By Alexander Dworkowitz
Through dancing, poetry and shopping, hundreds came to celebrate Kwanzaa Saturday at August Martin HS in South Jamaica.
“We’re here to celebrate the greatness of being African, the greatness of being black,” said John Watusi Branch, executive director of the Afrikan Poetry Theatre, the group which sponsored the event, as he spoke at the beginning of the celebration.
Branch explained the history of Kwanzaa, a seven-day holiday that extends from Dec. 26 to Jan. 1. In 1966, Dr. Maulana Karenga, chairman of the Department of Black Studies at California State University in Long Beach, founded the holiday, basing it on African harvest festivals.
While only a handful of people celebrated Kwanzaa in 1966, it has grown into an international holiday practiced by millions.
The Springfield Gardens audience was filled with children, and Branch emphasized the holiday’s focus on family.
“Kwanzaa is a family celebration,” he said. “It is a celebration of people coming together to give thanks to God for a good harvest.”
The event was held on the fourth day of Kwanzaa. Each day highlights a particular principle, and Ujamaa, cooperative economics, was the principle of the day.
Branch praised the more than 30 vendors who had been invited to the celebration to sell their wares, telling the audience it was important to support black businesses.
“We need to encourage each other to go into business,” he said.
After Branch spoke, members of the Joy of Performing Ensemble took the stage and performed various theatrical pieces.
“I am a black child,” recited a group of five children as part of the ensemble. “It’s my responsibility to build and maintain a black nation. We are your future.”
Other acts following the ensemble included the August Martin Step Team, the Devore Dance Company and hip-hop artists MC Jason X and Kenny Muhammad.
The ceremony also included the lighting of the Kwanzaa candles and the distribution of gifts, or zawadi, to the children.
Some members of the audience came with their children to familiarize them with the teachings of the holiday.
“I brought my grandkids because I wanted them to learn about Kwanzaa,” said Mfarisi Aponte, who transported his 7-year-old granddaughter Nastajia and his 8-year-old grandson Shaqualle from their home in Woodhaven. “Christmas I see as too commercial a holiday. Kwanzaa has more spiritual significance.”
Aponte said he had been celebrating Kwanzaa for about 10 years.
Others were not as familiar with the holiday.
“I’ve never been to a Kwanzaa festival,” said Kenya Mitchell of Cambria Heights as her son Jabari slept in a stroller. “I brought my son because he likes the music.”
Before the performances began, the attendees flocked to the festival’s vendors, who numbered more than 30. The vendors’ wares could not have been more varied, ranging from statues imported from Nigeria to children’s books to Destiny’s Child T-shirts.
Andy Tate sold replicas of historical documents that focused on black history, such as the Declaration of Independence and signs paying rewards for the capture of slaves.
“This started as a hobby 25 years ago,” said Tate, who works as a financial broker. Tate said he was selling the replicas for about $5, but had sold some of the others on the auction website ebay.com for as much as $75.
Melchisedek Shabazz Allah, a high priest for the Nation of Islam, sold videos of Malcolm X, Dr. Khallid A. Muhammad and Dick Gregory.
“They’re educational, inspirational,” he said.
Reach reporter Alexander Dworkowitz by e-mail at Timesledger@aol.com or call 229-0300 Ext. 141.