Weaving a story of African-American pride

Griots honor Kwanzaa at Walbrook library

December 28, 2003|By David Kohn | David Kohn,SUN STAFF

The drummers drummed. The singers sang. The storytellers told stories. And the audience clapped and laughed. About 50 people gathered in West Baltimore yesterday to celebrate Kwanzaa, listening to a series of traditional African and African-American stories, songs and proverbs.

The audience at the Walbrook branch of the Enoch Pratt Free Library on W. North Avenue heard tales filled with singing frogs, lazy monkeys, sneaky turtles, and forgetful cheetahs; each narrative illustrated one of the seven principles of Kwanzaa.

Among those who attended was Michelle Hamiel, who brought her daughter Briana and friend Taylor Yarbrough, both 10.

"There are very few activities that celebrate Kwanzaa," Hamiel said. "I want to make sure that these children grow up with a sense of their own culture."

Hamiel, a Woodlawn resident, said that unlike many holiday events, this one didn't focus on consumerism. "It's more about developing self and caring about others," she said.

Kwanzaa lasts a week, from Dec. 26 to Jan. 1. Each day focuses on a different principle: Umoja (unity), Kujichagulia (self-determination), Ujima (collective work and responsibility), Ujamaa (cooperative economics), Nia (purpose), Kuumba (creativity), and Imani (faith).

The holiday, which means "first fruits of harvest" in Swahili, was created in 1966 by professor and activist Maulana Karenga.

In the wake of the Watts riots in Los Angeles, he wanted to help African-Americans celebrate their heritage with their own symbols.

He fashioned a holiday that borrowed elements from several African harvest celebrations.

"The principles of Kwanzaa are the principles of life," said Baltimore resident Deborah Fakunle, who performed at the library with her two children, David, 16, and Mary, 13.

"Kwanzaa puts them in a frame that is recognizable to the African-American community."

Kwanzaa is now celebrated around the world. No one knows how many people mark the holiday. Some have estimated that 1 in 10 African-Americans observe it in some way.

Yesterday's performers are all members of the Griots' Circle of Maryland, a group of African-American storytellers that appears around the state and the country.

The group, which was founded 14 years ago, has more than 30 members. They perform stories, songs, proverbs and riddles that stem from African and African-American culture.

In traditional African societies, griots were in charge of preserving oral history and culture. Griots played many roles, including historian, genealogist, educator, moralist and entertainer.

"It's a tradition, an ancient tradition. I get an opportunity to share the history and culture of my people," said Stanley "Bunjo" Butler, one of the performers and the master of ceremonies.

Over the past 18 years, Butler, 57, who is the manager of the Walbrook library branch, has learned "dozens and dozens" of traditional stories.

The key, he says, is not to memorize the story, but to learn it. "When you know a story, you won't freeze" during the performance, he said.

Among those who performed were several members of the Growing Griots, the youth section of the Griots' Circle. Duane Hinton, 17, and David Fakunle played African drums and told stories. Mary Fakunle sang and told stories. David and Mary Fakunle's mother told a riddle and sang several gospel songs.

After the performance, audience and storytellers ate a meal of fried chicken, rolls, cake and cookies.

Many noted that the ideas communicated in the stories don't apply only to Kwanzaa.

"They're not just for the season," said Eslyn Hinmon, president of the Griots' Circle. "They're for the entire year."

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