Kwanzaa Values for the New Year

A sermon by Jennifer Brooks, ministerial intern
Paint Branch UU Church
December 31, 2000

I've brought a game in with me today. If any of you kids recognize this game, raise your hand. Any adults? Great! What's it called? Yes, mankalah. For those here today who haven't played the game, let's show it around. Small stones are placed in each of the spaces on the long sides of the board, and players take turns scooping out a cluster and placing one in each of the next spaces. I'm passing the stones around in a plastic bagóplease leave the stones in it! The idea is for a player to capture a stone by dropping it into the player's own bowl, one of the two larger depressions on each end.

This game, which is quite familiar to Americans, is borrowed from Africa. The name "mankalah" is Egyptian, but the game is popular under other names all over Africa. I've brought back sets from a number of different countries. Here's another East African game, from Ethiopia, called gebeta. Pass it around. It also uses small stones. Here's the baggie with stones from Ethiopia. This one is from Liberia, in West Africa, made by members of the Bassa tribe and called pogu. Notice that it doesn't have "capture" bowls on the end like the others. That's because the Pogu players use large seeds, and when a player captures one he or she gets to eat it. Here's a bag with the Pogu seeds. At home we play with Jolly Ranchers. This last set is from Ghana, also in West Africa; in Ghana the game is called oware. Notice that this one is hinged like the Ethiopian game, for easy transport, but like the Liberian game it doesn't have capture bowls. As in Liberia, the players use the same kind of edible seeds.

We in America have borrowed a lot of things from Africa, not just the game of mankala. Can you give the person sitting next to you a "high five"? That gesture came into widespread use only a few decades ago, and it came out of African-American culture. It reaches back to Africa. When slave traders captured Africans and brought them in chains to be sold into slavery in the American South, the traditions and culture of the Africans came along too. Much of that culture was suppressed by the Southern landowners, but it survived and emerged in unexpected ways. One of those ways was the African-American spiritual, which reflects not only the longing for freedom but also traditional African tribal music. When Dvorjak visited America in the late 1800s, he decided that the new direction for classical music would be found in the songs of black America. His New World Symphony was written in the spirit of that music. In other words, he borrowed it.

Dr. Ron Karenga "invented" Kwanzaa in 1966, at the height of the "black power" movement. He borrowed Swahili terms like kinara, the candleholder, and Kwanzaa, which means "first fruits." He borrowed African symbols, like the straw mat that is placed under the other Kwanzaa symbols. The straw mat is used everywhere I've been in Africa; in Liberia, large sections of straw matting are used as walls for houses and as barriers around construction sites. Dr. Kerenga intended the straw mat to be a reminder of African folkways and traditions. He also used American symbolsóan ear of corn, for example, represents children; corn is native to America, as are the black Americans born in this country. How appropriate to combine symbols of Africa and America to create a new tradition that is unique to African-Americans.

Kwanzaa has been criticized as not a real tradition. This criticism is interesting; is it only an old tradition that can be accepted and embraced as a "tradition"? What is a tradition the first time it's carried out? Maybe just a good idea? Or a meaningful gesture?

Dr. Karenga's good idea was to give African-Americans a tradition not blighted by Christianity's role in the oppression of American slaves,yet one that would not require black Christians to reject or abandon their traditional observance of Christmas. Kwanzaa is also a year-end celebration, a winter solstice observance that is well-placed here in the Northern Hemisphere (as it would not be in Africa). It's a tradition that unites values of family and community with a political message of the need for economic strength as the path to economic justiceóreflecting its genesis in the turbulent sixties.

Because I'm not a black American, I can't experience life the way African-Americans experience it; I can't claim Kwanzaa as my racial entitlement. But because I'm the parent of an African-American child, I can honor the Kwanzaa tradition and celebrate it with my son. And, inevitably, I've found in Kwanzaa many values that I want to carry from the old year into the new, with the resolve to work them more completely into the fabric of my life. Family, community. Unity, purpose. Self-Determination. Creativity. Faith. As I speak these words to my son, I yearn to make them more fully mine.

We have the freedom to make "and break" New Year's resolutions. What is freedom? In many respects, it is the freedom to determine the direction of our own lives. We'll never have complete freedom "there are always boundaries" but we do have the freedom to choose our mental and spiritual direction, to expand or limit our activities, to bring meaning to our lives or to ignore the need for it.

In the next few minutes, choose a single Kwanzaa value that has meaning for you. The seven principles are listed in the bulletin. Think of a New Year's Resolution that expresses that value. If you are with friends or family, and would like to do so, share with that resolution with them. In a few moments, I'll ask for six people or families to come to the microphone and share their resolutions with the rest of us.

[Interval for discussion, followed by volunteers who share resolutions.]

Thank you for sharing with us these New Year's resolutions that reflect Kwanzaa values. There are resolutions that remain unspoken, and others that we may think of after we leave this place. Let us rejoice together in our freedom to choose new directions for our lives. Let us not forget those who are without the freedom make their own choices: those oppressed by injustice, by poverty, by lack of education, by economic enslavement. "Let us remember," in the words of Desmond Tutu, Bishop of South Africa, "that liberation is costly. It needs unity. We must hold hands and refuse to be divided. We must be ready." Let us be part of that unity, part of that struggle for liberation, no matter where or when. Let us resolve today to be united with all who yearn for freedom.

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