If I’m ever sent to prison on charges of first-degree blackness or mayonnaise-related hate speech, I will probably have to do my time in solitary confinement. I’m pretty sure there are prison gangs that are waiting to stab me with a shank made out of a Bic pen to get a teardrop tattoo symbolizing that they killed the man who disrespected their connection to the outside world. And it’s all because of the Great Kwanzaa Carol War.
Before Contributing Editor Angela Helm informed me of the existence of Teddy Pendergrass’ legendary opus, “Happy Kwanzaa,” I was familiar with Kwanzaa Carols.
Well actually, I was aware of one Kwanzaa carol, “We Are Celebrating Kwanzaa,” penned by the great songwriter, choirmaster and singer Rosa Lee Huntington.
Rosa Lee Huntington was a music teacher who lived across the street from me. She didn’t have any children that I knew of and she lived alone in the only two-story house on my block. Now, I can’t be sure that Miss Huntington was a music teacher because I don’t really recall anyone ever saying that to me. I knew she had a voice like Mahalia Jackson but I don’t even know if she was a teacher. However, in my head, I always thought she was a music teacher who had retired before I was born.
Miss Huntington loved puzzles. She had completed so many jigsaw puzzles that she was once featured on the news for breaking some kind of world record. Instead of wallpaper, the walls of her home was literally plastered with completed puzzles. She loved children, too. She probably babysat three or four generations of children from my neighborhood on every day except Saturdays.
Everyone knew that Miss Huntington had her women’s meetings on Saturdays. Miss Huntington always had a group of women over on Saturdays and no one in the neighborhood would bother her during her meetings.
Miss Huntington loved me. She gave me my own Kwanzaa gift every year and we became close because she knew one thing that I also knew:
Jesus be tripping.
I don’t know why the good lord felt it was necessary to skip me when he was handing out the Harriot musical talent. All of the men in my family were talented musicians. I come from a long line of talented drummers and men who could look at a musical instrument and automatically know how to play it. I, on the other hand, was not gifted with any of this. So in a desperate attempt to catch up, I took piano lessons for years and, while she wasn’t my piano teacher (Janelle Jackson was) Miss Huntington would make me peanut butter and jelly sandwiches while I practiced the piano in her home. I was the only person in the entire neighborhood who could disturb Miss Huntington on Saturdays.
Years later, I discovered that Miss Huntington’s Saturday “meetings” were because male prisoners would send Miss Huntington letters and she would match them up with women on the outside. I don’t quite know how it worked but I just remember the local news doing a story about matchmaker puzzle lady. I suspect Miss Huntington was just an old woman who lived alone and just liked making people happy.
Aside from her matchmaking and possible history as a music teacher, Miss Huntington was also the director of the Kwanzaa Kid’s Choir. The Young & Young Funeral Home Kwanzaa celebration opened every night with a selection from the children’s choir. If you had any musical talent whatsoever—if you could play an instrument or if you had a mother named Dorothy Harriot—you would stay after the Kwanzaa celebration each night and practice the song for the next day’s celebration.
The only reason kids stayed was because it was choir practice in name only. Miss Huntington lured kids in by making cupcakes every day. The special thing about Miss Huntington’s cupcakes was that there was candy inside the cupcakes! There was no way to tell what kind of candy, but my favorite was the one with Mary Janes inside. I don’t believe in violence, but I would stab someone in the eye for one of Miss Huntington’s Mary Jane cupcakes. I would stare into Miss Huntington’s eyes while moving my hands over the cupcakes trying to play cupcake ouija board and I could tell from Miss Huntington’s look when I was getting close to the Mary Jane cupcake.
On the last night of Kwanzaa, Imani or faith, choirs from churches in the community would have a gospel concert. Churches went hard for the Kwanzaa concert. They would wear their pastor’s anniversary robes, march in and pull out all the stops. It was like the battle of the church choirs. And it would end with the Kwanzaa Children’s Choir singing “We Are Celebrating Kwanzaa.”
I don’t know the exact history of the song, but I’m pretty sure Miss Huntington wrote “We are Celebrating Kwanzaa” in the late 1800s and everyone just learned the words by osmosis. To be fair, the song was not very complicated but it required seven different soloists to sing the meaning of each principle. Here is how it goes:
We are celebrating Kwanzaa (Yeah, Yeah)
We are celebrating Kwanzaa (Yeah, Yeah)
We are celebrating Kwanzaa (Yeah, Yeah)
And all the principles.
(soloist) is unity.
(soloist) is unity
(soloist) is unity.
