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Third Eye

Home for the Holidays

By Afefe Tyehimba | Posted 1/8/2003

This holiday season I did what most red-blooded Americans do: Elbowed my way through crowded aisles at Wal-Mart, huffed and puffed through almost every shopping mall within a 30-mile radius, and cringed while stuffing store receipts into a personal file marked budget. The reason I was spending cash like some nouveau-riche Jenny-from-the-Block was that, like many 21st-century parents, I strive to make sure my kid lacks for nothing, even to excess.

So, after all the presents were opened, and in the middle of a snow storm on Christmas morning, my daughter and I set out for a four-day jaunt to New York. The plan was to see the tree at Rockefeller Plaza, gaze at stupendous department-store windows, and maybe even take in a show on Broadway or at the Apollo Theater. More importantly, anticipating the out-of-school, "I'm so booored" teenage blues, the trip was gonna give us something to do.

New York may have offered holiday cheer, but we found the holiday spirit right here in Baltimore.

Day 1. Midtown Manhattan is a frantic beehive, but I've had caffeine and my kid has had donuts, so we're down with the posse. Subway map in hand, we traipse between midtown and Greenwich Village--the latter is renown, my kid says, for Urban Outfitters; the former, I say, is where we'll find the nation's jaw-dropping-est Christmas tree. For seven hours, we trudge to and fro, above and below ground, lugging bags, munching, and jostling among people on perpetual fast-forward.

By day's end, we both agree that the tree at Rockefeller Plaza wasn't all that; and after our foray into the Village--where I copped a silk skirt for $9.99--my wallet is wheezing like it's got emphysema. On the train ride that evening to Westchester, where we stayed with friends, it occurs to me that despite being squeezed up against people all day, I haven't made any real eye contact or had any impromptu chats. Charm City this is not.

Day 2. The Upper West Side at the American Museum of Natural History--the place with the mammoth dinosaur skeleton you see in all the school textbooks. Thirty minutes in line outside; pandemonium within (school's out and, uh, the tourists). Nothing really captures my attention except, during lunch, some newspaper ads that list studio apartments at $2,200 a month and two-bedroom co-ops selling for a cool $1.5 million. The Big Apple, I've begun to think, isn't real. It's the Matrix.

Day 3. SoHo. More funky stores and a zillion tourists, and street vendors who hawk bootleg movies, knockoff Rolex watches, and Prada, Gucci, and Louis Vitton purses. We found excitement--if you count getting caught in a raid by city inspectors charged with protecting designers' trademarks. (We'd fingered the goods but hadn't purchased any.) But amid this holiday frenzy we also found sadness.

On the "C" train heading back to Grand Central Station, we sit across from a woman, a man, and a little boy who's maybe 6 years old. "I told you I'd take him to my mother's so we can get a room," the woman shouts at the man, turning her back to the boy, who has her features. She cries, out-screeching the train while vowing to sacrifice anything to be with the man. The little boy tightens his grip on the small red fire truck in his lap, but his face registers nothing. It's as if he doesn't hear the woman's words, or maybe he's heard them all too often.

Later, my daughter and I talk about what we'd witnessed; about love and parenting and putting family first. Granted, I do most of the talking, but she's engaged. Thing is, was I listening to myself? Substitute the urgency for the man with the urgently acquired material things, and the hasty, clamorous trip--and what values had I demonstrated this holiday season?

Back in Baltimore, we attend a Kwanzaa celebration at the Unity United Methodist Church in Harlem Park. The event is sponsored by two local groups, Sister Moon and the African Ancestors Living Theatre. Here, the sound of drums beckons all comers into a basement that smells of freshly burned sage. Women and men greet visitors with smiles, and speakers caution modern parents like me to remember what kind of legacy we are passing on.

"You are here to enter the gate," says a Yoruba priest, talking to a crowd of about 80 people. Kwanzaa, he says, "isn't just about lighting candles every year." It's about remembering the ancestors who died in the struggle against political and economic oppression. The holiday season is about unity, building community, and reveling in it, says Sister Moon organizer and Fertile Ground vocalist Navasha Daya, who sings Sweet Honey in the Rock's "Ella's Song." As a small child dances alongside her and others peck on drums, Daya sings, "We who believe in freedom cannot rest. . . ." The rousing, heartfelt rendition, combined with the sanguine atmosphere and down-to-earth people, soothes my spirit in a way that all the other stuff hadn't.

That sense of celebration is what I'd wanted to share all along with my child, who, as we left, said, "Now that was fun."

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...I've gradually discovered that my heart's got issues when it comes to whatever place I call home.

Sappy Anniversary (5/12/2004)
Suburban flight isn't the only reason many schools have resegregated almost organically, especially in cities, like Baltimore, with vast "minority" populations.

Om (5/5/2004)
Efforts to snuggle closer to the Big Dawg seem more doable--not to mention, if heaven awaits, more worthwhile.

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