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In the Spirit of Sharing

HOLIDAYS | KWANZAA

December 21, 1997|JOCELYN STEWART | TIMES STAFF WRITER

For many African Americans, Kwanzaa, the weeklong holiday of renewal created in 1966 by Maulana (Ron) Karenga, Cal State Long Beach chairman of black studies, is still a new tradition. But Akosua Asantewa, a middle school math and science teacher, has celebrated Kwanzaa for more than 20 years.

"Kwanzaa is very important to me," Asantewa says. "It's a commitment to who I am and to my people, a cultural connection to our roots. It's something that is our very own."

In 1971, Asantewa, now 50, moved to Los Angeles from New York. Here she became part of a network of grass-roots organizations that were committed to working for positive change in the city's African American community. At the Dunbar Hotel on Central Avenue, Asantewa ran Fahamu, a weekend cultural and tutorial program for youth. And she worked with the Pan-African Secretariat.

With so many groups around, there was no shortage of ways to celebrate when Kwanzaa arrived each year.

"In the '70s, we had plenty of places to go," Asantewa says. "There used to be something going on daily. We had many small organizations, and they all had events and activities."

From Omowale Ujamaa in Altadena, a private black school, to the Malcolm X Center in South Los Angeles, community groups throughout the area would host Kwanzaa karamus, or feasts.

The gatherings represented an opportunity for members of community groups in the city to come together. All year they had worked on community building. During Kwanzaa, they took a break to reflect and celebrate with one another.

"It felt very warm, very nurturing," Asantewa recalls. "There was a closeness that made you feel like you were with your family."

Though years have passed since karamus were held at the Malcolm X Center, they stand out in Asantewa's memory--as clear and vibrant as the colors of the African geles, lappas and bubas worn by those who attended.

Inside a large open room, Asantewa recalls, the walls draped with African fabric, guests sat on pillows on the floor, watching the evening unfold. At the start of the celebration, someone, usually a Yoruba priest, would offer a libation. Standing in front of the gathering, he would pour water into the soil of a plant while offering blessings and thanksgiving and paying homage to the ancestors.

Children would participate as well, lighting the red, black and green candles in a wooden and elaborately carved candleholder known as a kinara--one candle for each principle of Kwanzaa.

"Everyone," Asantewa says, "would share a personal experience [related to the principles]--what they had been through that year, what they planned to do in the new year to improve the family and community."

In these settings, things had added meaning. Dance, music, food and other cultural expressions were gifts to the entire gathering.

There was storytelling for children, African dance and music. The sounds of drummer Kwesi Badu would fill the room. And poets like Kamau Daa'ood would hold the gathering captive with words.

"It was always something very moving," she says.

Of course, food was always an important part of the experience. The meal would include favorite dishes from people of African descent all over the world.

"Each person would bring a dish, and we would set it all out and it was just wonderful," Asantewa says. "A lot of people were vegetarians, so we didn't have a lot of meat. And of course, if there was meat it would not be pork. We had a lot of chicken dishes for those of us who do eat meat. Curry chicken was a favorite. There was a large variety of vegetable dishes, black-eyed peas, yams. Plenty of fruit and juice." Everyone ate while seated on the floor.

"It lasted all evening," Asantewa says. "We would start at 6 p.m. and go until 1 a.m. You walked away with a real sense of community, of what it means to be an African American."

These days there are fewer organizations like those of the '70s, but over the years the changing landscape of Southern California's black community has not dampened Asantewa's passion for the celebration and all it represents.

She still attends community gatherings--the lighting of the candles at the Baldwin Hills-Crenshaw Mall and the Kwanzaa parade. And in her home each year Asantewa hosts her own karamu. About eight of her friends get together for an evening feast. Each brings a dish, and they light the kinara and spend the evening together.

"The only problem is we don't have any drummers," she says, laughing. "In place of the drummer I put on music. I have African music, but I put on jazz." But the meaning of it all--the reflection, the commitment, the sharing--does not change.

ASANTEWA'S STEW

1 (16-ounce) package dried black-eyed peas

Water

1 1/2 tablespoons oil

1 onion, chopped

1 teaspoon cayenne pepper

1/2 teaspoon curry powder

1/2 teaspoon seasoned salt

Salt

1 large tomato, sliced

1 (6-ounce) can tomato paste

1 (15-ounce) can boned and skinned salmon

2 (10-ounce) packages frozen chopped spinach, thawed and drained

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