Kwanzaa Celebration In Jamaica Queens
Black Candle Film - Kwanzaa At The African Poetry Theatre In Jamaica NY
Jamaica / January / Queens Buzz. In late December I had occasion to visit the African Poetry Theatre to watch a hallmark film entitled ‘The Black Candle’ about the origins and traditions of Kwanzaa. I was rather fascinated by its cultural creativity and significance, which in the following paragraphs I hope to share with you.
Kwanzaa originated in this country in Los Angeles, arising out of the racial strife of the sixties. In the sixties African Americans were guaranteed rights under the Constitution, but the law was not applied equally. Actually, that’s putting it way too mildly as the law was applied against African Americans with great bias and discrimination. Hence the struggle for full equality began anew and the marches on Washington and in other cities throughout the nation began occurring, most notably in the large northern urban areas and in the south where slavery had been institutionalized for centuries.
African Americans Were Called Negroes Prior To 1960’s
Following the 1964 Civil Rights Act which both Malcolm X and Dr Martin Luther King had fought and died for; African Americans began to re-evaluate who they were culturally, and from there began to re-define themselves as collective contributors to American experience. Prior to the sixties African Americans had made significant contributions in music through greats like Queens own Louis Armstrong, Ella Fitzgerald and Billie Holiday. Armstrong records frequently hit the number one spot on the American billboard charts. Scientifically George Washington Carver of Tuskegee, and Lewis Latimer of Queens made contributions. Latimer became a key member of Thomas Edison’s scientific team. And athletically African Americans had played in segregated baseball leagues in the thirties and forties. During the fifties men like Jackie Robinson [again of Queens] and Willie Mays began making inroads into the predominantly white leagues.
But having been taken from their homes in Africa by force and stripped of their cultural heritage for centuries, the African Americans of the fifties began striving to redefine themselves. Language and nomenclature is an important reflection of how and what people think, so African Americans soon started calling themselves Blacks to shed the enslavement legacy which had been so closely tied to the name previously used to describe their ethnicity [Negro]. Over the next few decades African Americans found and settled on the name African Americans, as it described them in the same manner as other immigrants such as Irish Americans and Italian Americans.
African Americans Shed The Negro Associations With Their Enslaved Past
In the early sixties psychologists did a doll test wherein they showed a brown and white doll and asked both black and white children who was the bad doll. Both children described the brown doll as bad. Hence African Americans began to look for new role models upon which to help reshape their perception in the public eye as well as in their own eyes.
African Americans Start Redefining Themselves & Their Culture
Having been brought over as slaves and stripped of their own culture, African American leaders began to address their ‘culture crisis’ head on by seeking to create / recreate their own cultural heritage. There weren’t any holidays that African Americans could call their own, so in 1966 on the west side of Los Angeles, Dr Maulana Karenga held the first Kwanzaa celebration with a small group of people from the 'Us' organization.
Kwanzaa Is An African Celebration With Universal Appeal
They established certain rituals such as lighting candles each night for seven nights beginning on December 26th and ending on New Year’s Day. There are three green candles, three red candles and one black candle. Dr Karenga and his group also created a seven point code by which to live by, and on each day one of the tenets of the code would be celebrated and made a part of them. There are similarities to Hanukkah, which the Jews celebrate, and who were also once an enslaved people. Kwanzaa uses the Swahili language to describe itself, drawing on one of African Americans’ lost languages.
During the latter half of the sixties Americans saw athletic greats like boxer Cassius Clay rename himself Muhammad Ali and basketball great Lew Alcindor rename himself Kareem Abdul-Jabbar, as an entire people began collectively struggling to redefine themselves in a more appropriate light.
Over the years, others in the African American community began hearing of this celebration and began adopting it. Over time it evolved to include traditional African food and kits with candles and the kunar [candle holder] were made to help promote the celebration. We were reminded that one of the first ritualized food celebrations began thousands of years ago in ancient Nubia [present day Egypt].
Kwanzaa spread beyond America’s shores to Europe and other transplanted African communities, as well as to Africa itself. For decades, however, it was largely unknown to people outside of the African community. Then in the early nineties a stamp was made which popularized the celebration and today over 40 million people of some African parentage celebrate the holiday.
The Seven Tenets Of Kwanzaa – Jamaica NY
The following is a brief description of the seven tenets of Kwanzaa, one for each day in the order shown below.
1. Unity / Family – This is a time for life, love, unity and family. A time to share music and story among the family and friends.
2. Self-Determination – To enhance ones future, it is important to honor ones past. Imagine your future and begin forging it.
3. Collective Work & Responsibility – It is the collective responsibility of everyone to work for the greater good of the community.
4. Cooperative Economics – Build, strengthen and control the economy of your own community. Ownership is critical – because each time you spend your money at shops, which are owned outside of your community, you weaken your community. This has the effect of weakening your community, making your community poorer and allowing decisions about the community to be made by those living outside of it.
5. Focus – One’s life needs purpose. Improve yourself, improve the planet, do something.
6. Creativity – Express yourself. Use your skills to build harmony in your community.
7. Faith – Believe in yourself. Together we can do anything. Be the spark, the substance of things hoped for and the evidence of things not seen.
After the movie John Watusi the director of the Afrikan Poetry Theatre held a brief discussion with movie-goers about the significance of the film they just saw. I spoke with him afterwards and noted that he’d been celebrating Kwanzaa for somewhere around forty years.
I recommend this film to anyone who is interested in learning more about the African American experience in this country, as well as to anyone who is interested in strengthening their own culture within their own family as the tenets of this new celebration are appropriate to all.
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