Today is the fourth day of Kwanzaa
, a seven day holiday celebrating African-American and African culture and heritage.
The first time I observed Kwanzaa in Albuquerque
was at a UNM community celebration over ten years ago. Students, staff, faculty, and community members gathered in the old Student Union Building ballroom to celebrate the holiday early before everyone left for winter break.
For most of the years we’ve been in Barelas, we’ve walked a few yards down 4th Street to celebrate Kwanzaa at friends’ homes and also, when the celebration became bigger, at Out’ChYonda
. People brought home cooked dishes of traditional food, libations were called out to the ancestors, from Mary McLeod Bethune
to Biddy Mason
, and music was ever present in various forms.
Since this was a gathering of artists and writers and actors and dancers and storytellers, people would share their craft - from words they had written to stories that they had made their own, from dances they had choreographed to vignettes from plays written by African-Americans. As the night wore on, improvisation reigned as musicians jammed, rocking the house with jazz and hip-hop.
Our family has mostly celebrated Kwanzaa quietly at home in Barelas, lighting the kinara
, discussing the principle of the day, and sharing our knowledge about African-American and Africans who have made a difference. Since this is not my cultural heritage, participating in this holiday has been a learning experience for me. (It did help to have a minor concentration in what was then known at UNM as Race, Culture, and Ethnicity (American Studies
) during graduate school. A special shout-out to the late Gerald L. Davis
, whose scholarly influence lives on today).
Among other things, Kwanzaa is a time for my children to learn about famous and not so famous people.
One Kwanzaa night years ago we all watched video footage of the graduation ceremony at Kwame Nkrumah University
in which their uncle, a provost at an HBCU
, participated. The drumming and tribal regalia that keenly captured the attention of all adults present, did not feel as alien as one might expect to children who had grown up in New Mexico. The ensuing discussion of pan-Africanism ranging from Marcus Garvey to Liberia, pulled everyone in, even the children.
Another year, they listened to their aunt talk about the time that she visited an old family friend (and Nobel Peace Prize winner) Dr. Ralph Bunche, in his office at the United Nations. Using the meager details in a well-worn children’s book, we pieced together where Bunche had probably lived in Albuquerque, and speculated about what life must have been like for him living in Albuquerque’s 4th ward. Now, much of that information can be found at the website of the Ralph J. Bunche Academy Charter School
here in Albuquerque.
Over the years, they’ve learned bits and pieces of the story of their great-great-aunt Mag Venerable, a feisty and independent African-American woman who owned a gold mine just outside Helena, Montana. The stories of African-American women in the west are not well-known, but women like New Mexico homesteader Kitty Wood, who was born in 1836 and had ten children, and Martha Williams, who helped care for Arizona and New Mexico orphans, have left their mark on the history of this state. (For more details, check out the book Black Women of the Old West
by William Loren Katz).
Today’s Kwanzaa principle is ujamaa
– the principle of cooperative economics. Basically, this is the idea of supporting African-American owned businesses in your community.
When our children were young, we struggled to explain this abstract concept in terms they could understand. One year, we finally figured it out by taking them to an African-American owned restaurant, Mr. Powdrell’s Barbeque
, on 4th Street in the North Valley. We've continued it ever since - even though Pete Powdrell
is no longer with us, his spirit lives on in this family-owned restaurant.
As our children grew older, we explained ujamaa
by connecting it to the grandfather they never met, the first black man to graduate from Cal Tech
. We spoke of his desire to work in his chosen field as an engineer, and the racism that prevented him from doing so.
We spoke of his decision to purchase a chalkboard eraser factory, and to keep the business in the name of the white man who founded the company, so that purchasers for school districts around the country would not realize that the company had changed hands and was owned by a black man.
If you grew up west of the Rockies and attended school between 1950 and 1986, chances are high that you used a chalkboard eraser made by George R. Healey Manufacturing Company. The Eraser Factory
, a nascent art venue paying homage to this history (and more) is now in the works in Barelas – more to come about this in 2009.
I’ve always liked the principle of ujamaa
, though I suspect my variation on it casts a net well beyond the original meaning of Kwanzaa. My interpretation of ujamaa
includes supporting those businesses that are aligned with my values, and most importantly, supporting locally owned businesses who contribute to communities that I care about. In these times of economic uncertainty, I believe that it is worth spending an extra dollar or two to keep these businesses going in our local economy.
– another way of looking at the world we live in.