Delivering the message of Kwanzaa

At museum event, storyteller illustrates holiday's principles

December 19, 2005|By FRANK D. ROYLANCE | FRANK D. ROYLANCE,SUN REPORTER

Bunjo Butler's tale was a story in verse, recalling a childhood Christmas in West Baltimore, and his longing for a coveted pair of "Union Hardware, Ball-bearing No. 5" roller skates.

But it was delivered yesterday in the tradition of West African storytellers, or griots, on the eve of Kwanzaa celebrations for 2005.

Butler is a member of the Griot Circle of Maryland, whose members entertained and educated an overflow crowd of more than 100 as part of the Baltimore Museum of Art's 13th annual Kwanzaa Family Day.

In his uniquely West Baltimore twist on Clement Clark Moore's poem "A Visit From St. Nicholas," Butler told of hiding behind his parents' sofa - at age 8, and after being good all year - to make sure Santa Claus came through.

"The only thing that would satisfy was a set of Union Hardware, Ball-bearing No. 5s," went his refrain.

Instead, he said, "People I loved started bringing presents and toys." Aunts, uncles, his hardworking parents - all came bearing gifts. "I knew then and there who was the real Kriss Kringle: The people that love you is Santa Claus."

And with that, Butler drove home for his not-entirely African-American audience, both young and old, the importance of three of the seven guiding principles of Kwanzaa - Umoja (unity), Ujima (collective work and responsibility), and Ujamaa (cooperative economics). The other four are creativity, faith, purpose and self-determination.

"We tell stories about morals," explained Butler's fellow griot, Clarence Mollock. "The way society has changed, it's sometimes difficult to reach kids."

But the griots' tales about where the moon came from, and how the rhinoceros got his skin - or in this case illustrating the lessons of Kwanzaa - can reach children, and adults, the way Aesop's fables once did.

Victor Clark Jr., 61, knows it well. He attended yesterday with his grandson, David Shawn Byrd, 2, as he once did with his own children and older grandchildren.

He does it, Clark said, so David "can start to grow up with the right principles, the kind of things young people need to know."

They know about Christmas and Santa Claus, he said. But "we need to teach them from both perspectives" and provide them with "an understanding of life and a celebration of life" that Kwanzaa's principles provide.

The name Kwanzaa is derived from a Swahili expression meaning "first fruits."

It is not a religious holiday, but rather a seven-day reaffirmation of the best of African-Americans' cultural and philosophical values. Official celebrations begin Dec. 26 and end Jan. 1. Participation is open to people of all religious faiths.

Celebrants set aside time on the seventh day - Jan. 1 - for quiet, personal meditation and recommitment to family and community wellbeing.

Celebration of Kwanzaa in the United States began in the 1960s, amid the civil rights and black liberation movements, as a means of strengthening and enriching the black community.

It was the creation of Maulana Karenga, a professor in the department of black studies at California State University, Long Beach.frank.roylance@baltsun.com

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