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The Seeds of Kwanzaa

December 26, 1996|ELIZABETH SOFTKY | SPECIAL TO THE TIMES

In 1965, my father, W.D. Campbell, came west from Arkansas, looking for the California dream. Instead, he found the Los Angeles nightmare--job discrimination, police checkpoints and certain parts of the city that were off-limits to blacks after sundown. He struggled alone against these problems until he ran into a man named Ron Karenga, a charismatic activist and black studies student.

Karenga would later become known as Maulana Karenga, chairman of black studies at California State University, Long Beach and the creator of Kwanzaa, the African American cultural holiday celebrated each year from Dec. 26 through Jan. 1. At the time, however, there was no official way of celebrating black culture and Karenga, who believed the African American community could prevail against discrimination through rediscovering its African roots, gathered around himself like-minded people.

My father liked Karenga because he tackled the problems in L.A.'s black community with humor and a dedication. He took time to answer people's questions. He spurred them on their quest to educate themselves about their history, full of pain--and pride.

Inspired by what he learned, my father abandoned his slim-cut suits and ties for dashikis and flowing bubas. I don't think I ever saw him in a suit again after 1965. And, influenced by Muslim converts in Karenga's circle, my father banned pork in the house. This made my mother fuss, especially at New Year's when she liked to cook up a big pot of chitlins for good luck.

Our father's new ideas also blessedly liberated my hair from the tyranny of the hot comb. He brought home books on African art and culture--although I couldn't read them, I would spend hours looking at the pictures. My favorites were a painted statue of an ancient Egyptian princess and dolls carved out of wood with large round heads and tiny bodies.

Occasionally, my father would take us three girls to meetings led by Karenga. I don't remember too much of what was said--we were too busy chasing each other in the back of the room, or playing house under the metal folding chairs--but it was at these gatherings that the seeds of Kwanzaa were planted.

My father fondly recalls learning African-inspired rituals using hand and body movements, and Karenga's explanation of the seven principles, the Nguzo Saba. Meant to inspire unity and collective action, my father says, "The Nguzo Saba were like the 10 Commandments. The principles were rules to live by--to help you have a good life, and live in peace with your neighbors."

(These days, during the week of Kwanzaa, a candle is lit each day to commemorate a different principle of the Nguzo Saba.)

Sometimes instead of a meeting there would be cultural presentations--"celebrations of the good," which also later became a part of Kwanzaa. There was poetry, singing and dancing. Then there would be a feast with African-inspired foods.

"There was an emphasis on rice, chicken, vegetables and beans," my father told me, "and many of the foods had symbolic value. For example, black-eyed peas represented good luck, jama jama (West African-style greens) stood for prosperity. Chicken was a symbol of welcome, and rice expressed wishes for an abundance of good things in life."

Soul food favorites were served too--corn bread and candied yams, but again, no pork since many of Karenga's co-workers were Muslims.

It was during one such celebration that I saw for myself what made Karenga special. I must have been 9 years old--old enough to take an interest in what was going on around me--and I was used to seeing Karenga lecturing from a podium, looking so stern in his black clothes, dark-rimmed glasses, beard and goatee (like a short, round Malcolm X). But now he was on the dance floor, enjoying himself with everyone else. I was surprised to see someone so serious, a big shot, down with the folks, relaxed and having a good time. It was the first time I ever saw him smile. And that smile seemed to spread from face to face around the room. I never think on that time without remembering the feelings of love and pride that filled the room that night.

By the late '60s, police infiltration of activist organizations and other complications made it difficult for people in the community to work together. My father decided to turn his energies to raising his three daughters (my parents had divorced). But the seeds of Kwanzaa had been sewn. Karenga codified the holiday so that African Americans could celebrate Kwanzaa at home, not just at public celebrations. By doing so, he tapped into the hunger for a more meaningful and less commercial holiday celebration.

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