Kwanza principal number one
Each subsequent verse was just the choir singing the principle followed by the soloist singing the explanation. The only musical advice Miss Huntington would give the choir was to scream, “louder” until we wore our little voice boxes out extolling the principles of Kwanzaa.
I know it sounds weird but I swear on everything that is good and true, my sisters and I loved that motherfucking song. I mean, for real. We believed it was right up there with Stevie Wonder’s “As (Always)” and “Amazing Grace” as one of the greatest songs ever written. My sister even learned how to play it on the flute when she joined the junior high school band. And every year, we couldn’t wait until Imani day to flex on those other bitch-ass choirs that didn’t have Kwanzaa carols in their repertoire.
As I have previously stated, my family was well known in Kwanzaa related circles. So each year, my sisters and I knew that our part in “We Are Celebrating Kwanzaa” was solidified. My oldest sister, Sean, came out the gates strong with the Umoja verse. As one of the few people on earth who knew how to pronounce Kujichagulia, Comelita sang that verse. Robin, who didn’t have a great voice, sang the shortest verse, Nia.
And of course, as Miss Huntington’s star pupil, I sang the Ujima verse, the most difficult verse of them all.
The hard part about Ujima verse was singing “collective work and responsibility” in the short time that other verses’ soloists basically sang one word. Miss Huntington had taught me that the only way to get all of the words into such a short space was to start singing early. As soon as the choir hit the M in Ujima, I started belting out, “Collective work and responsibility!” It was all about timing and I was the only one who could do it. Every time I did my verse, there would be a twinkle in Miss Huntington’s eye. I knew I was the lone artist who could do justice to her work.
And then, one year Miss Huntington got sick.
I don’t even know what happened to Miss Huntington. All I knew is that on the first day of practice, Janelle Jackson announced that she would be taking over for Miss Huntington this year. Janelle had served as the assistant choir director and the keyboard player for years. She introduced newer songs that year and even let some people perform secular arrangements. There is one thing you should also know about Janelle:
Janelle hated that fucking Kwanzaa carol.
Everyone knew it. The parents knew it. The kids knew it. Even Miss Huntington knew it. She rolled her eyes when she plodded through the keyboard arrangement for the song. Janelle lobbied to strike the song from the performance list every year, to no avail. I remember that she once told me during my piano lessons that “We Are Celebrating Kwanzaa” was so plain that we might as well stand there and sing the ABCs.
I defended Miss Huntington and told Janelle that I really liked the song. She said that I didn’t know anything about music.
Janelle wasn’t a Christian and thought that we were making Kwanzaa too churchy and Christmaslike. To her credit, I understand why she didn’t want to transform Kwanzaa into bootleg Christmas but we would have revolted if that song went anywhere.
So, that year, on the first day of the Kwanzaa Kids choir practice, Janelle Jackson announced that we would not be singing “We Are Celebrating Kwanzaa” on Imani day.
I was devastated. I told my mama, who informed me that the song kinda sucked anyway. But what did she know? After all, she had given birth to a son who had to learn to play the piano from a non-Harriot source! I couldn’t trust her.
I thought about calling my state senator but I knew I’d get my ass whipped about the long distance charges. A letter wouldn’t get there in time. I tried to organize an intra-choir coup, but no one was willing to strike with me and I didn’t have any sticks, poster boards or catchy slogans. But I knew the importance of this moment. What if Miss Huntington died? Could the world’s only Kwanzaa carol be lost forever? I had to do something. I would not go down without a fight.
Then Janelle asked me to rap.
Most people don’t know that I was once a nationally-ranked amateur rapper on the youth rapping scene. I might not have had any musical talent, but no one wanted to go head-to-head with me in a rap battle. I don’t remember the exact position, but I was one of the highest recruited rappers in the entire Pee Dee region of lower South Carolina. I waited patiently for The Source to feature me but the phone was busy or something.
Janelle knew I could rap, said she had written a Kwanzaa song and wanted me to write a rap verse that included all of the principles. I went to work and penned something that was somewhere between Black Thought’s Funkmaster Flex Freestyle and the Andre 3000’s verse on “International Players Anthem.” I wish to God I remembered the entire thing, but I know one part went:
Because of Nia,
we are here
At this service.
And our purpose
Is to build our community
Which goes back to Umoja.
I thought I told ya
The first time…
Don’t worry, the choir’s gonna sing after I rhyme
I know, I know. Please don’t send me emails begging me to release an album. I know it would probably win a Grammy for Kwanzaa Song of the Year, but that part of my life is over now. Let it go.
