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Kwanzaa may be celebrated by a small number of people, but those who do are genuinely committed to its teachings and principles.

Keeping It Real

Kwanzaa. Not sure what it is? Ask around and the responses can be as varied as the misperceptions. "Black Christmas" is the one you hear most frequently, along with "Isn't that the made-up holiday?"

Kwanzaa may not have the following of Christmas or Hanukkah, but to those who celebrate it, there is nothing contrived about it.

Richmond hosts three of the largest Kwanzaa celebrations in Virginia, but most people know very little about the holiday. "When we first started doing it a lot of people had no idea what Kwanzaa was," says Janine Bell, organizer of the Capital City Kwanzaa Festival. "You know Richmond is a little conservative, and too many people were confused that it was a black Christmas, or a Muslim thing, which it is not. It is a celebration of African-American culture, but it's not just for our people, it is also a gift of the wonderful things of our culture for all people to see and celebrate."

Kwanzaa takes place from Dec. 26 through Jan. 1 and is a combination of seven African principles, or teachings, and the traditional celebration of the African harvest. The principles focus on developing unity, self-determination, collective work and responsibility, cooperative economics, purpose, creativity and faith. Each day of Kwanzaa focuses on the study of an individual principle.

Dr. Maulana Ron Karenga created Kwanzaa in 1966 to instill a sense of racial pride in African-American communities after the 1965 Watts riots in Los Angeles. Dr. Njeri Jackson, director of the African American Studies Program at VCU explains that "It's called a holiday, but really it evolved out of Karenga's head; he put together African principles with the idea of the community coming together for the harvest in a way that he felt was vital for a community to stay alive in this period where there was a lot of conflict."

Shakila Dotson, organizer of Kabila Productions and the North Richmond Family YMCA's "Kwanzaa 1999," has seen the positive effects of the holiday: "We've got these kids out there with all this anger and pain, and when you surround them with love, teach them about the presence and power of their ancestors, they start to respond. Give them a drum, and at first they'll be afraid, but let them see and hear the first hits, by the end of the day, it's like watching the sun rise over their faces, they're a new person, and you know you're on the right

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