Taste of Freedom: Kwanzaa - #104

BURT WOLF: Most of our holidays and celebrations were developed to mark the cycles of nature and they have taken place in traditional forms for centuries.

They bind the past to the present and predict the future. They are a basic part of every society that has ever existed.

But when these ceremonies arrived in America, they started to change. No longer controlled by convention these ancient celebrations began to evolve. They had gotten their first Taste of Freedom and they would never be the same.


BURT WOLF: This is the island of Manhattan. The first European settlers to arrive here were Dutch and they showed up in 1625. They called their community Harlem which was the name of the town they had come from in the Netherlands. Today, Harlem is the epicenter of African-American culture in the United States.

During the 1830s, the New York and Harlem Railroad built a rail line connecting Harlem to downtown New York and the area became a hot property. Many of New York’s most important families decided to build their estates on these streets. When a second railroad line was built from downtown to Harlem, the area was overrun with real estate developers. They thought they could build hundreds of elegant and expensive homes and wealthy New Yorkers would buy in, but they ended up with more expensive homes than New York had wealthy families. The developers didn’t do the math and they were in deep trouble.

A group of black and white real estate brokers, approached the white developers in their empty buildings, explained that they were aware of the developer’s reluctance to sell to blacks but also pointed out that money was green and the only way the developers were going to get any was from them.

Between 1900 and 1920, Harlem became a predominantly black community, but it also became the geographic center for black literature, theater, painting, photography and music.

JOYCE GOLD ON CAMERA: There were a number of reasons why Harlem became the center of Black culture.  One of the reasons, I think, had to do with some literary output that came about before many literary figures and artists started moving into Harlem, particularly in the 1920s.  Gene Tumor, W.E.B. Du Bois, wrote works of literature that appealed and sort of helped define African-Americans to themselves, and there was something of a literary awakening that spread beyond the confines of Harlem, and it helped attract African-Americans from many parts of the country to that hotbed of cultural ferment.  There were a couple of other reasons as well.  In the early 1920s, Noble Sissle wrote a play called "Shuffle Along".  It was the first African-American play that appeared on Broadway in ten years.  It was very well received; it was very lively, and people wanted to hear more.  A'Lelia Walker, the daughter of Madame C. J. Walker, the wealthiest, self-made woman in America, her mother had left her a third of her fortune, and A'Lelia Walker opens up something of a salon in Harlem, something called The Black Tower.  What happened at the salon was some of the white downtown money appeared, heard what the Black cultural center was achieving, and helped fund some of it.  So, that attracted more black artists to Harlem, because there was a way of getting some recompense for what they were turning out.

BURT WOLF: The African-American community had art, culture, music but it did not have its own holiday until Kwanzaa.


BURT WOLF: Kwanzaa runs from December 26th to January 1st. It’s not a religious holiday, but a holiday of reflection--an opportunity for African-Americans to celebrate their African roots. Kwanzaa is a Swahili word and it means “first fruits of the harvest”. It was created in 1966 by Dr. Maulana Karenga, — a leader of the Black Cultural Movement and chairman of the black studies department at California State University in Long Beach.

The festival revolves around the number seven. It lasts seven days and there are seven principles and seven symbols, that must be observed. You can celebrate the holiday along the lines Dr. Karenga laid out in his book or you can create your own traditions.

JESSICA HARRIS ON CAMERA: I contend that African-Americans, we don't we don't follow rules well. I mean, so we improvise. It's like jazz.  There is a basic Kwanzaa, if you will, and for that, certainly, the reference is anything by Karenga.  He invented it. He gets to say what it is.  Okay.  And basically it's those seven principles and those seven days. We've talked about the seven principles and the seven days but there are also seven symbols of Kwanzaa, and anyone who is going to celebrate Kwanzaa will have these seven symbols organized either on a Kwanzaa table, as a centerpiece to the house, to the room you're celebrating in but in some way, and they're built on the mkeka or the mat.  The mat, representing the building block, if you will, of the holiday, the foundation of the holiday.

