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A New Holiday Voice

An Anthology of Black Christmas--and Kwanzaa--Traditions Celebrates an American Culture

November 11, 1996|DENISE HAMILTON | SPECIAL TO THE TIMES

Felix H. Liddell and Paula L. Woods are major pack rats. So when they found a century-old letter by an African American educator while doing archival research on their first book at Howard University in 1993, they brought a copy home to Los Angeles.

The letter was dated Dec. 22, 1903 and written by Roscoe Conklin Bruce, then director of the academic department at the Tuskegee Institute in Alabama.

"My Darling Mother," it began. "It's now almost Christmas . . . I feel very, very lonely here in these days. . . ."

Woods and Liddell, partners in marriage and business, were touched by the letter, in which Bruce reminisced about childhood Christmases, discussed the day's spirituality and told his mother he'd be spending the holiday that year with Booker T. Washington, the renowned social reformer who founded Tuskegee.

As they mulled over the letter, it struck them that although African Americans have a rich tradition of celebrating Christmas, there were no book collections that addressed the topic.

"When you pick up a Christmas anthology, the minority voice is often missing," Woods says. "Or if they included it, it was always a chapter from the Ntozake Shange novel 'Sassafras, Cypress and Indigo,' which is about Christmas. There was no real desire to dig deeper into the culture."

And so came the idea: Why not put together their own anthology of holiday literature, poems and art showing how African Americans have feted Christmas through the years? By incorporating the present, they could also embrace Kwanzaa, the seven-day celebration of black culture and traditions established 30 years ago by Maulana Karenga, black studies chairman at Cal State Long Beach.

The result is "Merry Christmas, Baby: A Christmas and Kwanzaa Treasury," a handsome tome published last week by HarperCollins. The idea has already begun to pay off: "Merry Christmas, Baby"--named after the blues song popularized by Charles Brown--has been selected as one of the year's top 10 Christmas books by Good Housekeeping magazine.

It includes essays, letters, memoirs, paintings, sermons, poems, prayers and holiday recipes from giants of the Harlem Renaissance such as Langston Hughes and Dorothy West, spiritual leaders such as Martin Luther King Jr. and W.E.B. Du Bois, and contemporary classics by former Poet Laureate Rita Dove and writer, poet and performance artist Imani Constance Johnson-Burnett.

Its editors say the book fills a gaping need in their community, where African Americans are sometimes torn between celebrating Christmas or Kwanzaa. Woods and Lidell, who incorporate both into their holidays and indeed dedicated the book to the Kwanzaa spirit of Imani, or faith, wanted a book that could bridge the two.

"Each year, as images of pink-faced cherubs and Santas commandeer the media, many Americans feel excluded. . . . This feeling is particularly acute for African Americans, for whom the song 'White Christmas,' the film 'It's a Wonderful Life,' or a visit to the mall to see Santa has a subliminal message," the authors write in their preface.

*

"Merry Christmas, Baby" begins with an excerpt from the 1861 memoir of a runaway slave named Harriett Jacobs, who makes garments and playthings for her children while in hiding.

It includes paintings by Horace Pippin, one of the foremost African American artists of the 20th century, whose paintings have been shown alongside Henri Rousseau's at the Museum of Modern Art.

It includes prayers by Du Bois and a Christmas sermon by King because the authors believe it's important for their books to have a spiritual feel.

It includes reminiscences by Patrick Clark, the former head chef at Los Angeles' (now defunct) Bice and New York's Odeon, who now presides over Tavern on the Green in Central Park. Clark also contributed several holiday recipes that mix traditional and trendy ingredients, such as "clay pot roasted pheasant with Madeira, sweet potatoes and apples."

And it closes with several Kwanzaa stories, including one by the foremost African American writer of romance novels, Sandra Kitt.

"It's real important to us to convey a balanced image of African American life and that's what we do in all our anthologies," Woods explains. "People tell us, it's wonderful to see yourself reflected in a way you've always lived. These books are so uplifting."

James Fugate, co-owner of black-owned Eso Won bookstore in Los Angeles, which focuses on African American literature, concurs. He is hosting a book-signing and tree-trimming party for the couple on Nov. 30 and thinks the book will be a big seller throughout the season.

"Too many times, people write about the downs, and what I like about this book is that they talk about Christmas in a way that most people remember it, as a happy time."

One entry that draws many comments is a Christmas / Kwanzaa letter from a lively family called the Justices, which reads more like a short story than the boring annual missives many people inflict on their relatives.

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