Afrocentric signs of the season


Baltimore Sun, 2005



Black angels, kente cloth and ethnic masks put heritage in the holidays



Special to the Sun

Originally published December 4, 2005

It's often the familiar things of the holiday season that bring comfort to homes every year - Rudolph, the misfit reindeer with the flashy honker, bell-ringing elves, and a red-suited robust man waiting to hear every child's wish.

While many African-Americans welcome these traditional images of the Christmas season, some yearn for something that also reflects their heritage.

Each year, African-Americansthroughout the nation and in Baltimore decorate for the season with a more Afrocentric feeling, using African-American angels, kente cloth, and other ethnic decorations.

Decorators and marketing experts say the trend is driven by an increased awareness of Kwanzaa, the holiday from Dec. 26 through Jan. 1 that celebrates the African-American spirit.

"I think it is a trend. Just like more African-Americans have black art, they collect Afrocentric Christmas items, like black Santas and angels and even other decorations that are more Afrocentric," says Joy Owens, a Baltimore interior designer who owns Joy Owens Interiors.

"Everything in [the] African-American lifestyle suggests there is a growing interest in observing Kwanzaa or [putting] some kind of spin on the holiday [Christmas] that is more Afrocentric," says Ken Smikle, president of, a Web site that tracks consumer spending, among other trends, relating to African-Americans. "A lot of it is a growing desire with parents wanting to give children an alternative to traditional Santa Claus."

As early as the first week in December, the inside of Mary Douthit's three-story Victorian-style home on Madison Avenue will flaunt a 9-foot-tall artificial Christmas tree, the tip struggling to reach the 12-foot-tall ceilings in her first-floor dining room.

Dangling on her massive tree is a variety of Afrocentric ornaments created by various artists, such as Baltimore-based Dubonett Porter.

There also are brown soft-sculpture faces, with their eyes closed, with green Christmas garnish around their heads, created by another local artist, Paula Whaley, and cloth dolls with head-wraps and wings made with African-patterned fabric.

"I decided I wanted my whole house to be ethnic to represent who I was," says Douthit, who owns Heaven on Earth, a home-based business that offers products for the bath, body and spirit.

"When I lived in Edmondson Village I got a 7-foot tree, and it was so wonderful I felt like I had arrived," says Douthit, explaining her motivation for buying a 9-foot tree. "I put the same tree up in here and it looked like something out of Snoopy (a character in Charlie Brown's Christmas); it looked like a stick tree in this house."

Beyond Douthit's tree, garland and lights slither down the banisters. On each of her three back decks, there are other trees with bright white lights. If the blinds are open on her front windows, it gives the illusion that all of the trees are inside her house.

Douthit says she started decorating in an Afrocentric way for Christmas partially as a result of formerly working in an environment where she felt she couldn't express her ethnicity or her individuality.

Kerry and Donna Staton of Clarksville brainstorm each year over what their Christmas decor will be. In past years they have featured wooden angels that have African features and wrought-iron African masks on a tin pole covered with Christmas wrapping. Even their bowl for chips and dip has the head of an African-American woman.

Donna Staton says her desire for decorating with an ethnic theme evolved from a tradition born in her childhood home.

"It wasn't always the case that you could find Afrocentric items," says the 49-year-old deputy attorney for the state. "My mother collected artwork by African-Americans, Africans and Caribbeans. Even our dolls were ethnic; it was difficult to find them, but she found them."

Also fueling the trend for ethnic items are many artists, both amateur and professional, who have taken the art of Afrocentric Christmas decor to another level.

Each year, business partners Karl Graham and Tony Miller of the Graham Collection - host a "Christmas in October" exhibit, which features ethnic decorations created by Washington- and Baltimore-based artists.

Their showcase, which began in October and ends this month, is held in their place of business in Northeast Washington. (See details below.)

"People always come out to get the ornaments," says Graham, and adds that Paula Whaley's ornaments always sell out. "They love her ornaments because they are so unique and haunting."

Jan McDaniels, a social worker in Baltimore County, goes as far as following some artists, collecting their work from venue to venue. She says she never thought of decorating in any other way than with an ethnic flair. In past years, she has created Kwanzaa wreaths adorned with African masks, and placed black angels, made of ceramic and polymer clay, in her windows.

"I wanted stuff around me that reminded me of me," McDaniels says, "being the spirit of who we are and what we represent."


What is Kwanzaa?

Kwanzaa is a week-long holiday observance held from Dec. 26 to Jan. 1 honoring African-American heritage, primarily in the United States. It was founded in 1966 by Ron Karenga. Kwanzaa is not a religious holiday, but a cultural one.

The name Kwanzaa derives from the Swahili phrase "matunda ya kwanza," meaning "first fruits." A second "a" was added to the end of Kwanza so that the word would have seven letters, one for each of the Seven Principles. Each of the seven days of Kwanzaa is dedicated to a single principle. In order, they are:
  • Umoja (Unity)

  • Kujichagulia (Self-determination)

  • Ujima (Collective work and responsibility)

  • Ujamaa (Cooperative economics)

  • Nia (Purpose)

  • Kuumba (Creativity)

  • Imani (Faith)