by Paul H. Johnson/KRT Kwanzaa is an African-American holiday that begins Dec. 26 and ends Jan. 1. The holiday observes the harvest and is a celebration of the ‘first fruits.’
At first, the lone spotlight shows only Kimati Dinizulu's hands, which flutter like butterflies against the gome foot drum, used primarily by the Ga people of Ghana.
Before long, the lights of the New Jersey Performing Arts Center's Victoria Theater expand and show Dinizulu's body, which is entirely in movement. He is standing alone on stage, and his bare feet adjust to the pitch of the instrument by sliding up and down the squat drum. His body shakes to the rhythm with each beat, expressing a different emotion.
"The drum is an integral part of African culture," says the program's narrator, Yolanda Lee. "The drum and its rhythm are the very essence of life in Africa."
As Dinizulu's solo gets louder and broader, the audience of schoolchildren cheers louder and louder until his fast-paced solo comes to a stop.
Dinizulu, the artistic director of Dinizulu African Dancers, Drummers, and Singers, performs nationwide. The troupe, founded by his parents, Alice Dinizulu and Nana Yao OpareDinizulu, in New York City more than 40 years ago, was organized to dispel the myth that there was no culture or history in Africa and to mine the variety and richness of the continent's tribes and nationalities.
That effort becomes more urgent during Kwanzaa, the African-American holiday that begins Wednesday and ends New Year's Day. The holiday observes the harvest and is a celebration of the "first fruits."
Participants light candles representing the Nguzo Saba, the seven African principles -- Unity, Self-Determination, Collective Work and Responsibility, Cooperative Economics, Purpose, Creativity and Faith. Each day of the holiday represents a different principle.
Alice Dinizulu, executive director of the Dinizulu African Dancers, said that although Kwanzaa was founded by African-Americans, it has resulted in a greater awareness of the rhythms and traditions of Africa.
"It's made it more universal," said Dinizulu, a former dancer.
NJPAC in Newark hosts the largest Kwanzaa celebration in the state. Its programs, which took place a few days before Christmas, included dance shows, gospel festivals and a Kwanzaa marketplace where people could buy a kinara, a candle holder used during the holiday, or a mkeka, a mat where the symbols of the holiday are placed.
"Kwanzaa is a very important celebration," said Philip S. Thomas, NJPAC's vice president for arts education. "It allows you to focus during a specific time of the year on principles and values you can practice during the entire year."
The holiday was founded in 1966 by Maulana Karenga, professor and chairman of the Department of Black Studies at California State University at Long Beach, to celebrate the traditions of Africa.
First observed by activist groups, Kwanzaa is now part of mainstream society.
"It's gone from a holiday that was primarily celebrated by Black nationalists to a holiday that has been embraced by various racial and ethnic groups," said Lawrence Hamm, chairman of the People's Organization for Progress. Hamm first observed Kwanzaa in 1971 at the headquarters of the Committee for a Unified Newark, which was then headed by poet Amiri Baraka.
"All the schools talk about Kwanzaa now. Even the corporate community has embraced Kwanzaa," he said. Many families observe the holiday at home.
But for Kimati Dinizulu, any time is ripe to examine the culture and values of Africa. He sees Kwanzaa as an opportunity to reach those who don't regularly seek out the traditions of Africa.
"We try to exhibit the best we can the richness of African culture," Dinizulu said, "especially to African people."
Alice Dinizulu remembers her youth, when calling someone African or even Black was a serious insult. Now, through Kwanzaa and other changes, many embrace their roots in Africa.
"The whole concept of Africa has changed," Alice Dinizulu said.
For the Dinizulus, the greatest responsibility is educating children about their heritage, because they are the ones who will spread the knowledge. "You have science class, you have math class, you can't fit us into a classroom," Kimati Dinizulu said. "It's important to be able to share one's culture."