Lessons from the Kwanzaa Candles
This service is best done between Kwanzaa and Martin Luther King Day. The worship table is set up to clearly suggest Kwanzaa, although it does not have to have all of the elements of Kwanzaa on it. I used a straw mat, several ears of corn, and the wooden Kwanzaa cup along with the seven candles arranged as they would be at a Kwanzaa service—three red, one black, three green. This form of the service is designed for an intergenerational group, although by altering the language I have been able to use it with children alone, with youth alone, or with adults alone. It takes about 20 or 30 minutes and should be followed by a discussion, if possible. Another way to do it, especially if you are working exclusively with children, is to talk about parts of the presentation as you go, engaging children in conversation. The "children's children's..." piece in the middle is meant to make a broad point rather than teach history. Clearly, not every descendent of a Jamestown slave remained enslaved, although slavery as an institution did continue.
"Lessons From the Kwanzaa Candles"
Chalice Lighting: "Each morning we must hold out the chalice of our being to receive, to carry, and to give back."
Opening Song: "Rise Up, O Flame"
(Hymn #362 in Singing the Living Tradition)
Text of the Service: To be prepared by the Worship Leader
"This is the time of the year when Kwanzaa comes, followed closely by the birthday of the Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. The message spoken quietly in African American homes at Kwanzaa is shouted to the world two weeks later at the birthday of the Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King.
Even if we are not African American, there is a lot that the candles of Kwanzaa have to teach us.
The Kwanzaa candles are seven—three red, a black, and three green. The black candle is a celebration of being black, of the unique and special qualities each person brings to the whole family or community. It is a candle of the present, of today. The green candles are vision candles—candles of hopes, dreams, and promises for the future. The red candles are struggle candles, past candles, candles the color of blood, candles the color of courage. All seven candles help African Americans to remember a long struggle against injustice, against unfairness, and to promise each other that they will continue to work together against injustice. As a white person, I can't be a part of the remembering or the promise. I will not light the candles, for they are not mine to light. I will, however, honor the struggle for justice by speaking a history— the story of a people which is not often enough told in our society.
(Indicate to a person that s/he should stand. Each time you call a new generation, you should indicate silently that another person should stand next to the previous person. The line of people will get longer and longer. When you say, "you represent..." address that person directly. When you do the "children's children's children's..." part, move along the line, indicating each person in turn. You may want to pre-arrange with the first person; the rest will follow easily.)
- You represent the children of those people, born between 1625 and 1650, and you remain enslaved.
- You represent the children's children of those Jamestownslaves, born between 1650 and 1675, and you remain enslaved.
- You represent the children's children's children of those Jamestownslaves, born between 1675 and 1700, and many of your generation remain enslaved.
- You represent the children's children's children's children of those Jamestownslaves, born between 1700 and 1725. Many white people have come and taken land for their towns and cities. The cities and towns are doing well, but you remain enslaved.
- You represent the children's children's children's children's children, born between 1725 and 1750. The Indians who used to live in the area have been driven out to make way for the expanding number of cities and towns in these British colonies, but still you remain enslaved.
- You represent the children's children's children's children's children's children, born between 1750 and 1775. These British colonies have begun a way of independence, stating that "all men are created equal." But you remain enslaved.
- You represent the children's children's children's children's children's children's children, born between 1775 and 1800. These British colonies are now a country, the United States of America. Many native peoples have lost their lands as the United States has become bigger and bigger. The cotton gin has been invented, meaning that the farmers can grow lots more cotton and make a lot of money. It takes lots of people to take care of the cotton. Many white people choose to get the help they need with the cotton crop by buying more slaves. Thousands more West African people, kidnapped from their homes, arrive in chains. You also remain enslaved. You represent the children's children's children's children's children's children's children's children, born between 1800 and 1825. This country is twice as big as it was just a few years ago. Many white people are going West, looking for more places to to build towns and cities. The cloth mills in the North are hungry for cotton, so farmers in the South grow more and more, needing more and more slaves. As more and more slaves arrive, you too remained enslaved.
- You represent the children's children's children's children's children's children's children's children's children, born between 1825 and 1850. The Indian Removal Act of 1830 is pushing Indians from their land. Many Indians are slaughtered. In 1848, the United States takes a huge piece of Mexico and now rules over its Spanish-speaking citizens. There are now groups of people writing and speaking against slavery, but still you remain enslaved.
- You represent the children's children's children's children's children's children's children's children's children's children of the Jamestown slaves, born between 1850 and 1875. The country has fought a Civil War. The railroads have been built by Irish and Chinese workers. The Indian Wars continue in the West, as native peoples are forced into small areas of land called reservations. Slavery has been officially outlawed. You are no longer a slave, but people in power are working hard to limit your rights.
