Upon seeing "The Gospel at Colonus" at Arena Stage the other night, I was struck by how wonderfully Sophocles' play, "Oedipus at Colonus" worked in context with black gospel music. I pondered the fact that other seemingly disparate cultural exchanges could work as effectively.
For some people it might be no revelation, but I am constantly amazed at how well elements from one culture can influence forces and phenomena in other cultures.
Even Christmas, a holiday celebrated by Christians the world over, is not immune from this cultural transmutation. While most American Christians celebrate Christmas as a season for shopping and gift-giving, all to the benefit of the nation's GNP, many do not. They simply regard Christmas as a time to commemorate the birth of Jesus Christ.
Several years ago, in the midst of the turmoil of the '60s, M. Ron Karenga, a black California activist, developed an alternative Christmas celebration for blacks.
First presented as an African ritual, Kwanzaa was later revealed to be totally American. As Karenga confessed, "I created Kwanzaa. People think it's African. But it's not. I wanted to give black people a holiday of their own. So I came up with Kwanzaa. I said it was African because you know black people in this country wouldn't celebrate it if they knew it was American. Also, I put it around Christmas because I knew that's when a lot of bloods blacks would be partying."
Karenga's revelation about the origin of Kwanzaa created quite a stir, and some blacks who had come to celebrate it between Dec. 26 and Jan. 1 abandoned the occasion. Despite Karenga's admission, Kwanzaa, while not African, is Afro-American and contains many values that, if practiced more, could benefit blacks and the broader nation as well.
One of Karenga's intentions when he created Kwanzaa was to introduce principles that could be reinforced as a value system to help blacks organize and enrich their lives.
To some degree he has succeeded, for Kwanzaa is based on seven principles with which few people could argue: unity, self-determination, collective work and responsibility, cooperative economics, purpose, creativity and faith.
These principles are very important to a black community where nearly half of the children are being born out of wedlock and whose members make up about half of the prison system's felons.
While a relatively small number of blacks may celebrate Kwanzaa in public ceremonies, Union Temple Church in Southeast Washington is among the institutions (including many schools) that do. And last Wednesday, about 75 people, dressed in dresses and jackets, not bubus and dashikis, gathered to sing the seven principles in Swahili, light red and black candles and pour libations to honor ancestors.
Then two families reflected upon the year's problems and discussed what could be done to lessen problems in the coming year.
One man, flanked by his young daughter and new grandchild, revealed his disappointment upon learning of the girl's pregnancy. He reluctantly accepted the fact and made a pact to help his daughter if she helped herself by completing high school.
A couple who had not spoken for two weeks said their anger quelled only three days before Kwanzaa. The husband admitted that he needed to treat his family with as much care as he treated others, while his wife vowed to try to understand his world and problems better, and to look within herself.
Referring to her husband as "my brother" as well as "my husband," denoting a shoulder-to-shoulder stance in their relationship, she added: "I want my brother to be the kind of man who helps others and who does the things in the community that he does."
Any ritual that honors a value or ethical system holds benefit not only for a particular community but also for the nation as a whole. Properly understood, Kwanzaa can provide important identity and tradition for blacks and human understanding more broadly.
As both "Gospel at Colonus" and Kwanzaa show, celebrating Afro-American culture can promote understanding of other cultures as well. And it makes no difference that there is no ceremony in Africa called Kwanzaa. Like Christianity, some ideas have humble and confused beginnings.