Photo: W. Patrick Hinley
It was the week after Christmas, December 1982—on that, at least, my sister and I are agreeing. While the other children of Philadelphia were playing with new Hot Wheels and Cabbage Patches, my family and I were in the audience of a "Kwanzaa program," a public event meant to teach community members about the holiday's principles and practices. Some Kwanzaa programs stayed on message, exploring the virtues of umoja (Swahili for unity) and imani (faith). Some, like this one, strained creatively at relevance. A rumpled fellow at the front of the room waved a mimeograph and warned about the dangers of fast food burgers, including salmonella poisoning—
"Remember the kangaroo meat?" my sister interrupts.
"I thought I made that up."
"No, he definitely mentioned kangaroo meat."
—and kangaroo meat. After his presentation, which had nothing to do with any of the seven principles of Kwanzaa we knew—and we knew them all because each year our father wrote a song to help us remember them—an amateur mime stood up, made a claustrophobic box with his hands, and called the box "heroin." Then—
"Wait, you mean the movie with the mime in it?"
"No, the movie was totally separate. The mime made a box called heroin, but then they showed a movie about a guy named Johnny who was also on heroin and—"
"So that's why I'm so afraid of mimes...."
If you have conversations like this, you may have been raised by black nationalists. That is, idealists born of the 1960s and '70s who taught their children to revere Africa, mouth but not say the Pledge of Allegiance, and who implied that Thomas Edison stole the formula for the lightbulb from a black scientist named Lewis Latimer. And you might have attended cultural events of varied quality and sanity, leading your sister to call your kind "program children." You may have even been forced to participate occasionally, giving musical Kwanzaa presentations with your father on congas and your megaphone-voiced mother leading everyone in song.
Of course, as a child, you might have cherished your family but longed to live inside the frosted windows of Toll House Christmastime commercials, in a paradise of toys and cookies. Perhaps you longed to fit in with normal black kids who believed in Santa Claus and America, and shouted "you African" by way of insult. Later, when you transferred to a suburban prep school, where you fit in even more poorly, you might have wished that your classmate, Jenna F., hadn't shown up at one of your Kwanzaa von Trapp gigs at a children's museum, and that your parents' attempts to help you triumph over the pain of difference, being black in a white-dominated world, weren't making you even more different.
But as you get older, you may begin to appreciate what it means that your father wrote songs for you, and that your kitchen table was a place where people spoke seriously about history and politics. You may realize that your parents wanted their traditions to make you feel that you were not alone in a world that often doubted your humanity. And you never were alone, not in your most bizarre childhood memories, and not when recounting those memories at Kwanzaa time when your mother, laughing, is prone to say, "You girls are making this up!" and your father, whose songs you now know that you will teach your future hypothetical children, claims not to remember the mime at all.
Asali Solomon is the author of Get Down and a visiting professor of English at Trinity College in Hartford, Connecticut. Solomon was one of the National Book Foundation's "5 Under 35" in 2007. She is now working on a novel called Disgruntled.