South Florida

It’s Kwanzaa. Here’s how the holiday connects to heritage

Gregory Amin Norflee and Daniel McCleod play the drums at the Diaspora Arts Coalition’s “Kwanzaa in the Gardens” celebration at the Betty T. Ferguson Recreational Complex Auditorium in Miami Gardens on Monday, Dec. 26, 2016.
Gregory Amin Norflee and Daniel McCleod play the drums at the Diaspora Arts Coalition’s “Kwanzaa in the Gardens” celebration at the Betty T. Ferguson Recreational Complex Auditorium in Miami Gardens on Monday, Dec. 26, 2016. ctrainor@miamiherald.com

NOTE: This explanation on the history of Kwanzaa was originally published in the Miami Herald on Dec. 27, 2009.

What is Kwanzaa?

The word represents a non-religious African-American and Pan-African holiday celebration established to connect black Americans with their African historical and cultural heritage.

Following the Watts riots in Los Angeles, Kwanzaa was created in 1966 by Maulana Karenga, professor and chairman of Black Studies at California State University, Long Beach.

With its roots in the Black National movement, Kwanzaa emphasizes family, community and culture annually in candlelight ceremonies with seven principles, Dec. 26 through Jan. 1.

Two years after Kwanzaa was created, Overtown resident Irby McKnight heard about the new holiday and sent for materials. He shared information with Mattie Zanders at the Community Action Agency during the establishment of the Cultural Advisory Council of Overtown (CACO).

The Kwanzaa principles were presented to the CACO board. Meetings were held alternate months at Phillis Wheatley Elementary School and in the library at Dixie Park, later renamed Gibson Park. Founding members of CACO included Eli Powell, Lee La Rue, Beverly Harris and Jackie Bell.

In 1968, CACO incorporated the Kwanzaa principles into its agenda, to help enrich the spirit of the community. Using symbols and artifacts, Overtown’s first Kwanzaa celebration presented the Seven Principles:

Umoja — Unity

Kujichagulia — Self-determination

Ujima — Collective work and responsibility

Ujamaa — Cooperative economics

Nia — Purpose;

Kuumba — Creativity

Imani — Faith.

During the late 1970s, Dorrin Cooper of Dade County Parks; Clayton Hamilton and Joan Timmons of what’s now known as the African Heritage Cultural Center; Pat Williams, The M-Ensemble, and Wendell Narcisse, of the local Theater of Afro Arts, added their talents and skills to the ceremonies. I represented The Black Archives.

Narcisse was passionate about Kwanzaa. In the 1980s one celebration featured the Theater of Afro Arts’ interpretation of a play written by Ntozake Shange that debuted on Broadway in 1976, For Colored Girls Who Have Considered Suicide/When the Rainbow is Enuf. Television news anchor Dwight Lauderdale hosted several events.

For many years, community activist Vashti Armbrister invited friends to celebrate Kwanzaa in her home. She engaged a Kwanzaa master to walk the group through each principle.

This year, Broward’s African-American Research Library and Cultural Center began the holiday with the percussion and dance ensemble known as “Venus Rising, “ the “Children of Kuumba” along with the “Roots and Culture Children’s Dance Company.”

Artist/producer Altine began working with the late Narcisse in the 1990s.

Since then, Altine made herself a committee of one keeping the observance of Kwanzaa alive in South Florida. She produced Kwanzaa calendars and honored the ancestors on Haulover Beach. Currently she is scheduling festivities in Broward County at Hollywood and Bass beaches and in Miami-Dade County at the Unity Light of the World Church and North Dade Regional Library, both in Miami Gardens.

Dorothy Jenkins Fields, PhD, is a historian and founder of the Black Archives, History and Research Foundation of South Florida Inc. Send feedback to djf@bellsouth.net.

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