A Kwanzaa celebration of three generations


January 03, 2000|By Sally Voris | Sally Voris,SPECIAL TO THE SUN

LAST WEEK, in a small, white cottage in Elkridge, three generations of the Snell family celebrated Kwanzaa. For the past 10 years or so, they have gathered for the seven nights of the holiday.

Sharing stories, singing hymns, praying together, teaching the children about African art and customs, the family is blending its own history, Christian heritage and African roots into a living tradition.

On Tuesday, the third night of Kwanzaa, the Snells met at the home of Sadie Fields, 82, on Meadowridge Road, to honor their elders and tell family stories.

They called the night "The Founders' Legacy."

Six of Sadie's seven children -- Marion Neeley, Tamanika Odinga, Gertrude Belt, William Fields Jr., Frederick Fields and Karen Manning -- were there, some with their spouses and children. Most live nearby.

Sadie's older sister Bessie Hall, 92, came with her daughter Betty Parker.

Sadie's younger sister Catherine Robinson, 71, came with her two daughters, Maureen Woods and Catherine Willett, and her two granddaughters, Arlin Willett, 10, and Amoni Willett, 3.

Hall and Robinson have been deaf since birth. As other family members spoke, their daughters signed the spoken words so they could understand.

Just after dark, the family lighted candles and walked to St. Stephen's AME Church, about two blocks away, to symbolize their return to their ancestral home. Sadie's father, James Edward Snell, once owned 20 acres in Meadowridge. He and his wife, Sarah, were active in St. Stephen's Church.

As cars whizzed by on Meadowridge and Mayfield roads, the family walked along holding the candles and singing a gospel hymn, "Jesus, the Light of the World." They shook tambourines and African rattles and shakers.

Snow flurries fell. A bitter wind blew out the candles.

When they arrived, the children stood on the church steps. Gertrude Belt led a prayer. Then Tamanika's son, Sobukwe Odinga, 20, led a ritual called "Pouring the Libations."

He made the gesture of pouring a cup of water onto the ground to honor the earth and all those who had come before them -- it was too cold to use water. Members of his family named those who had left legacies for them: their own ancestors as well as figures such as Marcus Garvey, Harriet Tubman, George Washington Carver, Frederick Douglass, Langston Hughes, Wilt Chamberlain, Curtis Mayfield and Grover Washington Jr.

When the group returned to Sadie's home and were settled on sofas and metal chairs in two small rooms, Gertrude told the children about the star in the East that guided the wise men to baby Jesus, and the North Star that guided Harriet Tubman as she led slaves to freedom on the Underground Railroad.

Part of that route ran within a mile of Fields' home.

Betty Parker held up a portrait of her grandfather, James Edward Snell, known as E. D. He was born in 1883 and married Sarah Emma Jackson -- who was called Sadie. They had 11 children.

E. D. was known to all as "Papa."

Betty read aloud the names of each of their children and held up photos of some. Then their sisters and nieces rose to tell stories about their lives.

Aunt Bessie (Bessie Hall) cut the hair of all the boys in Meadowridge. She asked them first what style they wanted -- then "cut their hair exactly the same."

Mother Sadie Fields "was in love with Daddy," Tamanika said. She still lives in the home her husband, William Fields, built for her in 1946 -- the first house in Meadowridge to have a television, telephone and running water. William Fields died in 1978.

Uncle Charles Snell loved Cadillacs and women and drove his Cadillac right up to the door of Sadie's house before there was even a driveway.

Fields' sister Catherine signed a story about how their mother, Sadie, had encouraged her not to be "N-A-U-G-H-T-Y" -- spelled out -- even when sister Sadie had been mean to her.

Laughter filled the room, as she described gleefully how her mother had prepared a switch to punish her sister.

It was Tamanika who persuaded the family to begin the tradition of Kwanzaa. She has celebrated Kwanzaa for 23 years.

Christmas has become commercial, Tamanika said. But Kwanzaa provides a time "more than anything else, [to] enjoy each other's company and reinforce our beliefs."

Each evening of the Kwanzaa celebration, the family focuses on one of seven principles: unity, self-determination, collective work and responsibility, cooperative economics, purpose, creativity and faith.

Family members take turns cooking the meals, organizing the programs and opening their homes for the meetings.

When she graduated from Harriet Tubman High School in Clarksville in 1960, Tamanika was encouraged to go to University of Maryland, Maryland State College in Princess Anne, a branch of the system specifically for blacks, rather than attend the University of Maryland, College Park. She did.

She went on to earn two doctorates in education and coordinates special education in St. Charles Parish, La.

Her family is proud that 15 of its members have earned college degrees.

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