From a half block off I see you coming,
walking briskly along, carrying parcels,
furtively glancing up into the faces
of people approaching, looking for someone
you know, holding your smile in your mouth
like a pebble, keeping it moist and ready,
being careful not to swallow.
I know that hope so open on your face,
know how your heart would lift to see just one
among us who remembered. If only someone
would call out your name, would smile,
so happy to see you again. You shift
your heavy parcels, hunch up your shoulders,
and press ahead into the moment.
From a few feet away, you recognize me,
or think you do. I see you preparing your face,
getting your greeting ready. Do I know you?
Both of us wonder. Swiftly we meet and pass,
averting our eyes, close enough to touch,
but not touching. I could not let you know
that I’ve forgotten, and yet you know.
“In Passing” by Ted Kooser from Weather Central. © University of Pittsburgh Press, 1994. Reprinted with permission. (buy now)
It’s the birthday of author Henry Miller (books by this author), born in New York City (1891). He married a taxi dancer named June Mansfield Smith, who read Dostoyevsky and Proust, and who encouraged Miller to quit his job and devote himself to writing. They moved to Paris in the 1930s, where Miller began writing Tropic of Cancer, which was basically a fictional memoir of his own life at the time. It was banned in the United States, along with Tropic of Capricorn and Black Spring. Grove Press finally published Tropic of Cancer in the U.S. in 1961, but the book was charged with obscenity, and it went through more than 60 court cases. In 1964, the Supreme Court ruled in favor of the book’s publication. The case effectively ended censorship on the basis of obscenity in the U.S.
It’s the birthday of Mao Zedong, born in Hunan province, China (1893). He helped lead the Communists to victory over the Nationalists in 1949, and became one of the most powerful, brutal, and influential world leaders in history. His program to improve China’s economy, called “The Great Leap Forward,” disrupted the country’s agricultural production, resulting in widespread famine. It’s estimated that 20 million people died of starvation between 1958 and 1962.
It was on this day in 1776 that George Washington led a surprise attack on a group of Hessian soldiers in Trenton, New Jersey. After successfully crossing the icy Delaware River the previous night through heavy snow and sleet, American soldiers captured nearly all of the Hessians with few losses of their own. The victory revitalized American troops after several major defeats and sparked a wave of new recruits to join the fight for American independence.
Today marks the 50th annual celebration of Kwanzaa, the seven-day pan-African and African-American holiday that celebrates community, family, and culture. It’s celebrated by millions of African peoples across the globe. Its name is derived from “matunda ya kwanza,” which means “first fruits” in Swahili, the most widely spoken African language. The extra “a” on the end of “kwanza” was added because there were seven children present at the first celebration in 1966, and each child wanted to be represented by a letter.
In 1966, a graduate student named Maulana Karenga found himself disillusioned after the infamous Watts Riots (1965) in Los Angeles. He was already involved in community organizing and the Black Power movement as a way to bring African-Americans together, but he was also looking for something to honor the heritage that had been erased by the slave trade. He wanted, he said, “to give blacks an opportunity to celebrate themselves and their history rather than simply imitate the practice of the dominant society.”
Karenga began combining aspects of several African harvest celebrations, like those of the Ashanti and Zulu. He incorporated songs, dance, poetry, storytelling, and a traditional meal.
There are seven principles of Kwanzaa, known as Nguzo Saba:
Ujima (collective work and responsibility)
Ujamaa (cooperative economics)