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Roosevelt event kicks off Kwanzaa celebration of family and optimism

Young dancers from Dance X-plosion perform during a

Young dancers from Dance X-plosion perform during a Kwanzaa celebration at the Roosevelt Public Library on Saturday. Credit: Danielle Silverman

For Barbara McFadden, observing the African-American holiday of Kwanzaa doesn't replace celebrating Christmas. 

Family from across the country will still gather in McFadden's West Hempstead home for Christmas. That's a one-day event, she said, and Kwanzaa is more like a way of life for her family. 

"Kwanzaa is not an event for me," she said. "We celebrate it in what we do all year long. It's part of my life, it's part of my ethos."

Kwanzaa, which was started in 1966 by California State University at Long Beach Pan-African studies professor Maulana Karenga, is a nonreligious celebration of family and optimism for the new year. The word derives from the Swahili phrase "matunda ya kwanza," which means first fruits. 

From Dec. 26 to Jan. 1, Kwanzaa observers use each day to celebrate one of seven principles: unity, self-determination, collective responsibility, cooperative economics, purpose, creativity, and faith. Each night, observers light a new candle on their kinara, a seven-piece candle similar to a Jewish menorah. 

On Saturday, a few days before this year's Kwanzaa week began, about 100 Long Islanders gathered at the Roosevelt Public Library for a celebration. The National Coalition of 100 Black Women's Long Island chapter organized the three-hour event.

Seven leaders in Long Island's black community spoke about each of the Kwanzaa principles. Carl DeHaney Jr., a commissioner on Hempstead Town's Sanitary District No. 2, took the principle of self-determination while Andrew Jackson, a black studies professor at York College in Queens  and Queens College, talked about collective work. 

Carol Gilliam, the Roosevelt library's Black Heritage librarian, spoke about faith and urged attendees to "be kind, be active, be blessed, but most of all, be impactful."

Angela Stanley, the coalition's vice president in charge of programming, said the group hosts a Kwanzaa event every year on Long Island. Previous events were in Wyandanch, Hempstead and Syosset, she said. 

The gathering's goal is to remind people that the holidays — Christmas or Kwanzaa — are about re-uniting with loved ones, Stanley, of Hempstead, said. 

"It's not just about gift-giving, it's about the principles; those seven principles are very important," she said. 

Baldwin mother Natasha Wollaston  said after the event that she has been celebrating Kwanzaa for four years, and her family also celebrates Christmas. That allows her two sons to pick which holidays to observe once they have their own family, she said 

"I like to give my children the tools they need so they can make their own decisions for their future," Wollaston said. 

Kwanzaa for Gilliam "means a new beginning and it's a celebration of family," she said. "It's a time for all of us to be together and to look at what the new year will bring."

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