The Kwanzaa Bridge

Posted December 17th, 2010 at 3:01 pm (UTC-4)
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Early winter in America is a time of religious commemorations, including Christian Christmas and Jewish Hanukkah.

But there’s one equally thoughtful, though entirely secular, celebration that African Americans observe this time of year, over and above any observance of Christmas, Hanukkah, or the Muslim holiday of Ashura.

It’s Kwanzaa, which Americans of African descent mark over seven days, beginning December 26th, the day AFTER Christmas. If you don’t count wild and crazy New Year’s Eve, this long bridge between Christmas and New Year’s Day is the last holiday of each year.

While there’s no particular widely-sung or recorded song about Kwanzaa ─ no equivalent to Christendom’s “O Holy Night” or Jewish children’s “Dreidel Song” ─ there is lot of Kwanzaa music.

Much of it is centuries old and tribal and often sung with no more than a drumbeat accompaniment.

A Kwanzaa tradition in some households is to place as many ears of corn as there are children in the family on the holiday display.

A Kwanzaa tradition in some households is to place as many ears of corn as there are children in the family on the holiday display.

Based in part on early African harvest celebrations ─ corn, or maize, is prominent in its symbols and rituals ─ Kwanzaa is primarily a time for storytelling and reconnection with cultures dating to ancient Africa. Its name traces to a phrase that means “first fruits” in the Swahili language.

The holiday was developed in 1966, in the heart of the black nationalist movement, by Maulana Karenga, now an African-American scholar and activist at California State University at Long Beach. Back then, he was Ron Karenga, a radical California “black power” advocate.

He designed Kwanzaa as a festival of family and community. The purpose, he said, was to “reaffirm and restore our rootedness in African culture.”  Rites were to be in Swahili because it is the most widely spoken African language.

Africa’s storytelling tradition flowered among many peoples throughout the continent, notably during the harvest of the early summer’s first crops. This coincides with Kwanzaa’s timing in the early winter of the northern hemisphere. Keeping alive the storytelling tradition is part of the life work of griots.

And what are griots?

Originally, they were West African poets, tale-tellers, and oral historians. These days, they include keepers of that tradition in the United States such as Lorrd-Lorenzo Calender the Second – or “Baba-C.”  He’s a Washington, D.C., musician and cultural-arts specialist who trains young people, whom he calls “Tomorrow’s Voices,” in the art of storytelling.

And Kwanzaa is Baba-C’s busy season.

“When a griot opens his or her mouth, we have something of importance to share,” he once told me. “We are the keepers of the spoken word. We are the keepers of the history. We know why the sun and the moon live in the sky. We know why children should listen to their elders.”

The words surrounding this candleholder represent Kwanzaa’s “seven principles” of life and conduct.

The words surrounding this candleholder represent Kwanzaa’s “seven principles” of life and conduct.

Just as Jews light a candle a day on the menorah candelabra each of eight days during Hanukkah, those who mark Kwanzaa light candles over seven ─ ending New Year’s Day ─ to represent seven principles that are given Swahili names. They include Umoja, or the unity of family, community, nation, and race; and Kuumba, or creativity, which leaves the black community culturally richer.

“Lastly, we teach Imani ─ faith,” ─ Baba-C told me. “Faith in ourselves as black people, faith in our creator, faith in our mothers and our fathers and our sisters and our brothers, our elders and our children. Faith that through hard work, long struggle, and a whole lot of love and understanding, we can again get back to that day in human history as a free, proud, and productive people.”

With each principle go ancient and modern stories, fables, and admonitions ─ or words to live by ─ accompanied by feasting and the exchange of gifts. There are holiday cards and gift wrap for Kwanzaa, Kwanzaa-themed programs in schools and performing-arts centers, a Kwanzaa U.S. postage stamp, and even a message for Kwanzaa from the U.S. president each year.

At Inner Visions, a bookstore in Washington’s Maryland suburbs, events coordinator Almacee Wilcox told me that while some religious holidays have morphed into almost frivolous ones ─ witness the attention given to Santa Claus and his reindeer over the Baby Jesus ─ Kwanzaa is serious business. “Values have been lost,” she told me. “Never before have the values of unity and community been so important.”

