Kwanzaa celebration at Lewis Museum helps bring generations together

Lillie Hyman braved the frigid weather Saturday and brought her 11-year-old grandson to a downtown museum to teach him about the meaning of Kwanzaa — and quilting.

The Reginald F. Lewis Museum of Maryland African American History & Culture devoted the day to dancing, drumming and other activities and displays marking Kwanzaa, the seven-day celebration of family and community rooted in African traditions.

The exhibits included one holding special meaning for Hyman, 69, of Baltimore and her grandson, Torey Moore. A beginning quilter, she made a beeline for a display of seven quilts created by Joan Gaither, a local artist-historian who weaves fabric, artifacts, pictures and words into her colorful creations..

Hyman believes quilting, like Kwanzaa itself, is about connectedness — about appreciating roots. In her home, she has nearly a dozen quilts created by her grandmother, who died in 1976.

“Every time you visited her in South Carolina, she would give you a quilt,” Hyman said. “My mother kept the needles and the thread of my grandmother.’

Together, the quilts — which incorporated old clothes from the family — represent a sort of family tree to be handed down to succeeding generations.

“Eventually, he is going to get some of these quilts,” Hyman said, nodding at her grandson.

Later, Hyman appeared transfixed as she listened to Gaither address a crowd at the museum. “She’s amazing,” Hyman said.

As she spoke, Gaither, 73 — who has done more than 200 quilts — was surrounded by her handiwork hanging on the walls.

“My first connection was with my own grandmother making quilts,” Gaither, who was raised in Baltimore, said in an interview. “The pieces belonged to somebody’s baby blanket or wedding dress. So it was this idea of capturing the memory of an important event as well as holding on to a story.”

Gaither’s quilts are partly autobiographical. Among those displayed was one depicting former president Barack Obama and various symbols from the period surrounding his two terms in the White House. Attached to the quilt are tiny asthma inhalers — the artist’s own.

“People asked me, ‘Did President Obama have asthma?’ No, that’s me,” Gaither told the gathering of several dozen museum visitors.

Another quilt is about Gaither herself, with her image prominently displayed near the words “I am American.”

“I have my story, you have your story but we have one history — our shared history. So that’s basically what this is about,” she said. “I am through and through American. I’m not from an outside culture. Recognize it, own it, get over it.”

A third quilt depicted slave masters, a slave ship and whips.

The museum has for years held special events for Kwanzaa, which began Dec. 26 and ends Monday.

The Kwanzaa events typically draw about 1,500 visitors, museum officials said. Based on interest expressed online, the museum had expected as many as 2,000 this year, although it was uncertain whether the target was met because of the extreme cold.

“The attendance has been brisk despite the weather,” said Wanda Draper, the museum’s executive director.

Kwanzaa is rooted in seven principles: unity, self-determination, collective work and responsibility, cooperative economics, purpose, creativity and faith.

It was established in 1966 by Maulana Karenga, an Eastern Shore-born advocate for civil rights and black empowerment. Saturday’s events included a video presentation from Karenga about the origins of Kwanzaa.

The celebration was designed to be interactive. There was a session on tracing family roots and a percussion workshop for kids.

“This has been a ritual for a lot of families,’ Draper said . “If you look around, you see parents, grandparents and some great-grandparents. Kwanzaa is all about family and community.”

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