Edith Lawrence-Hilliard

is a community organizer and advocate in Madison, Wis.

Kwanzaa is a celebration of life and a time for inclusion.

The name, which comes from the Swahili word for first fruit, has come to symbolize Pan-African values of family, community and culture.

Starting on Wednesday and lasting a week, Kwanzaa calls on us in the African American community to honor its seven basic principles for living: unity, self-determination, collective work and responsibility, economic cooperation, purpose, creativity and faith.

For a people experiencing centuries of hardship because of slavery and racism, Kwanzaa reminds us that where there is great suffering, there is also great strength to be gained. Where there has been inequity, there are also the seeds of opportunity. Where there is suffering in isolation, there is comfort in unity. Where there is division, there are also powerful family and community connections keeping us whole.

Kwanzaa asks us to reflect on the values that sustain us as a people in this sometimes fractured and hurt world. It brings a sense of pride to me as an African American. It makes me look back upon the rich history of my ancestors. And it helps me to remember the struggles that African Americans have come through and are still going through.

But Kwanzaa is not just an African American celebration. Its values are universal. As such, Kwanzaa is a much more inclusive holiday than some of its critics would have you believe.

No, Kwanzaa is not a "Black Christmas."

No, Kwanzaa is not a separatist effort to exclude nonblacks.

Nor is Kwanzaa an occasion for conspicuous consumption. Until marketing moguls get hold of the idea, no one expects a Lexus sedan or a diamond necklace as a suitable Kwanzaa gift.

Kwanzaa is essentially the opportunity to recognize the best in ourselves and to share that best with others: That is the gift of Kwanzaa.

For everyone, Kwanzaa offers an all-too-rare moment of appreciation and communion. In a world where racial, economic, social and political divisions seem to define us by who we are not, Kwanzaa reminds all of us that we are for one another.