Anyway, the rap was part of Janelle’s song, “Kwanzaa Os Here” which was a Kirk Franklin-like neo-gospel crowd pleaser. The kids on the Kwanzaa choir loved it and quickly forgot about “We Are Celebrating Kwanzaa.”
Where Miss Huntington was fun and carefree, Janelle was like a drill sergeant. She made us start over every time someone messed up. Even worse, there were no cupcakes! The kids’ choir started shrinking because it wasn’t fun anymore. The ones who stayed only did so because they knew we were going to bring down the house at the Imani day concert.
The funeral home was packed on concert day. Choirs from as far as five and six miles away gathered to try to blow the other choirs off the stage. I got to see it all firsthand because, as a member of the Kwanzaa Kids Choir, we sat in the choir stand waiting on our chance to debut the song.
Halfway through the service, everything paused, and people turned around to see what I could see clearly from the choir stand. Easing toward the front with an oxygen tank and tubes, was Miss Huntington. She had made it from the hospital just in time to see her beloved choir sing her song. As she waited, she had no idea that a new era was dawning.
When it was time for us to sing, we turned that shit out. We hit every note. We had choreography. By the time I finished spitting to the Gods of Trap Kwanzaa, everyone in the building either wanted to do a Holy Ghost shout or the Humpty Dance. It was a hit.
And the entire time, I could see Miss Huntington dying inside. Her song had been brushed aside. “We Are Celebrating Kwanzaa” had become a relic of the past.
That was the day the Kwanzaa carol died.
Me and Miss Huntington would never be the same.
Perhaps it was because I stopped taking piano lessons that year. That spring, I would break my hand dunking on Robert Ferguson to win a game of Tap-Out 21 in Monte Tony’s milk crate basketball goal, ending my not-so-promising future as a concert pianist.
Maybe it was because I was a teenager and I didn’t give a damn about the Kwanzaa Kids Choir. I was too old for that childish shit, anyway. Or maybe it was because, in the back of my head, I felt guilty about my part in killing the world’s only Kwanzaa Carol. Miss Huntington would continue working with the Kwanzaa Kids Choir but Janelle would stay in charge.
Because my sisters force me to spoil their children by telling them, since birth, that their Uncle Mike is rich, my nieces and nephews love coming to my house. But perhaps the loudest of my nieces and nephews was the oldest, DeQuare.
One day, when she was no more than three or four, DeQuare was sitting on my couch beside me, singing at the top of her voice. I have the ability to tune out loud noises so I paid her no attention because I was watching the game. As I was sitting there, I realized something that blew my mind.
My niece was singing “We Are Celebrating Kwanzaa!”
“DeQuare,” I said. “Where did you learn that song?”
“Miss Huntington taught me,” she replied.
I had forgotten that Miss Huntington still lived in our neighborhood and still babysat children.
DeQuare is now grown and married with two kids of her own. The only reason I even recalled this story was a few days ago, my mother sent me a short video of her two great-grandchildren, DeQuare’s son and daughter. At first, I thought it was an old video of DeQuare. That’s how much her daughter resembles her.
Then I realized that they were somewhere, in front of someone’s church, singing “We Are Celebrating Kwanzaa.”
Miss Huntington won. The Kwanzaa Carol remains.
Miss Huntington died in the summer of 1996. I was working in the public relations department at an HBCU an hour away, so I went home for her funeral. It was at the same funeral home that held the Kwanzaa celebrations.
At Miss Huntington’s homegoing services, there was no choir. I don’t know who had the idea, but someone thought that it would be a good idea to sing the Kwanzaa song at Miss Huntington’s funeral. I know it sounds weird but it really wasn’t. That might be because the Kwanzaa song was born, lived its entire life, and died on the pews of Young & Young Funeral Home.
There had to be 50 people in those stands singing that song. The notes didn’t matter. Everyone sang loud as if they wanted to make sure she heard them sing her song. When it was time for a soloist to sing, at least three or four people would sing the solo because Miss Huntington had given those words to different people during different years
But when we arrived at the third verse, Ujima, no one said anything for the solo. My friends, my sisters, and even my mom looked at me.
They knew that was my part.
I realized that the beauty of the Kwanzaa song was also why Janelle hated it. She was right. It was simple. It was plain. It was like the ABCs.
To this day, I really don’t know the Kwanzaa principles. If someone asks me, I have to sing Miss Huntington’s song in my head to remember them. But because of that carol, four generations of my family know the principles of Kwanzaa.
As I said on the first day of these stories: I love this holiday.
I love my family for reminding me of these stories when I told them I was going to do this. I love The Root for allowing me to write my Kwanzaa tales.
We are celebrating Kwanzaa.
And all the principles.