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Based on ancient customs, Kwanzaa honors African-American culture

Pamela Allen and Quintel Harris, 11, light the

Pamela Allen and Quintel Harris, 11, light the Kinara during a Kwanzaa celebration at the Wyandanch Public Library on Thursday, Dec. 21, 2017. Credit: Newsday / Thomas A. Ferrara

Cooperative economics is one of the seven principles of Kwanzaa, the weeklong secular holiday honoring African-American culture and history that starts Dec. 26.

So Billy Moss, president of the Islip Town NAACP, decided to put that into action earlier this month by organizing a fair where vendors sold products and services from the African-American and other black communities.

The event, held Dec. 10 at Dominican Village in Amityville, attracted 300 people and 60 vendors, and gave people a chance for early holiday shopping that supported the black community, Moss said. Traditional food, clothing and other items were sold.

“It was quite a magical event,” Moss said.

“This was hopefully the first of many opportunities for people who have cultures within the African diaspora — either Africa or the Caribbean or Haiti or black American — for individuals to be in one place and share that common thread, that common ancestry,” he said.

Kwanzaa, the seven-day holiday that runs through Jan. 1, was created 51 years ago by Maulana Karenga, an African Studies professor at California State University in Long Beach. Kwanzaa means “first fruits of the harvest” in Swahili and is based on ancient customs in Africa.

The holiday employs 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, each called by a Swahili name.

Kwanzaa events are held around Long Island at libraries, schools, museums, community centers and churches — some of them, like Moss’ fair, before the official start of the holiday. They often include singing, dancing, storytelling, drumming, poetry and candle lighting.

The Wyandanch Public Library hosted one event Thursday that included a meal of traditional soul food and discussion of the seven principles.

While Kwanzaa traditionally starts the day after Christmas, it has no formal connection to that holiday.

Moss said he decided to call his event the “Ujamaa Fest,” after the Swahili word for cooperative economics. He said he hopes it will help spur economic activity in Long Island’s black community.

Pam Robinson Allen, a retired teacher in the Hempstead school district and professor of special education at Long Island University, said that “the African-American community has a lot of spending dollars.”

But “most of that money is sent out of the community because they don’t have access to the local vendors and small businesses are not getting the dollars,” she said.

“You need to know who they are, where they are, and then support them,” said Allen, who attended the fair in Amityville and led the event at the Wyandanch library.

Norman Daniels, a former coordinator for multicultural affairs at Suffolk County Community College, said economic disparity between whites and blacks in the United States remains an issue.

He said, “The conversation that has been developing” among many in the black community is: “What can we do to become more independent economically?”

The event in Amityville has prompted many people to start thinking about the issue, he said.

“Now the parents are saying to their children, ‘What can you do to make yourself entrepreneurial?’ ” Daniels said.

Moss said he hopes to continue the Ujamaa Fest in the future.

“It celebrates in a big way out here on Long Island . . . the principle of cooperative economics,” he said. “Unfortunately we have a long way to go as a country to heal and for there really to be an opportunity for all Americans to achieve the American dream.”

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