Los Angeles — Sometimes the baby steps taken by television can represent leaps and bounds.
Consider the case of "Rugrats," "The Proud Family" and Kwanzaa. While diversity comes hard to much of television, the two children's animated shows are gracefully showcasing the African-American holiday.
"The Proud Family" is a freshman Disney Channel series about a spirited black teen-ager, Penny Proud. "Rugrats" is the decade-old Nickelodeon series that's home to white, black and Asian tots.
Both take a lighthearted but heartfelt look at Kwanzaa in episodes that allow viewers to understand and appreciate the seven-day, nonreligious festival that begins Dec. 26.
First observed in 1966, Kwanzaa emphasizes the role of family and community. Each festival day is dedicated to a particular principle among them, unity, self-determination, creativity and faith.
Discovering the meaning
In "The Proud Family," Christmas is coming, and 14-year-old Penny (Kyla Pratt) is focused on what's important: getting a new cell phone. But then she meets a homeless family infused with the Kwanzaa spirit.
"The Prouds realize this family was brought to them for a reason, to discover the true meaning of this time of year," said series creator Bruce Smith, who is executive producer with Ralph Farquhar.
Guest stars Samuel L. Jackson, Vivica A. Fox and Raven Symone lend their voices to the homeless visitors.
The episode debuts 6 p.m. Friday and repeats throughout December. Smith said it seemed a perfect fit for a series with the perspective of a black girl.
"Ralph and I decided we wanted to tell stories that everyone can relate to yet still have a different point of view," Smith said.
Drawing on his memories of feel-good holiday shows like "Frosty the Snowman," Smith said he hoped to create an episode that would mesh the spirit of Kwanzaa with that of Christmas.
"Kwanzaa is about someone leading a purposeful life. It ties in with what we feel the Christmas spirit is about: family, giving, unity, purpose."
Nickelodeon's "Rugrats" also seemed the natural home for a Kwanzaa episode, said Marjorie Cohn, senior vice president for production.
"Nickelodeon has a commitment to being there for all kids" and including cultural diversity, Cohn said. The animated show also has episodes about Christmas (airing Saturday) and Hanukkah (airing Thursday)
In "A Rugrats Kwanzaa," which debuts 7:30 p.m. Tuesday (repeating Dec. 15 and Dec. 26), visiting Aunt T. introduces Susie Carmichael (Cree Summer) and her family to the holiday.
"Kwanz-o" is the way an uncertain, 3-year-old Susie pronounces it, and her siblings first look askance at the idea. But they get into the spirit of things, with Susie giving "Kwanzaa piggy tails" to her friends (except for nearly bald baby Tommy) and the family preparing a "karamu," or feast.
But Kwanzaa, Aunt T. has informed them, honors "the legacy of our great people," and a gloomy Susie decides she'll be left out because she hasn't done anything special.
"I'm not one of my great people," she sobs to Aunt T.
"Child, always be proud of who you are and where you came from," her aunt tells her. "And remember, you have your whole life to discover how great you really are."
Sense of place
Irma P. Hall, 66, who provides the aunt's spunky voice, says she made a point of celebrating the new holiday with her children in the 1960s. She said the secular holiday, based in part on traditional African harvest festivals, doesn't present religious conflicts.
Kwanzaa helped give her children a sense of their place in the family and provided the chance to pass along values handed down to her.
Through the years, the actress and former teacher has made a point of introducing non-black friends and colleagues to Kwanzaa. She's glad to see "Rugrats" doing that, too.
"One thing that 9-11 taught us is that we really need to know as much as possible about other people's cultures. ... Getting to know about all these different holidays that people celebrate, it helps to reinforce the fact that we are more alike than different."