A storyteller was the main attraction at a Brooklyn, New York, Kwanzaa celebration three years ago.  (universalhiphopparade, Flickr Creative Commons)

A storyteller was the main attraction at a Brooklyn, New York, Kwanzaa celebration three years ago. (universalhiphopparade, Flickr Creative Commons)

In his presentations, Baba-C begins with a chant, followed by stories, including one geared toward Kwanzaa. It is the tale of a father named Anonzee and his seven children. Anonzee disappears, then is found in the clutches of an eagle. Through the skill of one of Anonzee’s children, the eagle releases Anonzee, but he falls into a river and is swallowed by a fish. Ultimately the children save their father and a glittering sphere of silver light that he has captured.

They save him thanks to teamwork, one of the story’s lessons.

Anonzee instructs the children to blow and blow on the ball of light, which rises into the air, gets bigger and bigger, and then gets stuck in the sky.

“Wow,” exclaims Baba-C.

“Wow,” echo the children.

“And we call this ball of light that glows at night . . . ?”

“The moon!” cry the children.

Part of the lessons of Kwanzaa is the opportunity to wear cultural garb tying a person to her or his ancestors in Africa.

Part of the lessons of Kwanzaa is the opportunity to wear cultural garb tying a person to her or his ancestors in Africa.

While Kwanzaa lives in such community settings and in many households, there is a lively debate over the need for, as well as the relevance and popularity of, the holiday. Some observers detect fewer and fewer people attending Kwanzaa observances each year. Other African Americans say the need for the holiday has passed, since cultural awareness is strong, the radical “black power” fervor has calmed from the ’60s, and increasing numbers of African Americans are achieving leadership positions in the nation’s multicultural society.

One estimate, six years ago, pegged the observance level of Kwanzaa among African Americans at just 13 percent. At Kwanzaa ceremonies “I don’t see younger people, the ones who need to embrace Kwanzaa and keep it vibrant,” worried Cleveland, Ohio, journalist Afi-Odelia E. Scruggs in a 2007 Washington Post article.

Not every holiday reindeer pulls Santa’s sleigh or is associated with Christmas.

Not every holiday reindeer pulls Santa’s sleigh or is associated with Christmas.

Occasionally, too, Kwanzaa is attacked as yet another secular assault on the sacred meaning of Christmas. Back in his more radical days, during which he founded the black-nationalist group Organization Us, Maulana Karenga himself once said that Christianity was a “white religion” to which Kwanzaa provided a black alternative. Karenga later softened that rhetoric and emphasized the complementary nature of the two holidays.

Many of those in the African-American community who continue to observe Kwanzaa ─ estimates of their number vary wildly, from 5 million to 12 million people ─ insist that this first specifically African-American holiday is far from dead. It has been so well accepted, in fact, that it has gone mainstream in the black community. Supporters of the observance say families today celebrate Kwanzaa quietly and thoughtfully, without making a big fuss about it.

Even some Barbie dolls are decked out for Kwanzaa. (SageE., Flickr Creative Commons)

Even some Barbie dolls are decked out for Kwanzaa. (SageE., Flickr Creative Commons)

Ted's Wild Words

These are a few words from this posting that you may not know. Each time, I'll tell you a little about them and also place them into a cumulative archive of "Ted's Wild Words" in the right-hand column of the home page. Just click on it there, and if there's another word that you'd like me to explain, just ask!

Dreidel. A four-sided, spinning top, enjoyed by children during the eight-day Jewish holiday of Hanukkah.

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Ted Landphair

About

This is a far-ranging exploration of American life by a veteran Voice of America “Americana” reporter and essayist.

Ted writes about the thousands of places he has visited and written about as a broadcaster and book author. Ted Landphair’s America often showcases the work of his wife and traveling companion, renowned American photographer Carol M. Highsmith.

Ted welcomes feedback, questions, and ideas. View Ted’s profile. Watch a video about Ted and Carol by VOA’s Nico Colombant.

Photos by Carol M. Highsmith

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