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LIers reflect on 50th anniversary of Kwanzaa

Ira Kimoni, of Bay Shore, participates in a

Ira Kimoni, of Bay Shore, participates in a Kwanzaa celebration held at the Brentwood Public Library on Sunday, Dec. 18, 2016. Credit: James Carbone

Kwanzaa, the secular holiday honoring African-American culture and history, marks its 50th anniversary this year — a meaningful milestone for Bay Shore’s Norman Daniels.

“Fifty years is very significant in the fact that before 1966, there was not a celebration or any kind of recognition of African-Americans living in this nation,” said Daniels, who recently retired as coordinator for multicultural affairs at Suffolk County Community College.

Reaching the half-century mark, he said, also has enabled families and groups to establish longtime traditions for Kwanzaa — which begins the day after Christmas, though it has no formal connection to that holiday.

“My family and I have been celebrating since the early 1970s, late 1960s,” he said. “The more we recognize it with the children, it gives them a stronger sense of self, and it is a way to bridge the gap between generations.”

Kwanzaa, which was created in 1966 by Cal State Long Beach Africana Studies professor Maulana Karenga, means “first fruits of the harvest” in Swahili, and is based on ancient customs in Africa.

The holiday employs the Swahili language and Pan-African symbolism to emphasize a theme for each of its seven days: unity, self-determination, collective work and responsibility, cooperative economics, purpose, creativity and faith. Celebrants light red, green and black candles to represent the seven principles.

Earlier this month, Daniels hosted a Kwanzaa celebration at the Brentwood Public Library. The event was just one of several celebrations across Long Island, which are often held at libraries, communities and churches and are marked by singing, dancing, storytelling, drumming, poetry and candle lighting.

A handful of schools and some local officials already have hosted events. Earlier this month, the Roosevelt school district celebrated the holiday with an evening festival at Centennial Avenue Elementary School. More than 300 students, ages 6 to 11, performed individually and in groups.

“It is very special to us in that we have been doing this program since the ‘90s ... It is a very special time for us,” said Centennial Avenue principal Barbara Solomon, who marked the celebration by writing a play, “The Kwanzaa Express.”

“This is a story of the seven principles on a train ride and they lose two — unity and faith,” she said. “By the end of the play they find unity and faith and it brings everyone back together.”

Tara Riley-Patrick, who has a daughter in the sixth grade and a son who is a college student, said the school festival has become a tradition for their family.

“It means so much to us,” she said. “It is almost like going to a Broadway play. Everyone participates in the community to make this work.”

Other celebrations marking Kwanzaa this year include an event at Roosevelt Field mall on Thursday hosted by Nassau County Executive Edward Mangano, and another Wednesday at the Long Island Children’s Museum in Garden City.

Daniels, 65, who hosts his own celebration at his home, said friends and former students often start calling him in November to ask when his gathering will take place.

“We talk about the imani (faith) ... what does faith mean to each of us and what can we do to make that faith stronger?” he said, describing his own approach to the holiday. “And what can we do for the next year for unity and to sustain us both culturally and spiritually?”

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