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Black History Museum Features a Lesson on Kwanzaa

Attendees learned the intricacies of a cultural holiday.

It's the thoughts and the intentions and the personal dedication that are important, not that trip to the mall to buy the most expensive and flashy gift possible.

Sounds like the long-ago lessons of Christmas giving. But these lessons are not about Christmas. They are about a very different celebration of being and becoming — the lessons of Kwanzaa.

Last Saturday morning, the auditorium of Alexandria's Black History Museum, 902 Wythe St., was filled with those wanting to learn more about this African American cultural holiday. Brian Sales, museum volunteer, took them through both the history and observance aspects of Kwanzaa.

"This should not be viewed as a substitute for the holy observance. Kwanzaa is a special time for people to commit themselves to one another. It is a time to celebrate our African American culture as Americans," Sales said.

First celebrated in 1966, Kwanzaa was described by Sales as "a non-heroic holiday. It is a cultural holiday." Beginning on Dec. 26 each year, it culminates on Dec. 31 with a feast, which is followed by a "Day of Assessment" on Jan. 1.

"Beginning in the 1960s, black people began to recognize their history and contributions. They began to wear traditional clothing, wear their hair in traditional styles, such as the afro and cornrows," Sales said.

THERE ARE SEVEN principles to Kwanzaa, as Sales explained. They are

1. Umoja: Unity, which stresses the importance of togetherness

2. Kujichagulia: Self-determination, requiring decision-making based on the best interests of both the family and community

3. Ujima: Collective work and responsibility with an emphasis on responsibilities to the past, present and future, coupled with performing a responsible role in society

4. Ujamaa: Cooperative economics, which emphasizes collective economic strength and encourages mutual support

5. Nia: Creating a sense of purpose by encouraging individuals to look within themselves to establish personal goals that will benefit the community at large

6. Kuumba: Creativity that uses individual creativeness to build and maintain a strong and viable community

7. Imani: Faith, which is focused on honoring the best African American traditions to strive for a higher level of life by affirming self-worth and confidence

These seven principles are accompanied by seven Kwanzaa symbols, Sales said. They are the crock, mat, candleholder, corn, seven candles, unity cup, and personally made gifts. "The gifts are about connections with others, not running to the mall," Sales said.

One of the speakers joining Sales on the program was Audrey Davis, the museum's assistant director. "Think about ways to be creative and share with your family," she said.

"Kwanzaa doesn't focus on material elements. It isn't about buying. It's all about using what you have available. It's not about spending money, it's about honoring your family," Davis said.

As an example, she displayed bracelets she was wearing made from desk notepads. "Meaningful gifts can be made from items readily available and inexpensive," she said.

TWO OF THE MOST important symbols of Kwanzaa are the candleholder, known as the “Kinara,” and the seven candles it holds. One is lighted each night of the week-long celebration.

As emphasized in Kwanzaa literature, "It is important that the Kinara not be confused with the menorah. The Kinara holds the seven candles to reflect the seven principles that are the foundation of Kwanzaa."

Candles in the Kinara are black, red and green, the colors of Kwanzaa. A black candle is always lighted first on Dec. 26, according to Sales. At the museum's event, Lillian Patterson, museum curator, lit a candle after speakers explained each element of Kwanzaa. These colors are utilized in all Kwanzaa decorations and gift wrapping. "Black is for the people, red is for the blood spilled in the struggle, and green represents the future," Patterson explained.

Sales urged everyone to at least have an ear of corn, representing the first fruit of the harvest and symbolizing children, on display during Kwanzaa. "Ears of corn represent our children and the future," he said.

In his closing remarks, Sales explained the meaning of "Harambee." "This means let’s all work together. It's a call for action — to pull together," he said

ON THE FINAL DAY, Dec. 31, there is the Kwanzaa feast known as “Karamu.” It is also the time when the Unity Cup is most utilized to make the "Libation Statement."

As explained by Dr. Maulana Karenga, who founded Kwanzaa in the United States, "[The feast] is a very special event, as it is the one Kwanzaa event that brings us closer to our African roots. The Karamu is a communal and cooperative effort." When Kwanzaa was introduced to this country, to emphasize the difference between the African American celebration and the original African observance, Karanga added the extra "a" to make the word Kwanzaa, the New York Times reported.

In establishing the guidelines for the feast, Karenga said, "Prior to and during the feast, an informative and entertaining program should be presented." The purpose of the program should be to promote unity, recommitment and rejoicing.