Black History


First Person

Celebrating Umoja Karamu, a “ritual for the black family,” on Thanksgiving.

From the cover of Disgruntled, Asali Solomon’s debut novel.

Back in the early 1980s, no one at the mostly white elite prep school I attended had heard of Kwanzaa, which I’d grown up celebrating instead of Christmas. This was a yearly hassle of explaining: yes, presents; no, Santa Claus. But absolutely no one had heard of Umoja Karamu, “a ritual for the black family” that we observed at Thanksgiving. This one I never volunteered to explain. Black families who celebrated Umoja Karamu (Kiswahili for “unity feast”)—and we were the only one I knew of—were to trade in the ritual of senselessly stuffing ourselves for one in which we used food and words to reflect on the grim, glorious trajectory of black people in America, to recall the crimes of the “greedy one-eyed giant” white man, and to keep the “Black Nation” energized and focused, struggling toward liberation from racism.

During Umoja Karamu, which lived in a 1971 booklet (a mere two years older than I was) published by a fellow Philadelphian named Edward Sims, we sat at our special holiday table and took turns reading solemnly aloud from a pithy narrative of African American history that moved from the ancient kingdom of Mali to the Watts riots. Between readings, we ate a symbolic sequence of aggressively non-Thanksgiving foods, including black-eyed peas, rice, corn bread, and leafy greens, all served unseasoned, perhaps to make us more thoughtful. Blessedly, my mother always insisted on a normal holiday meal after Umoja Karamu. But Edward Sims was certainly about his business. Each Thanksgiving, as I waited to get to the stuffing and gravy, I did indeed taste the suffering we read about. I experienced the “bland and tasteless condition under which Black Folk lived during the slavery period” in the form of unsalted white rice and chalky black-eyed peas. But happily, enduring Umoja Karamu, unlike the suffering of the Black Nation, was a private shame, one about which my school friends knew nothing. That is, until I received a fifth-grade assignment to write an essay about family Thanksgiving traditions and to read it aloud

umojaThe nonexistent film about my life back then—the one about the two college-educated black nationalists who get fed up with dismal public schools and enroll their two young daughters in a private school in the hoity-toity Main Line Philadelphia suburbs—might be summed up in two scenes from real life. In one, the family attends a Black History Month cultural program, and during a performance replete with dashikis and conga drums, one daughter says rather dramatically to the father, “It’s like I live in two different worlds,” to which he responds without hesitation, “No. You live in this world. You visit the other one.” But the camera settles on the girl’s clouded face, as she considers the thirty-five waking hours she spends at school each week, not counting sleepovers, pool parties, and hand-bell concerts. She glances back at her father, becoming aware of how clueless her parents are about what it’s like trying to fit in with wealthy suburbanites who have never heard of Malcolm X, who are not allowed to come to her house in the purportedly crime-ridden city, and who still have questions about why her hair does that when it gets wet.

Another key scene would be this fifth-grade English period, as I struggled, as hot tears slid into my mouth, to read aloud the two wretched sentences I’d squeezed out about our family’s Thanksgiving traditions: two wretched sentences in which I mentioned that we ate turkey and that my aunt and grandmother came over (which was true) but omitted such pre-Thanksgiving traditions as pouring libation and reading aloud passages about dysentery on slave ships. Two wretched sentences that in no way implied that anyone in my family referred to white people as one-eyed giants.

Frankly, as I look at it today, the Umoja Karamu booklet seems like a perfectly reasonable thing to foist on children (and adults) subjected to the outrageous lies of the Amerikkkan educational system and pacified by the diabetes-inducing capitalist orgy of American holidays. We could all stand to learn more about the brutal realities of life in the American South after emancipation, and to increase our knowledge of groundbreaking black jazz musicians. (Of course, a revamped Umoja Karamu booklet should incorporate the plight of Native Americans, who receive barely a mention in the original, despite the Thanksgiving context—and despite the fact that they’d been figuratively and, in the case of the infamous Jamestown settlement, literally devoured by the greedy one-eyed giants from Europe.)

But back to the scene, where I sit weeping in poor Mrs. Legnini’s bright, cold classroom, surrounded by little white girls (and one other black one), waiting for their turn to share about Mom’s mashed potatoes and trips to the Macy’s Thanksgiving Day Parade. I’m torn not only between the eccentric black world of my parents and this white classroom but between my refusal (1) to write a crappy essay and (2) to lie about my family, as my former best friend, the aforementioned other black girl, had. She, like me, had transferred from a city school to this one, and wanted more than anything to fit in; unlike me, she’d immediately started spinning tales about her red brick house (a one-bedroom apartment) and her (nonexistent) pets and her (much-embellished) toys. I worried that a bunch of lies would strand me even further from reality than I already felt each day, careening between my modest row house and the gated lush grounds of the school.

But (cue next scene!) something clicked after I cried in school that day, after sweet, baffled Mrs. Legnini, in her soft, almost Southern accent, assured me that my sentences were no cause for tears. I made my way to a triumph, perhaps less cinematic and more like the inexplicably tidy resolution of a sitcom episode. When I got home that night, I just sat down and wrote a damn essay. I don’t remember much of what was in it—probably the words Umoja Karamu and a translation, and one or two of the gross foods. I do remember what I left out: the Middle Passage, riots in Newark, dreams deferred, The White Man. What I figured out, as had the Hallmark corporation with their “Mahogany” line of Kwanzaa greeting cards, was that one could selectively present one’s differences as tasty and interesting rather than alarming and strange. I chose to accent the more palatable parts of the tradition: yes, Umoja Karamu included a mini-history lesson, and yes, afterward, my family ate candied yams instead of mashed potatoes, as do all red-blooded American black people. (Mmmmm.)

I arranged with Mrs. Legnini to read the new paragraph aloud, and this time I didn’t cry, and everyone dutifully clapped, which brings us to the present moment, when, ironically and perhaps ominously, I search for Umoja Karamu on Google only to find descriptions as hollow as the one I gave in my essay, with the same selective focus you see in the Hallmark Mahogany line. Online, descriptions of the ritual survive primarily as suggestions for quirky Thanksgiving menus. No one without access to the original booklet, no one without memories of Philadelphia in the early eighties, need come away the wiser about the ceremony’s particular view of history: the blood and righteousness, the charmingly overheated rhetoric about unity, Mother Africa, Nation Time. This is just as none of my white classmates emerged from fifth-grade English aware that I was an alien invader on their shiny, cold planet, a planet where I would feel marginal-to-invisible for five hard years—or that they were greedy one-eyed giants who’d enslaved the Africans and massacred the Indians, and sat down every Thanksgiving to feast about it.

Asali Solomon’s debut novel, Disgruntled, was published earlier this year.