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Kwanzaa Turns 45

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Enduring tradition gets a boost from modern technology

By Chris Levister –

The Epps family has celebrated Kwanzaa since 1989. Each year the nine member clan gathers at their Fontana home to celebrate the enduring meaning that Kwanzaa has for millions throughout world.

“We were looking for a non religious holiday unlike Christmas and Hanukkah that celebrated our African heritage,” said family patriarch William Epps.

“Kwanzaa serves as a glorious opportunity to gather around the kinara with candles and revisit our past, while celebrating our future going forward into the New Year.”

Two years ago the Epps’ daughter Jazzlyn and son Tommy left the family nest to attend college back East.

“They were home for Thanksgiving. It got too darn expensive to fly them home for Christmas,” said William. “For a minute we were like what to do about Kwanzaa with the family. Enter modern technology.

The light bulb came on recalls Tommy a computer science major at Hampton University.

“We’ve all got smart phones and computers why not use Skype or Facetime.”

On December 26 the Epps with the help of Skype all took part in lighting the first Kwanzaa candle. For family matriarch Beverly Epps, Kwanzaa lasts year-round, not just seven days. The holiday, which started Monday, draws on African culture. It celebrates black heritage and seven key principles -- unity, self-determination, collective work and responsibility, cooperative economics, purpose, creativity and faith.

"Kwanzaa is a lifestyle," Jazzlyn, a mother of twins said.

"It's not just today."

She credits celebrating Kwanzaa as a child to her current sense of values. Although she now lives in Chapel Hill, North Carolina with her husband, she carries the memories and lessons of Kwanzaa throughout the year. “I use the principles every day. Just as they were instilled in me growing up. I am passing them on to our children.”

Tommy says he keeps out the kinara - candelabra that is lit each night of the holiday -- year-round.

“We know we have a rich heritage. Our ancestors were kings and queens. Our families are strong. We’ve endured injustice for centuries. Unfortunately that message gets loss in a society that routinely tries to devalue our worth.”

The year 2011 will see the African American holiday celebrated from December 26 to January 1. It is estimated that some 18 million African Americans take part in Kwanzaa. Kwanzaa is not a religious holiday, nor is it meant to replace Christmas. It was created by Dr. Maulana “Ron”Karenga, a professor of Black Studies, in 1966. At this time of great social change for African Americans, Karenga sought to design a celebration that would honor the values of ancient African cul tures and inspire African Americans who were working for progress.

Kwanzaa is based on the yearend harvest festivals that have taken place throughout Africa for thousands of years. The name comes from the Swahili phrase "matunda ya kwanza," which means "first fruits of the harvest."

Karenga chose a phrase from Swahili because the language is used by various peoples throughout Africa.

In his annual Kwanzaa message Karenga explains the anniversary of Kwanzaa is a significant marker and milestone in itself, not only because of what it says about the expansive message and enduring meaning that Kwanzaa has for millions throughout the world African community, but also because of what it says about us as a people.

“This Kwanzaa comes with an increased concern for the wellbeing of the world because of the continuing injustice and oppression imposed on humans and the injury and injustice inflicted on the earth. And as Dr. Wangari Mathaai stated, “today we are faced with a challenge that calls for a shift in our thinking,” a shift that stops us from destroying the very basis of human life on the planet, and causes us to “assist the earth to heal her wounds and in the process heal ourselves,” wrote Dr. Karenga.

The Kwanzaa week of activities often includes storytelling, drumming, music and dance.

Each night a candle is lit and one of the seven guiding principles of Kwanzaa is discussed.

Unity: Umoja (oo–MO–jah)To strive for and maintain unity in the family, community, nation, and race.

Self-Determination: Kujichagulia (koo–gee–cha–goo–LEE–yah)To define ourselves, name ourselves, create for ourselves, and speak for ourselves.

Collective Work and Responsibility: Ujima (oo–GEE–mah) Tobuild and maintain our community together and make our brother's and sister's problems our problems and to solve them together.

Cooperative Economics: Ujamaa (oo–JAH–mah)To build and maintain our own stores, shops, and other businesses and to profit from them together.

Purpose: Nia (nee–YAH) To make our collective vocation the building and developing of our community in order to restore our people to their traditional greatness.

Creativity: Kuumba (koo–OOM–bah)To do always as much as we can, in the way we can, in order to leave our community more beautiful and beneficial than we inherited it.

Faith: Imani (ee–MAH–nee)To believe with all our heart in our people, our parents, our teachers, our leaders, and the righteousness and victory of our struggle.

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