Kwanzaa began Wednesday but two veteran storytellers began planning for the weeklong celebration of the Western African diaspora back in October.
They sat in the wide, barren conference room between radio studios at WHQR Public Radio, where A Season’s Griot has been produced for more than two decades as the only nationally syndicated Kwanzaa radio show in the country.
Through the years, the program has garnered a national following, broadcast last year on 134 stations in most major markets from New York to California, Alaska and Hawaii. (The word “griot” means a member of a class of traveling poets, musicians and storytellers who maintain a tradition of oral history in parts of West Africa.)
Two stories emerged as finalists: a Japanese tale and a version of an Aesop’s fable about the baobab tree.
The baobab tree won.
“Ahh, this is great,” Wilson said after finishing his reading, tapping the book with his finger. “This is the story.”
“How did you come to that?” Grear asked.
“The tree, the image of the tree, the little girl helping the elder,” he said. “This is what the show’s about.”
This year’s one-hour storytelling show honoring Kwanzaa features the theme of fatherhood will be rebroadcast at 7 p.m. Sunday (Dec. 29). Kwanzaa is celebrated until Jan. 1.
The holiday was established in 1966 by Africana studies professor Maulana Karenga as an African-American celebration of family, community, culture and African values. Those values, known as the Nguzo Saba, or the seven principles of Kwanzaa, are Umoja (unity), Kujichagulia (self-determination), Ujima (collective work and responsibility), Ujamaa (cooperative economics), Nia (purpose), Kuumba (creativity) and Imani (faith).
Kwanzaa resonated with Wilson from a young age.
“The principles are the main focus of the show. They’re so real and make sense. They’ve always made sense — common sense,” he said. “I try to live up to the principles every year, throughout the year.”
In past programs, Wilson has used stories that represent certain Kwanzaa principles. Last year, the show told the story of a woman who was robbed and took her assailant home to feed him — illustrating the Kwanzaa principle of Ujima or collective responsibility. Wilson often chooses his themes based on local or national news events of the moment.
“We’re always speaking to the community’s stories, needs and struggles. We’re speaking directly, this year, to the gang,” giving facts in the show about incarceration and the impact of fatherless homes on society.
A Season’s Griot began with funding through Public Radio International; though the program is still syndicated, it’s now funded through the radio station and arts grants.
In the studio, Grear read the story of the baobab tree in one room as WHQR news producer Asia Brown and Wilson listened in the adjacent sound booth. Wilson underlined words he thought needed editing or re-recording.
Wilson’s music is another character in each A Season’s Griot. Whether it’s the tinkling water sounds of the thumb piano or an African spiritual, Wilson sets the tone for the stories.
Each year, the show offers a different element of storytelling. One year the show featured spoken-word artists. Last year, fifth- and sixth-graders read poems, and the program also included on-the-street interviews with people about peace.
The show also has its own “poet laureate,” Beverly Fields Burnette, a Raleigh poet and president of the North Carolina Association of Black Storytellers. Each year, she writes a poem to be read on “A Season’s Griot. This year, her poem addresses community leaders after the Trayvon Martin shooting.
For Grear, the show is “a touchstone for me and for my nieces and nephews. There’s always something in that show that I’m trying to teach them. I’m looking for that moral or lesson or values to back what I’m saying to them,” she said. “The griot is one consistent thing I can count on.”