I guess it’s appropriate that my best Kwanzaa celebration should start with Christmas. I had been raised celebrating the traditional holiday, although, in truth, I’d dropped out of the Catholic Church a few decades ago and the day held little for me but memories. But it wasn’t a search for a new holiday that brought me to Kwanzaa, it was Wal-Mart. My daughters in New Orleans had sent me a present (I had not given up that part of the celebration), and one of the items didn’t fit so on the Saturday following Christmas, I set off to exchange it.
My nearest Wal-Mart is in an upper middle class neighborhood of Los Angeles known as Leimert Park, home to a large African American population. As I got close, I noticed traffic starting to slow down, and finally stop. Anyone who lives in LA knows that a traffic jam is possible any time day or night, but this was ridiculous for a Saturday afternoon. Finally I got to where I could look ahead for a few blocks, and saw a parade. Why, I wondered, would they be holding the Christmas parade 2 days after Christmas? As it turned out, they were not holding a Christmas parade at all. It was a Kwanzaa parade, going right through the heart of the business district, in the middle of which sat Wal-Mart.
Not wanting to sit in traffic until the parade was over; I found a parking spot about a mile away and decided to walk. It was a beautiful clear Southern California day, so I’d get to see some of the parade, and maybe learn something about Kwanzaa. At this time I should probably point out that having grown up in an Irish-American culture in Chicago, there is no mistaking that I am a white guy, and that this would be my first contact with this primarily black celebration. I do however, have quite a bit of experience working with black people, having spent much of the last 10 years in Cuba doing music videos and documentaries. And during much of that same time, I trained at Williams Boxing Gym in Long Beach, where the African-American owner, Charles Williams and I became good friends and taught each other how much we had in common under our different colored skin.
After walking for about 10 minutes, I arrived at the end of the parade. There a DJ was playing music and interviewing what seemed to be every person who participated. You couldn’t pull this off at the Tournament of Roses, but small parades are great for this sort of thing. It reminded me of my days as a television newsman in Arizona where one very small mountain town held a 4th of July parade every year, which literally passed through the entire town since it was only a block long. One year as the parade was ending, a pick up truck pulled up with members of a ranch family who had arrived late for the festivities. That was no problem, since the organizers simply turned everyone around, and marched back down the parade route a second time.
But the clog at the end of the Kwanzaa parade had backed up the entire route which stretched for a mile down Crenshaw Blvd, which was just where I was walking. Now most of the spectators were near the beginning of the parade, and because everything was blocked off, I was approaching a 2 block area were there were no spectators, but a road full of parade. Just as I started down the street, the parade moved forward about 10 yards, but that was all it took. Once the front began to move, the participants in each group began to do their thing whatever that might be. Drummers drummed, dancers danced, people in cars waved, and smiled and called out Happy Kwanzaa. It took me a while to realize that since there was no one else on the sidewalk, they were calling out to me. Yes here I was, a blond haired white man, cruising through a black celebration, and being welcomed as I would on St..Patrick’s day in my home town. Thankfully missing were the alcohol and the drunks looking for a fight with anyone not wearing green.
Since I was moving faster than the parade itself, I kept coming up on new groups who would strut their stuff for me. .I came upon a dozen black women in cowgirl outfits, doing a rhythmic line dance down the street. Who knew? “Happy Kwanzaa” they called out with big smiles, so I returned the greeting, realizing it was the first time I’d said it in my life.
My ignorance of Kwanzaa is colossal, but I do know that if this rather new holiday (it was crated right here in Southern California in1966) offers an alternative to the consumer driven celebration Christmas has become, it should be welcome. There were items for sale, black soap, jewelry, African clothing, and artifacts, along with Shea butter (which I learned was made from the nut of a tree). African clothing was popular among many of the participants, but Obama T Shirts featuring the incoming president, were also a favorite. I only felt ill at ease when invited to look around in a store selling what were termed “African American Historical Items”, and saw they included Aunt Jemima cookie jars, and black lawn jockeys. Since my slave owning southern relatives played a role in that part of Black History, I kept on walking.
Back on the parade route, I encountered the Fruit of Islam, young Black Muslims in suits and bow ties, who kept eyes straight ahead, and did not wish me or anyone else Kwanzaa greetings. . But they were soon followed by a mounted troop, who could not get enough “Happy Kwanzaa’s” out. One of the riders yelled “Hey,check this out” as he leaped up and stood on his saddle as his horse did a little dance, once again, just for me. They were followed by an LA fire truck, and a beautiful black woman called “Come over to the park at the end of the parade. We’re gonna feed you”. It was almost an order, though given with a great big smile, and I smiled back. No longer intimidated, I wished her “Happy Kwanzaa”, and continued on with my very best Kwanzaa ever.
Jim Ryerson is a documentary film producer specializing on Cuba, which he’s visited more than 30 times. He formerly worked as a television news reporter in Los Angeles, and has won numerous national and international awards for his work. His documentary on the U.S. embargo, Looking for Cuba is currently on the film festival circuit, and he has 3 other documentary projects regarding Cuban music, art and culture, currently in editing. You can see clips from our films at http://www.youtube.com/user/tmanjdrjr.