As a child of the post-revolutionary era, “Nia” isn’t as unusual a name today as it was, say, 30 or 40 years ago. Then, the biggest proof of overcoming and “living the Dream” was doing almost everything in your power to prove you were just as plain Jane as your white counterparts. So those exotic names, hairstyles, and dress that would make them uncomfortable were frowned upon by blacks of “better breeding.” After all, why waste all that good education as a pariah when you could “advance the race” by blending in?
Those were the years when celebrating Kwanzaa was almost clandestine, conspiratorial. There were the clothes that most people didn’t have, explicit lessons on collective responsibility to neighbors and elders, discussion on world affairs and how to make a difference from your own corner of the globe. It was a time filled with a sense of importance and legacy, of fortifying your presentation to the ancestors and future generations. The circle was completed, with seniors, adults, and children, as equals in the dialogue.
As a kid, nothing was more appealing than the thought of being part of a grand conspiracy.
The stealthy Jamila Bond, 008, waving a red, black, and green liberation flag – serving her people!
|Tomie Lee "Pop-Pop" Meeks and the author|
That private fantasy conflicted mightily with the somewhat shy kid that actually was Nia Ngina Afi Meeks, the girl whose name held a sizable charge, as “server of her people whose purpose is divine.” Then, the least little thing would inspire mortification, burning caramel skin to candied apple complexion.
And the one thing that invariably would evoke such a feeling was the annual Kwanzaa gatherings.
Yes, the intellectual and cultural fires of the week-long observance were nothing short of exhilarating. But the singing of Kwanzaa songs planted a deep terror. People would gather around, in significant numbers, and extol the virtues of unity, self-determination, collective economics, work and responsibility, creativity and faith with musical accompaniment.
Of course, they’d also sing about purpose. About Nia. And they would point. And laugh. Especially my peers. The more they’d see me squirm, the louder they would sing.
Though it seems nearly inconsequential now, it was often too much, and I would cringe inside, despite trying to put on face of bravery, pretending to laugh and ignore what felt like a flood of attention.
In minutes, relief would come. The song would be over. Snacks would be served. Some years, however, surviving those minutes felt like enduring the green mile. For years, that defined Dec. 30. Until 2004.
That was the day the hospital called to say Pop-Pop suffered major cardiac arrest. That he was brain dead, subsisting on machines that helped push blood through his fractured heart and air through his limp lungs.
Getting to Hahnemann Hospital seemed like sleepwalking, as if everything moved in slow motion. I remember my mother beginning to crumble as we crossed the street. Her Daddy was gone, is what the doctors basically said. In my head, on that Dec. 30, I realized a new terror. I had to be the strong one.
The prostate cancer had worked its evil on his body, compromising many of its functions. It had been his secret for five years until we finally discovered what was driving him to imbibe, what was robbing his one-time sound memory, his sense of impeccable dress, his passion for political theater.
Walking to his bed to say that final good-bye, looking at that body on the table, shook me. That wasn’t Pop-Pop, who always teased about “eating like Sonny Boy,” hummed everywhere he walked, and had more hats than most women had shoes.
Growing up, there was no greater cheerleader. He thought that this browngirl could take over the world, and often begged her to at least take Paula Zahn’s chair. “She don’t know nothing! She ain’t nothing! YOU should be doing what she’s doing!” he would grouse, in between cussing out Lou Dobbs and President Bush on some policy. Every policy.
And if that was not fated, he insisted a political office was, that this browngirl was smart enough, cared enough, and was clever enough to make a system work for the people.
Pop-Pop seldom slowed down long enough from running the streets, jaw-jacking with his Mason brothers, or catching ling on his fishing excursions to attend any Kwanzaa gatherings. Thankfully, my mom and grandmom filled that void.
But what he shared with me helped reinforce those principles that we reviewed every year: building stronger communities through people of productive minds, undying pride, and unyielding determination. Pop-Pop didn’t require a kinara or a mat or fruit (he’d eat it all before the Karamu feast, anyway) or the other Kwanzaa trappings. He told me to live it. Without embarrassment.
And I did. And do. Particularly on Dec. 30, with full purpose.