BURT WOLF: The mat also symbolizes the foundation of Africa and the foundation on which African American values are based. A basket of fruit and vegetables goes on to the Kwanzaa table symbolizing the harvest that takes place when people work together; ears of corn represent children; a communal cup is laid out to show the unity of all the people of African descent. A seven-branched candleholder stands for Africa and the candles stand for the seven principles that Karenga made part of Kwanzaa. 

JESSICA HARRIS ON CAMERA: A kinara has seven candle holders, and we organize it in such a way that the middle candle holder is the black candle. The black candle because the colors of the candles on the kinara are red, black and green, which are the colors of African unity.  The black one, again, self-evident, for the people.  The red one, to represent struggle, and the green one to represent attainment. So, on the first night of Kwanzaa, we light the candle of umoja, the Candle of Unity, which is the black candle in the middle.  And on all subsequent nights, we first light on the second day of Kwanzaa the red candle, on the third day of Kwanzaa the green candle, and so on and so forth until we end with the final green candle of Imani. Why do we alternate between red and green?  To represent the fact that without struggle, there is no attainment.

And finally, zawadi or gifts because it is still a holiday. But the gifts of Kwanzaa, the zawadi of Kwanzaa are different in that they are gifts that speak to who we are as individuals or as people.  They are books about African history about the history of Africans in the Diaspora.  They may be records.  They are things that are self-made or hand-made or things that in some way will instruct and propel and urge onward the youngsters.  And the zawadi of Kwanzaa, the gifts of Kwanzaa are for the most part for the young. I think Kwanzaa is an incredible holiday for just that because it tells the young something about who they are, and it gives them a focus as to where they go.


BURT WOLF: Every year Marie Booker and her daughter Kathleen invite their family and friends to celebrate Kwanzaa — an evening of drumming, eating and ceremony.

KATHLEEN BOOKER ON CAMERA: It's a bonding time for my mother and I, first and foremost, cause this is a tradition that she and I have started and even though we work very hard, it really is a time that it just shows our love for one another, and especially I hope it shows my love for my mother.  And we're both very giving, nurturing people and community minded, and it's s way to share not only it's a way to share what we have with each other with others, and to invite the community at large to open up their hearts, their souls, their minds, and go out and touch someone else. I come, I touch you.  You go, you touch someone else.  It's a ripple effect.

MARIE BOOKER ON CAMERA: What we do to celebrate.  We have friends over, and we have the drumming.  I find the drumming is the thing that sort of gets you prepared for the following year.  There's something very spiritual about drumming.  And we have our Indian friend to come over, and do a ceremony.  So for me, it's a renewal and a preparation for the coming year.  But Kwanzaa, we started Kwanzaa I think because the children were all grown, out of the house, and you get sort of tired of the mundane shopping and spending money.  And this was about community efforts and coming together, and all of the principles of Kwanzaa that go into when you're older, make you a better human being.

So it's sort of a spiritual celebration, renewal of your moralities, a coming together, a oneness with the universe and a oneness with your friendships, all of these things.


BURT WOLF: Food is a major part of the Kwanzaa celebration. Often the foods cooked for Kwanzaa are drawn from different parts of the world where Africans were brought during their enslavement or in which they have a long heritage: Africa, the American South, the Caribbean, South America. 

KATHLEEN BOOKER ON CAMERA: We always have a fish because it represents in African American lore, culture, it represents silver, coins. It’s also luck. We always have some type of African dish because it introduces our community to our culture.

BURT WOLF: Kathleen starts by cleaning the fish and making sure all of the scales are off. Then she makes slits in the skin on both sides. Paprika, dried thyme, garlic powder and fresh black pepper get mixed together and rubbed into the slits in the fish. The spice mixture is spread all over the fish inside and out. The sauce is made by sautéing onions, garlic and chopped green pepper. Fresh pureed tomato is added along with dried thyme, scotch bonnet chili and homemade fish stock. The mixture cooks until its soft and then gets pureed in a blender. The fish goes into a pan, the sauce is poured over the top. It’s covered with aluminum foil and baked in the oven. Kathleen and her mom also prepare a dish of marinated collard greens. The greens are rolled up and thinly sliced. Olive oil and sesame oil are added and a little garlic powder.

