Kwanzaa begins for African American community

December 26, 2003|LIZ MAPLES

Christmas ended on Thursday, and for most the rest of the holiday season will be spent assembling toys, returning gifts and eating leftovers. But, at the Atkins household today another holiday is just revving up - Kwanzaa.

It is a harvest celebration and a time that African Americans reflect on the year's past accomplishments and set goals for the future. They also use the time to concentrate on seven core principles, called the Nguzo Saba.

Recently James Atkins explained his family's Kwanzaa traditions and the seven principles to Sarah Kilby's first graders and Linda Morin's kindergartners at Woodlawn Elementary.

"It's not anti-American, anti-Christian or anti-Christmas," he said.

He told them that the principles - unity, self determination, collective responsibility, collective economics, purpose, creativity and faith - are values by which everyone can live.


He told the kids to focus on the number seven because it was an important number to Kwanzaa celebration. Kwanzaa has seven letters, it lasts seven days and has seven representative candles.

Three of the candles are green, a representation of the earth and harvest. Three candles are red, a representation of blood and the struggle people had coming from Africa. The black candle represents the color of the people, and is lit on the first day. The second day a green and a black candle are lit. Then a red, green and the black candle, and so on until the seventh day when all the candles in the Kinara are lit.

On the table with the Kinara are other symbols of the holiday. A basket of fruit represents the harvest. A piece of corn is placed in the basket for each child in the family. Atkins has two pieces for each of his sons, and a third piece, because he is an educator, to represent his students.

A placemat is a symbol of creativity and is usually hand-crafted. A unity cup holds water, which is an important part of the African landscape. When gifts are exchanged, they are handmade bookmarks and cards.

The week is a time for the Atkins family to gather with family and friends, sing songs and tell family stories.

One of Atkins' favorite tales is about his grandfather, George, who started the first integrated taxi service in Washington, D.C. He said that not all of the stories are of accomplishments, but also of mistakes people have made. He told the kids that he tells those stories so that the mistakes won't be repeated.

As Kwanzaa begins, Atkins, dressed in African clothing, calls the family together.

He shows the children his hat, called a Kufi (Koo-fah), and his Kente (Kent -tay) cloth, which looks like a scarf. He tells the kids he also had a dashiki, but he couldn't wear it because he had another meeting to go to that day.

The Atkinses open their home on the first day because the principle of the day is unity, which can mean unity of a community.

Each day Atkins and his wife spend about an hour discussing the value assigned to the day. Then on the final day, Jan. 1, the family has a feast, which usually includes traditional New Year's dishes and southern food. Atkins' favorite is black-eyed peas.

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