The Roosevelt school district hosted its annual Kwanzaa celebration on Thursday. Credit: Newsday/Steve Pfost

Tolitha Henry remembered the Kwanzaa celebrations at the Centennial Avenue Elementary School in Roosevelt when she was a student there.

Now an adult, Henry, 31, returned to the school Thursday to watch her nephew, Noah, 7, perform in a two-hour-long event to celebrate Kwanzaa, which begins Tuesday and ends on New Year’s Day.

The word Kwanzaa comes from a Swahili phrase meaning "first fruits." The secular holiday was created in 1966 and celebrates the seven principles of unity, self-determination, collective responsibility, cooperative economics, purpose, creativity and faith.

“It was always huge and important for them to instill in us: ‘This is your culture. This is where you come from,’ ” said Henry, of Queens. “It really fostered who I am as a person.”

Henry and hundreds of others crowded in the standing-room-only gym watched a procession of students and adults carrying flags of African countries parade down the aisle. Students sang Kwanzaa-themed songs and danced to fast-paced drumbeats. Candice Garwood, an Adelphi University sophomore, read two of her poems “Roots” and “Black Royalty.”

The crowd quieted as she read verses of “Roots.”

“I am grounded by those who came and challenged me to keep my head in the game, by roots that never declared defeat even as they moved through concrete,” she read in clear cadence. 

Loud applause came after she read her poem's ending: “I am yet to find a mighty tree that can stand without its roots. Why should we be ashamed of our foundation without which we’d bear zero fruits?”

Roots are the foundation of Kwanzaa, which honors African heritage. Over the years, many institutions, including schools, libraries and churches, on Long Island have hosted activities to mark the holiday.

In schools last week, the Wyandanch district held a celebration with choir singing and a candlelighting ceremony. In Valley Stream District 30, kindergartners at Forest Road School created unity cups while third graders at Clear Stream Avenue School colored on paper candles on a kinara, a candleholder.

The annual celebration in Roosevelt, which dates back to at least the 1990s, was rich in symbols to honor that heritage.

The walls were covered in black, red and green paper, symbolizing the Kwanzaa flag colors, the people, their struggle and the future, respectively. Attendees held miniature flags. Even the texts of the program pamphlets, which were formatted like a Broadway Playbill, were color-coded in black, red and green.

One Kwanzaa ritual is setting the table. So students took turns introducing the symbols — a place mat, a kinara, seven candles, the unity cup, ears of corn, fruits, gifts and the flag — and put them on a table. Then came the lighting of the kinara with the seven candles, performed by the fathers of several students and church pastors.

Some in attendance were dressed in colorful outfits in African motifs. A few wore black T-shirts with the outline of the African continent bearing the seven principles. Principal Barbara Solomon, the event director, wore earrings in the shape of the African continent in black, red and green.

“Their African American history, their culture is very important,” Solomon said of the holiday’s significance to students. “It's connected to them performing in a most excellent way in school."

About 98% of her students at the elementary school are Black or Hispanic. The Roosevelt school district, which enrolls more than 3,000 students, has the same percentage of Black and Hispanic students.

Through the celebration, school officials said they wanted to inspire confidence in students.

“We know that when you have strong confidence, then you have the will to work, and the will to work leads to achievement,” Superintendent Deborah Wortham said. “That is an upward spiral.”

In Wyandanch, Eric Adjei said his family plans to celebrate Kwanzaa for the first time this year. Adjei, who emigrated from Ghana, said he wanted his three children, ages 5 through 13, to learn more about it. 

“It’s a holiday where they can feel like: ‘OK, it's just for me.’ It helps them with their self-confidence and self-awareness [as] Black Americans," he said. “There’s a sense of community, right? And being part of something."

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