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Kwanzaa gets a cool reception in S. Florida

Kwanzaa gets a cool reception in S. Florida

By Akilah Johnson
Miami Bureau

December 26, 2001

As Kwanzaa begins today, almost 20 million people around the globe will call out the Swahili greeting, Habari Gani, or "what's the news?" But many in South Florida will ask a different question: "What is Kwanzaa?"

Now an American institution, there are books, how-to videos and workshops on Kwanzaa. The holiday has its own postage stamp and collectors' coin. The essential hardware, including the kinara, a seven-candle candelabra, can be bought in major retail stores throughout the country.

Those who commemorate the nonreligious holiday locally say many South Floridians have yet to embrace Kwanzaa like those in major black population centers such as Atlanta, Washington, St. Louis or Detroit.

One reason is that myths and misinformation about the holiday flourish throughout the area, among them the belief that it is an anti-religious, pagan Christmas alternative or that it is a "too-black" radical political statement.

South Florida's diverse black community contributes to many of these Kwanzaa misunderstandings, said Dr. Carole Boyce Davies, director of the African-New World Studies Program at Florida International University. South Florida's black population includes a significant number of immigrants from the Caribbean and Latin America, where Kwanzaa is a novel idea that is still gaining recognition.

"Kwanzaa celebrations haven't played a part of the Caribbean experience," Davies said. "Caribbeans here in South Florida came with their own set of traditions."

That may be changing. Although the context of Kwanzaa is specific to the United States, the holiday has a growing Pan-African appeal.

"Black-power groups use Kwanzaa ideas and events to reaffirm the African identity in the Caribbean," said Davies, a native of Trinidad.

An American invention, Kwanzaa was born out of the whirlwind of social and political movements of the '60s, created by the often-controversial Dr. Maulana Karenga, chairman of the Department of Black Studies at California State University, Long Beach. Karenga sought to foster a sense of black cultural identity in an era when African-Americans struggled for civil rights.

According to Davies, those with this Afrocentric consciousness tend to embrace the holiday most.

Others still believe the myth that Kwanzaa is anti-Christian, "Black Christmas."

"People are apprehensive," said James "Akbar" Watson, owner of Pyramid Books in Boynton Beach. "We are trying to take the fear out of it."

In an effort to promote a better understanding of Kwanzaa, Watson and members of his Sankofa study group are offering to bring Kwanzaa into the home and help people with private celebrations in conjunction with bigger community festivities.

The private celebration is the essence of Kwanzaa, which means "first fruits of the harvest" in Swahili, the most widely spoken language in Africa. Each night, family and friends gather to light a single candle on the kinara and reflect on one of the seven principles, or Nguzo Saba. Libations are poured from the unity cup, the kikombe cha Umoja, and the group discusses how to improve their daily lives.

The intimate celebration is "about bringing spirituality into the family unit and building a stronger correlation with the immediate family," Watson said. "A lot of people are not sure how to bring this new concept to their families. It can be a little intimidating."

The seven principles of Kwanzaa are unity, self-determination, collective work and responsibility, cooperative economics, purpose, creativity and faith.

Although there is a tri-county push to familiarize black South Florida with Kwanzaa, there are still those who don't want anything to do with it, said John Anderson, president of the Kwanzaa Cultural Institute of Hollywood.

"There are those who don't associate with [Afrocentric] things. They feel they could face repercussions," he said.

But he said he has faith that if the community continues to have festivities, Kwanzaa will become more widely known and embraced.

The public gathering usually is conducted in a community center. There is drumming, dancing, singing, storytelling, poetry reading and a reflection and explanation of the Nguzo Saba. These events generally take place between Dec. 26 and Jan. 1.

"Knowledge travels through enlightened individuals," Anderson said. "More individuals are becoming aware of the seven principals. In 2010 it'll be a widely known celebration here."

Akilah Johnson can be reached at or 305-810-5001.

Copyright © 2001, South Florida Sun-Sentinel

Copyright © 2001, South Florida Sun-Sentinel

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