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New London celebrates Kwanzaa

New London — Speakers and performers celebrated blackness, cooperative economics, children and elders Sunday night at Cultured Studios during the fourth day of Kwanzaa.

The joyful event focused on education — educating the next generation to understand and revere the holiday as well as first-time celebrators who want to connect with the holiday and its purpose.

Kwanzaa lasts seven days, from Dec. 26 to Jan. 1, and is a Pan-African secular holiday emphasizing culture, community and family. It was founded by Dr. Maulana Karenga in 1966 with the purpose of honoring African-American ancestral roots. The seven principles of Kwanzaa, each observed on one of the seven days, are unity, self-determination, collective work and responsibility, cooperative economics, purpose, creativity and faith.

Juanita Austin, the founder and owner of Cultured Studios on State Street, an "art gallery, social lounge and event space," as well as Cultured AF, "a lifestyle brand and cultural hub," according to its website, led the ceremony.

Austin said she wanted to provide a space for a public Kwanzaa event aside from what's held at the Public Library of New London. She said events such as these are even more vital in lieu of the Kente Cultural Center closing in 2013.

Cultured Studio's first Kwanzaa celebration will likely not be its last, according to Austin. She said it's something she wanted to see in her backyard.

"Kwanzaa is very special," Austin told the crowd. "It's been celebrated in my family for 27 years. I'm excited to share something so special with the community."

The night began with a percussion performance from Jamarr Jabari, a New Haven-based percussionist in the bands Light Warriors and Voices of Change. He told the more than 40 people gathered to call out the names of dead black revolutionaries or family members while he played as a way of remembering ancestors.

Maybe 10 seconds into his drumming, shouts, or quieter affirmations, of "Frederick Douglass," "Nat Turner," "Ida B. Wells," "Marcus Garvey," "Sandra Bland," "Freddie Gray," "Tamir Rice," "Emmett Till," "Toni Morrison" and others punctuated his pensive rhythm.

Josh Brown followed with a Step routine, paying homage to a distinctly black style of dance. Like all other aspects of the evening, Brown invited the children in attendance to get involved. Seanice Austin, Juanita's mother, described how Kwanzaa is foremost to teach children about tradition and the importance of carrying it on, and for elders, to honor them.

This is why Seanice Austin said the children had a table in the front, and the elders (45 and up in this particular case) were the first to eat when it came time for the feast.

As Malik Correia, a New London-based singer known by his artist name of Mason Imperial, sang a song, Carin Bernard's live painting, which she began when the ceremony did, started to take shape. About an hour later, she'd essentially completed a portrayal of a black woman with a traditional Nigerian head wrap.

"I recently found out I was Nigerian, and I'm trying to get in touch with that," Bernard said.

Once the performances were done, Seanice Austin spoke to the meaning of Kwanzaa and led everyone in the lighting of the candles.

"For many years we were taught not to have black pride, and that blackness was negative," Austin said. "Dr. Karenga founded Kwanzaa as a way to celebrate our heritage and history, where we came from, as well as to give direction on where we hope to go each year."

The Kinara, the candle holder, is symbolic of African ancestors. The Mishumaa Saba, the seven candles, represent the seven principles. There are three red candles, signifying the people's struggle, three green candles, representing the future, or hope stemming from the struggle, and one black candle, standing for unity, or the people. Seanice Austin had children say what the candles meant as they lit them.

Juanita Austin then discussed the idea of cooperative economics. She said she felt it was fitting for her business to host the event on the day of Kwanzaa with this theme.

"Cooperative economics is about us as black people, as a community, maintaining and creating for ourselves," she said. "Not only that, but working together as black people. I really try and partner with other black and brown folks, whether it's artists that we work with, performers or other businesses."

Austin pointed to recently opened black-owned businesses downtown, including The Green Room, a restaurant, and Spills Mexican Grill and Bar, among other establishments, as places people should support.

The last part of the program before dinner was the singing of "Lift Every Voice and Sing," often referred to as the "black national anthem."

Kimberly Love-Radcliffe, a New London fiber artist, said there are unfortunately far fewer Kwanzaa and cultural events of this type in New London than in her native Philadelphia.

"It's nice to see someone trying to draw the community in and make them feel proud about their heritage," Love-Radcliffe said. "I started celebrating Kwanzaa in the '80s. This is how I grew up: In my home we always celebrated who we were, who we are, as a people. This is how we honor our ancestors and keep their energy alive."

s.spinella@theday.com

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