination), Ujima (collective work and responsibility), Ujamaa (cooperative economics), Nia (purpose), Kuumba (creativity), and Imani (faith).

“These should be practiced year-round,” says Hayes, of the local National Association for the Advancement of Colored People. “Anyone can apply these principles to their life, no matter who they are.”

Hayes stresses that the holiday is not religious, though it can and should be spiritual — so people can gain a deeper understanding of Kwanzaa’s principles. African-Americans of any faith can celebrate Kwanzaa together to reclaim lost traditions, and to begin new ones within their own families, he adds. In particular, older people are encouraged to share their history and values with their children and grandchildren, in the hope that they, in turn, will pass along those gifts.

Material gifts, in other words, have little place in a Kwanzaa celebration — with one notable exception:

“The gifts you’re really supposed to give your children during Kwanzaa are books,” Hayes explains. “That’s the only way to empower our children, is to hand down our traditions.”

The last day of Kwanzaa — Jan. 1 — is considered the most important: It’s a time for reassessment and meditation. Karenga suggested that celebrants on that day ask themselves the following hard questions:

• “Who am I?”

• “Am I who I really say I am?”

• And, perhaps hardest of all: “Am I all I ought to be?”

Karenga has also urged people to spend part of that day remembering ancestors, before forging ahead into the new year.

“We’re looking for a mind change,” Hayes affirms. “This is a good time for the community to come together, but the important thing is, we should begin strengthening the family first.

“We should not be so apt to look into the outer community before looking at ourselves.”

The Kwanzaa Annual Celebration, a public event, will be held from 4-6 p.m. at the YMI Cultural Center (39 S. Market St.) on Sunday, Dec. 28. Expect theatrical performances, dancing, drumming and a traditional Kwanzaa feast courtesy of The Ritz restaurant (chicken, catfish, cornbread, Caribbean rice and peas, mixed greens, salad and dessert). Guests may also visit the YMI gallery, where African masks, musical instruments and clothing are on display. Admission to the Kwanzaa event is a mere $3 donation. For more information, call 252-4614.

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