KATHLEEN BOOKER ON CAMERA: Some cayenne pepper that my mother and I brought back from Benin, West Africa, just a splish splosh to give it a little kick.

BURT WOLF: Sliced shallots go in. Some fresh garlic and everything gets mixed together.


BURT WOLF: On each day of Kwanzaa, a candle is lit and one of the seven principles discussed.

ADA MARIE MURRAY ON CAMERA: Each one of the zaba or seven principles that black Americans should live by on a daily basis and which are reinforced during Kwanzaa. Umoja which is unity; Kujichagulia which is self-determination;Ujima, collective work and responsibility; Ujamaa, cooperative economics; Nia, purpose; Kuumba, creativity; and Imani, faith.

BURT WOLF: A perfect example of the fourth night, cooperative economics, is Londel’s restaurant. In 1995, Londel Davis, a retired police officer, opened Londel’s Supper Club on the same spot where he used to pack groceries as a child.

LONDEL DAVIS ON CAMERA: Londel's was put here intentionally because I think this part of Harlem needed something to lift it up. I felt that black people had to take hold of their condition, they had to do certain things to better their plight. Londel's Restaurant has been put in a place right in the middle of the so-called hood, the inner bowels of the Harlem community, which is Northern Harlem. I’ve been able to hire people from the community and often when someone comes to me that has had problems, they've just come out of jail or they had some drug addiction, I let it be known to them that this is a new beginning, so this is a  way that you can sort of get back on track, better your condition.

Londel's cuisine encompasses three different styles of cooking.  Southern traditional, Cajun, Continental.  When me and Kenny, Kenny being the chef, sat down and talked about the type of menu, we both agreed that Harlem needed something for the future, realizing that the complexion is changing, there's new people coming to the community, and ideally as people live here, they will spend their money here.  So the menu being encompasses these three types of cooking, we refer to it as New York style, and that mix or that blend of cooking, you can sort of accommodate any taste.

This restaurant I think has become quite popular for its catfish.  The blackened catfish, sauteed spinach, seasoned rice pilaf. 

BURT WOLF: The restaurant is also known for its barbecued ribs and smothered pork chops and you could make a whole meal out of the sides of macaroni and cheese, collard greens, and candied yams.

LONDEL DAVIS ON CAMERA: Londel's is a supper club, it dictates that we have music. 

LAURA MANN SINGING ON CAMERA: Tonight is going to be a good night because we’re just going to mix everything up, okay?

LONDEL DAVIS ON CAMERA: I have a wonderful woman tonight, Laura Mann, and me and Laura go back to the early days of the restaurant.  She's a wonderful, wonderful woman.  This is back in the day when the restaurant was doing very poorly, and we couldn't pay much money.  The scale might have been a hundred dollars at a meal.  And she would come and she'd say, well, you know, God's going to bless you, don't worry about it. I just like the spirit of the restaurant. 

I often say that, my mother and the spirit are the reason I'm here and I'm doing what I'm doing.  She's a wonderful woman, I think that most of all she instilled in me the love of God and just the love of people.  That's the kind of person she was.  Her picture's on the wall because I feel that she's watching over me.

BURT WOLF: When it comes to the principle of creativity you’ve got to take a look at the Apollo Theater. The Apollo opened in 1914 as a burlesque house. Though blacks performed, it was a white-only audience. By 1934 under pressure from Mayor La Guardia, the theater went from burlesque entertainment to variety revues and opened its doors to African Americans.

