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Kwanzaa is a living compass for blacks seeking direction

Denise Renfro said she is proud of the changes she has seen in her 10-year-old son, Nicholas Irion, since he entered Rites of Passage, an after-school program centered around the principles of Kwanzaa.

He brings home good grades, likes school and has never gotten into serious trouble, she said. She simply wants to make sure he stays that way, and she believes the program will help.

"It keeps kids off the street," said the West Side mother of two boys, the other a teenager. "I'm trying to teach my son the right way. This program has sparked his interest, and it's good clean fun. And I believe in that."

So do organizers of Rites of Passage, a multiyear program based on the seven principles of Kwanzaa, which many see as a way to deliver young blacks from the streets and into a deeper understanding of themselves and their heritage.

Kwanzaa is a weeklong celebration of African and African-American culture centered around seven principles, ranging from collective responsibility to cooperative economics. One day is devoted to each principle.

It begins today -- a day after the celebration of Christmas and the onset of Hanukkah, which continues through sundown Jan. 2.

Kwanzaa was created in California amid the black freedom movement of the 1960s by Maulana Karenga, who founded Organization Us after the Watts riots, around the same time the Black Panther Party was going strong.

Some see similarities between today's youth and those molded by the turbulence of that era.

"Those were young people, no different than the young people of today. They were gangs. They were intellects. They were students and scholars. They were angry. They were mad," said Henry L. Taylor, director of the University at Buffalo's Center for Urban Studies.

> Guiding precept

A guiding precept was that people need to know where they come from, to know the past in order to gain insight for the present and to formulate a future, Taylor added.

"If you're out in the woods, and you don't have a compass, you'll always be lost. We [African-Americans] don't have a compass," Taylor said.

Karenga developed Kwanzaa as a way of constructing this compass.

"People who have a sense of history can translate that into knowledge, and out of that knowledge is identity and power. It was in this sense Kwanzaa was created," Taylor said. "It just wasn't a holiday that popped out of the blue."

That compass, when applied in areas like economic development, means more than "just profits and more economic development," he said. It means using resources to develop community spaces, to provide housing for those too poor to provide their own or jobs and training for neighborhood youth.

"Cooperative economics means producing shops and stores with that kind of insight," Taylor said, and creating businesses that are "accountable to the community in ways that will help the community thrive."
Kwanzaa is not a religious holiday. It can, however, supplement the teachings of a person's religion, said Assemblywoman Crystal Peoples, D-Buffalo, who presented awards to Nicholas and about 30 other kids at last week's pre-Kwanzaa Rites of Passage ceremony.

"Kwanzaa doesn't say stop being Baptist, Catholic or Methodist," said Jerome Williams, executive director of the local Kwanzaa committee. "Kwanzaa is about a way of life that focuses on the issues that African-American people face, and that [is] designed to provide us with a sense of focus, purpose and direction and goals."

In addition to counteracting negative influences that kids encounter in the streets, Kwanzaa's principles are considered by some to be an antidote to what has been called "prosperity theology." Critics say the materialistic message preached in some churches is detrimental to the black community because it's not in keeping with the African heritage.

> Losing focus

The focus on accumulating wealth makes some people lose focus on educating themselves and moving forward, said the Rev. Derrick Span, president of the Community Action Partnership, a national coalition of anti-poverty agencies.

About 30 young people enter the Rites of Passage program annually, said L. Nathan Hare, executive director of the Community Action Organization of Erie County, which created it.

Participants like Nicholas master one Kwanzaa principal each year. Every two years, the young people invite neighbors, family members and others in the community to witness their growth as they progress through the rites of passage. At the end of their 18th year, they're initiated into adulthood, Hare said.

"Rites of Passage is about developing our children and making sure they are meeting benchmarks as they go along," he said.

Nicholas, who is in his first year of the program, can see the change.

"It makes me study more about my culture," he said. "I got a book about African culture, and I read it all the time. It makes me feel good about who I am and that my ancestors came from Africa."

"Kwanzaa includes their culture, information about their [heritage] and what's expected of them as members of the community," Peoples said. "Life is only going to get tougher for them. So they need to learn something that will kick in when faced with a difficult moment, when they're pressured to steal something, or to do drugs or something else they know is not right."
Each of the seven principles of Kwanzaa will be celebrated in a program, each begining at 7 p.m. except Sunday's, which begins at 5 p.m.:

Umoja (unity) -- Today in Langston Hughes Institute, 25 High St. Mayor-elect Byron W. Brown is guest speaker.

Kujichagulia (self-determination) -- Tuesday in the African-American Cultural Center, 350 Masten Ave. Wise Mecca and the African-American Cultural Center Dance & Drum Performance Troop and the Alafia Theater Group perform.

Ujima (collective work and responsibility) -- Wednesday in Uptown Theatre, 3165 Bailey Ave. Black educators will speak.

Ujamaa (cooperative economics) -- Thursday in the Pratt-Willert Community Center, 422 Pratt St. James Clingman, founder of the Greater Cincinnati African-American Chamber of Commerce, is speaker.

Nia (purpose) -- Friday in the Buffalo Museum of Science, 1020 Humboldt Parkway. Storyteller Tejumola Ologboni is guest speaker. Also, Elders Kwanzaa will be held from 2 to 4 p.m. in Grace Manor Nursing Home, 10 Symphony Circle.

Kuumba (creativity) -- Saturday in the Moot Senior Citizen Center, 292 High St. Poet Vonetta T. Rhodes and Sam Radford, local coordinator for the Alliance for Quality Education, are guest speakers. Also, a talent show for youth will be held from 1 to 3 p.m. in the African-American Cultural Center, 350 Masten Ave.

Imani (faith) -- Sunday in the Crucial Human Services Center, 230 Moselle St. Live performances depicting the evolution of African music.

e-mail: dswilliams@buffnews.com

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