Anyone curious about the diversity of Laguna Woods need only have attended the recent lively Kwanzaa celebration hosted by the African American Heritage Club.

The small room at Clubhouse 5 was packed with more than 80 residents of various ages, ethnicities, religions and club affiliations, gathered for the annual holiday celebrating African American culture and heritage.

“Kwanzaa is a harvest festival, not a religious one,” said AAHC President Annie McCary. “It is all about relationships within family and community and about personal behavior.”

“Different races spanning several generations celebrate Kwanzaa with us, and some attend because they’re curious,” said Sharon Phillips, who, with husband Willie, prepared the traditional African American food served at the party – turkey, ham, greens, mac and cheese, and sweet potato pie.

Kwanzaa is an annual holiday that is celebrated from Dec. 26 to Jan. 1. It was created in 1966 in the aftermath of the Watts riots in Los Angeles to celebrate African American history, culture and rituals and to bring Black people together as a community.

Kwanzaa, which means “first harvest” in Swahili, is celebrated over seven days to honor seven principles: unity, self-determination, collective work and responsibility, economic cooperation, purpose, creativity and faith.

These principles are represented by seven candles – a black one at the center flanked by three red and three green ones – in a candle holder called a kinara, said AAHC member Frankie Maryland-Alston, who goes by “Dr. Sparkle.”

“Each candle represents a guiding principle of Kwanzaa,” she said. “We express our unity through them.”

The display forms the focal point on a table festooned with traditional objects like a woven straw mat under ears of corn symbolizing commitment to children and the future, a cup representing water as the element that sustains all, and produce like apples, lemons, bananas and sweet peas. Dolls in African garb suggest spiritual and material gifts.

Among African American traditions is storytelling. Slaves weren’t allowed to learn to read or write and so turned to telling stories, McCary said.

During the celebration, AAHC member Larry Dickson read a story from “The People Could Fly,” a 1985 collection of Black folktales by Virginia Hamilton. The story “Carrying the Running-aways” centers on Arnold Gragston, a slave in Kentucky, who was subtly and gradually recruited to ferry slaves to the abolitionist John Rankin’s house across the river in Ohio. Rankin lived in what was known as “the house with the light” that was later turned into a museum.

Adding to the festivities were the African drum rhythms provided by the leaders of the Village Drum Circle, Gayle Slaten and Don Celestino. They also passed out small rhythm and noise makers for audience participation.

“Drumming in Africa dates back to 500 AD and was used for both spiritual and practical communication,” Slaten said.

Celebrant Esther Wright, a member of the Reform Temple of Laguna Woods, offered her impressions of the evening’s spirit: “This event sums up the diversity of this community and the beautiful relationship people have with each other and the fact that so many here are sharing a joyous experience with people of other cultures.”

For McCary, the celebration was a success.

“It’s amazing how many people showed up. Our clubs seem to be melding – we support each other,” she said. “Now even the Village Community Center has Kwanzaa decorations.”

The 7 guiding principles of Kwanzaa

*Umoja (unity): To strive for and to maintain unity in the family, community, nation and race

*Kujichagulia (self-determination): To define and name ourselves, as well as as to create and speak for ourselves

*Ujima (collective work and responsibility): To build and maintain our community together and make our brothers’ and sisters’ problems our problems and to solve them together

*Ujamaa (cooperative economics): To build and maintain our own stores, shops and other businesses and to profit from them together

*Nia (purpose): To make our collective vocation the building and developing of our community in order to  restore our people to their traditional greatness

*Kuumba (creativity): To always do as much as we can, in the way we can, in order to leave our community more beautiful and beneficial than we inherited it

*Imani (faith): To believe with all our hearts in our people, our parents, our teachers, our leaders, and the  righteousness and victory of our struggle

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