- You represent the children's children's children's children's children's children's children's children's children's children's children, born between 1875 and 1900. There are now laws limiting who may come to this coutnry and who may not. The Supreme Court has declared that whites and people of color ought to be separated. You are no longer a slave, but the law says you have fewer rights and privileges than white people.
- You represent the children's children's children's children's children's children's children's children's children's children's children's children, born between 1900 and 1925. A world war is fought in this time, and women are finally allowed to vote. You still live and work under laws that separate you from white people.
- You represent the children's children's children's children's children's children's children's children's children's children's children's children's children, born between 1925 and 1950. The country suffers the Great Depression, when many people lose their jobs, then fights in the Second World War. Just like in the rest of society, people of color in the army are kept separated from white people. Whole towns full of new homes are built after the war for the returning soldiers; people of color are not allowed to live in those towns.
- You represent the children born between 1950 and 1975. This is the time of the Civil Rights Movement and of Martin Luther King. At long last, the children's children's children's children's children's children's children's children's children's children's children's children's children's children of the Jamestownslaves have achieved equality under the law.
- You represent the generation of today, only the second to live in this country since slavery and segregation were outlawed. It is up to your generation to retell the story of the past, to understand the struggle, to have dreams about the future.
(Let the sixteen people stand quietly for a minute or so. Then ask them to be seated.)
This is the story that the red Kwanzaa candles have to tell. It is a history that is not about explorers, or wars, or presidents, or building cities. It is a story of a long, long wait for people of color to be treated fairly in the United States. As a white American, a Scottish-American, what is my relationship to these red candles which honor not only the struggle for racial justice? What is my relationship to the green candles, which proclaim a dream of the future where there is justice for everyone? Why can't I light the candles? I, too, hope for a future where there is justice and fairness for all.
I can't light the green candles for myself because I don't understand the red ones. I don't yet understand how my forebears fit into the history we just told. I need to begin to learn about and claim the history those red candles represent— the red of struggle when my ancestors first came to this land, the red of courage as they made for themselves a place in America, the red of shame as I learn who they stepped over and on in order to gain that place. The Kwanzaa candles encourage me to learn what it means to be white in the United States, learn what my forebears exchanged for a place in the American melting pot. I must search for and claim the red, the past, my past, before I can truly envision a fair world, a world of justice, equity, and compassion in human relations. (Gather up a red candle as you speak of claiming the past.)
Kwanzaa also encourages me to claim my present. I must come to know what personal gifts I bring to the struggle against injustice. What am I willing to do to help fight unfairness.
Finally, the green Kwanzaa candles tell me to claim hope, to envision a future where all people are a part of the story. (Gather up a green candle as you speak.)
Sit quietly for a minute and remember. What is your family history? What are the stories of your grandparents and great-grandparents? What do they have to tell you about justice and injustice, about opportunity, about struggle, about triumph and about failure? If you do not hold those memories and stories in your mind and heart, feel the empty space where they should be. Think about why you do not know about your forebears' struggles, courage, and shame. Perhaps now is the time to resolve to fill in the empty space.
Think about you—today. What are your experiences, your gifts, your understandings? What is it you are willing to commit to the struggle for justice for all people?
Think about vision. What is your vision for tomorrow? What are your dreams for our beloved faith community? What are your dreams for the nation?
Dr. Martin Luther King in his famous 1963 speech spoke of his dream for this nation. All of us have heard the famous words "I have a dream." He talked about black children and white children standing hand in hand in the second half of his speech. In the first half, he talked about the history of unfairness toward African Americans in this country. We often skip over that part of the speech, listening only to "I have a dream." We wear T-shirts and hang posters and sing songs and hold hands and say, "I have a dream." But the dream is the green part of the Kwanzaa message—the vision for a wonderful future. The part we skip over is the red part of the Kwanzaa message, the story of injustice. We skip the first half of Dr. King's speech and go straight to the second.
I believe that we simply claim the green, the vision, without understanding the red, the struggle. We cannot read the "I have a dream" words of Dr. King without hearing the call to "let justice roll down like the waters and righteousness like a might stream." Dr. King's words some 35 years later still call out to me. They tell me that it is only when I have learned my own story, named and claimed all of the events which brought me to this place, only when I have uncovered and embraced the past that I can dream the future, that I can emerge as a whole human being."
(Invite people to stand and sing.)
Closng Hymn: "Lift Every Voice and Sing"
(Hymn #149 in Singing the Living Tradition)
Closing Words: (Invite people to join hands.) "Go ahead, claim the dream of justice, the vision, the green, But do not try to claim it, without also claiming the red. Go in peace."