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Mildred Pitts Walter is one of those rare authors who have mastered both fiction and nonfiction, and who can write as effectively for the picture-book audience as for young adults. Widely admired for her positive, realistic portraits of African-American family life and insightful studies of African-American history and culture, she writes in response to what she once describe in a Publishers Weekly article as "a growing demand from Black parents who are looking for books that provide an authentic portrait of the Black experience written with an understanding that Blackness is more than a mere skin color."
A former kindergarten teacher, Mildred Pitts Walter truly enjoys the company of children and relishes the chance to hear what young people have on their minds during her frequent school and library appearances.
"One thing I always tell young people," she says, "is that I know a lot of people who read and don't write, but I don't know anybody who writes and doesn't read. If you really want to write you should read!"
She often asks her audience what they think a person should do if he or she wants to become a writer. "Look in the want ads?" one precociouskindergartner answered. She gets some difficult questions from her young readers as well. Once, while she was explaining why a good story needs a beginning, a middle, and an end to an elementary school audience, a hand suddenly shot up. "What about the sides?" the student wanted to know. Another time, a fourth-grader asked her, "What did the first writer read?" Mrs. Walter finds these encounters challenging-and grist for the writer's mill.
More grist comes from travel. Mildred Pitts Walter's love of exploration has taken her to western Africa, China, Cuba, Turkey, Europe, and all over the United States. Mrs. Walter is also a dedicated advocate for peace and equality whenever and wherever the opportunity arises. When her book Justin and the Best Biscuits in the World received the Coretta Scott King Award for Literature in 1987, she could not accept the award in person because she was participating in a peace walk from Leningrad (now called St. Petersburg) to Moscow. She has been honored with many other awards, including the 1993 Christopher Award for nonfiction for Mississippi Challenge (Bradbury), and the Parents Choice Award for Literature for Brother to the Wind. In 1996 she was inducted into the Colorado Women's Hall of Fame. When she is not traveling, Mildred Pitts Walter lives in Denver, Colorado.
Discusses the origins and symbols of Kwanzaa, the holiday that focuses on African American history, culture, and experiences, and offers suggestions for ways to celebrate this holiday.
Kwanzaa! A time for looking backward, for looking forward, and for having fun. For seven days many African-American homes are decorated in red, green, and black, and filled with the sounds of music, lively talk, and laughter. Family members and friends dress up in African garb, children dramatize historical characters, and everyone gets ready to have a great time remembering, singing, dancing, and sharing traditional foods.
Kwanzaa is an African-American celebration that begins on December 26 and lasts through January 1. Many African-American customs have their origins in the rich cultures of Africa, and the arts, rituals, and rites of those cultures offer uniquely appropriate ideas for Kwanzaa activities and ceremonies.
The word Kwanzaa comes from the Swahili word kwanza. Swahili is a language spoken in many areas of the African continent, but especially in East Africa. Kwanza means "first." It is part of the phrase matunda ya kwanza, which means "first fruits."
The African-American festival of Kwanzaa was founded by Dr. Maulana Karenga, executive director of the Institute of Pan-African Studies in Los Angeles and the leader of US, the black nationalist organization. Kwanzaa was first celebrated in 1966.
Because the holiday is so new, and because we African-Americans are such a varied people, there is no one way to celebrate the occasion. However, because all of us share a strong bond in struggle, the seven principles of Kwanzaa, called the nguzo saba, can provide common themes on which to base our celebrations. These seven principles are:
Dr. Karenga says the concept of Kwanzaa "is derived from and inspired by the harvest celebrations of agricultural African peoples.... 'First fruits' celebrations were traditional throughout Africa...." People gave thanks for the first fruits of their harvests and for their achievement through working together. Even though African-Americans are now mostly an urban people, with no crops to harvest, Kwanzaa was founded to provide an opportunity for us to celebrate a season's yield of personal and group achievements and to stress our cultural roots in Africa. The celebration is a rededication of our efforts toward even greater achievements and more meaningful lives in the future. In many parts of Africa, people hold special ceremonies before planting or harvesting their crops. Jomo Kenyatta, in his book Facing Mt. Kenya, tells of a planting ritual that takes place in Kenya, East Africa:
The Gikuyu elders arrange for a planting ceremony immediately after the rain falls. Seeds from maize, millet, and a variety of beans are selected. These seeds along with the stomach of a lamb that has been sacrificed are placed into seed-calabashes. They are then handed over to a woman chosen from women who qualify for the position of "Mother" of the community. This woman takes the seeds to her hut to keep them overnight.
The sticks from a sacred tree, sharpened with the sacrificial knife and least affected by the fire that roasted the lamb, are given to two children who had taken part in a sacrifice for rain. These two children along with the elders who will participate in the planting ceremony will also sleep in the hut.
Early the next morning the children are called to go out and reenter the hut. This custom of choosing who will first go out to enter a house is a very important one to the Gikuyu people. It is believed that if the one chosen goes out or enters first, then the household will have good luck. If one who is not chosen enters, that can bring ill luck. After the early morning ceremony the elders, woman and children go out to a special field to perform the ritual of planting the seeds. On the way no one is allowed to speak to or touch the people participating in the ceremony. When they arrive in the field, the leading elder takes the calabashes. Holding the calabash of maize seeds and facing Mt. Kenya (Kere Nyaga, the mountain of mystery), the elder offers a prayer. Then the maize seeds are given to the woman. She, in turn, gives them to the children, who plant them with the special digging sticks. The ritual is repeated with all the other seed-calabashes until all the seeds have been planted. When the elders, the woman, and the children return to the homestead, a planting horn is then sounded to tell the people of the community that the ceremony is now over. They can go about planting their own fields.
In West Africa--in parts of Mali and Senegal, and all over The Gambia--there are celebrations for planting and harvesting. When I visited The Gambia, I learned a special dance and song used at harvest time to celebrate the strongest man--the one who has worked hardest in the fields. To decide who this is, the men perform a dance, during which they make their muscles so taut that a very hard knife stab will not go through the muscle.
During the harvest, the women go into the fields to help collect the produce and bring it back to the compounds. Then all the people in the village come out to celebrate the harvest and the strongest man. While everyone dances a special dance, the name of the strongest man is called in a special song.
The dances and songs that I learned in The Gambia reminded me of some dances we African-Americans do. For example, African-American circle and line dances, in which one person or couple performs alone, creating improvised movements while the people forming the line or circle urge them on, are similar to many African dances. Of course, we don't have African drums, nor do we have the planting and harvesting rituals. We do, however, have the music and rhythms that originated in the drumbeats of West Africa.
We also have the idea of the extended family, reverence for our elders, and an abiding religious faith--all of which are important in Africa. Remember this heritage and use it to make your Kwanzaa celebrations meaningful and happy.
Copyright ) 1995 by Mildred Pitts Walter Kwanzaa. Copyright © by Mildred Walter. Reprinted by permission of HarperCollins Publishers, Inc. All rights reserved. Available now wherever books are sold.