Celebrating Black History Month while growing up was a little lackluster for lifelong Detroiter Kaylan Waterman. Although her parents were very intentional about educating all of their children about the experiences in their African-American heritage, most of the events Waterman attended focused a lot on the pain, sorrow, injustices, and systemic oppression of black history. They lacked a celebratory element.
Last year the singer-songwriter of Vespre did something about it and organized Kumbuka, a literary celebration of African-American authors, poets, journalists, and playwrights.
“I wanted to celebrate the beauty of who we are and the culture that we do have. There’s an incredible amount of beauty that comes from our resilience as a people but I wanted to just talk about us, not who brought us here or the oppression we faced,” said Waterman.
In it’s inaugural year Kumbuka, which means remember in Swahili, hosted more than 100 people at the Jam Handy in New Center and featured curated readings of African-American words submitted by friends, family, and members of Waterman’s community. Waterman decided to host the event again (Kumbuka II) at the Jam Handy on Thursday, February 23 from 7-9pm because celebration is even more important this year.
“Last year was a very different tone. It was primary season so we were all feeling hopeful still. This year I think it’s even more important for myself to not get lost in all of the losses … Our forefathers still deserve to be honored. The most tangible pieces of themselves are their words, ideas, and encouragement of us,” said Waterman.
The event is simple. Audience members hear an introduction from each reader about the piece and then listen to the reading. There is time at the end for meeting new people and engaging in discussion, but the event is focused on listening to the words.
The pieces, ranging from a two minute song to a 10 minute essay, are chosen by the readers themselves and submitted to Waterman for approval. All readers are African-American, diverse in age, and people Waterman respect including Live6 director Lauren Hood.
“Listening to why each reader chose that piece, why they felt so connected to it and why they wanted to honor that person was a learning experience. In some instances the reader had been to the author’s hometown or they aspired to be like them or their parents knew each other … it is also important the readers are multigenerational. When my parents were born all African-Americans didn’t have the legal right to vote. My younger brother doesn’t know what that’s like. I wanted that collision of different experiences in how readers chose the piece,” said Waterman.
Every aspect of the event is intentional to create an inclusive, welcoming experience, including curating the readings so everything is age appropriate to young children and student groups, picking a location with very accessible public transportation, and making the event free with donations accepted.
The event brings an incredibly diverse community of Metro Detroiters all wanting to celebrate Black history and culture together.
“I want us to be empowered to celebrate ourselves, but all are welcome to celebrate alongside us, and for us,” said Waterman.
Although Waterman believes there is something special about honoring her ancestors during Black History Month, she is finding opportunities to expand the celebration all year round through a podcast. Each reading from last year was recorded and Waterman is exploring turning those recordings into monthly podcasts with discussion to continue the celebration of black history all year long.
“It’s so important to have a living breathing person honor someone that’s gone. The author of my favorite piece from last year died a maid. They may not have known that someone would be reading their words. There’s so many things we don’t know if we have the power … I want to do a sure thing and just breathe life into the people that walked before us. That’s in my power and i want to empower others to do that too,” said Waterman.
Join Kumbuka II on Thursday, February 23 from 7-9pm again at the Jam Handy (2900 E Grand Blvd). If you’re interested in sponsoring Kumbuka II or the podcast you can email Waterman at firstname.lastname@example.org.