BILLY MITCHELL ON CAMERA: First of all, I just want to welcome you all to the world famous Apollo Theater.  My name is Billy Mitchell. I used to be an errand boy for the stars.  I would stand in the back of the Apollo backstage door, and as these stars would come in, I would offer to run errands for them. In the latter part of 1934, there was a Jewish brother.  His name was Frank Schiffman. He ran this place from 1934 until 1977 starting the careers of all of these people whose pictures are up on the wall, including the careers of people like Billie Holiday and Lena Horne, Dionne Warwick, Aretha Franklin, Gladys Knight, James Brown and they all appeared right inside on the stage in a show called Amateur Night at the Apollo, which is our longest running show to this date. 

Now, when you talk about jazz and jazz trumpet players, one of the greatest ever player of trumpet, up there in the corner, Mr. Miles Davis. The lady next to him in that beautiful gown with the stripes, she was a blues singer, her name was Ruth Brown. Mama, you treat your daughter mean.  Otis Redding.  Sitting in the morning sun. Brooke Benton.  Rainy night in Georgia. And Ben E. King.  So darlin', darlin', stand by me.

And Ella Fitzgerald. Ella Fitzgerald. In 1937, she was a contestant on our Amateur Night show, and when Ella was scheduled to perform she originally came on to be a dancer. Ella you know was studying dance for awhile and she was intimidated by the dancers that preceded her on the show that night.  So she turned to the host Ralph Cooper, and said, Mr. Cooper, sir, I don't think I can go out there, those people are so good and I don't want to embarrass myself.  He says, honey, you got to go out there, your name's on the program, you're scheduled, you got to go out there.  She says, please don't make me.  He says, honey, you got to go.  She says, please.  He says, well, what else do you do?  She says, well, I do sing a little bit  and he sent her out there, and she won the Amateur Night performance.

All right. All right, family, now we're inside. This is the Apollo Theater auditorium. When we do our Amateur Night, usually the host stands over there, the amateur stands right here. If they like what you're doing up here, they'll applaud you.    However, if they think that your act is, as they say, is wack, they will do something that to most civilized people sounds rude, but it's tradition here, they will boo you. Now, folks, I want to do something right now.  And I need your cooperation.  I would like for us, just us, right, to put on our very own Amateur Night right now, right here on this stage of the Apollo.  So I need a few volunteers.  Come on, this is just for fun. 

Ladies and gentlemen, let's give a big Apollo welcome to Harlem Love. Come on make them feel good.

HARLEM LOVE ON CAMERA: Wave your hands in the air. Wave ‘em like you just don’t care.

BILLY MITCHELL ON CAMERA: Give it up for Freight Train. Whoa!

It took a lot of courage for them to come up here and do this.  And that's evident by so many of you that are sitting down there. I see you. I see you. So please join me once again and give them all a big round of applause.  Take a bow.

BURT WOLF: Imani is the sixth candle and stands for faith. One of the great examples of faith in action is the Glide Memorial United Methodist Church in San Francisco. It’s been called a model religious institution that can help save America from the social stresses of our time, a church for the twenty-first century.

REVEREND CECIL WILLIAMS ON CAMERA: Most people during that period of time when I was a child, 12 or 13 years old, would play Indians and Cowboys, I didn’t, I played church.

BURT WOLF: Under the direction of the Reverend Cecil Williams it has become the city’s largest private provider of social services, offering recovery programs for substance abusers, domestic-violence workshops, teaching job-skills, and feeding 3,500 people three times a day.

REVEREND CECIL WILLIAMS ON CAMERA: And I used my imagination to integrate people into the church on the basis of them not being segregated.  We are the church first and foremost and it’s concerned about justice.  And with justice is always unconditional love. I’ve got a 144 boys gospel choir, a band that will get down, and I’ve got over 3,000 people who come here every Sunday all colors, all kinds, people from all over the world. And what we do is we create spontaneous action with each other there’s no telling what  might occur.  This is a place where we celebrate.

BURT WOLF: Hallelujah. Just what I was thinking. For Taste of Freedom, I’m Burt Wolf.