Kumbuka offers a literary way to celebrate black history in Detroit

Black History Month wasn't always a cause for celebration for Kaylan Waterman. In fact, as a child, she actually dreaded the month of February.

"I was dragged to Black History Month events all the time as a kid, and I kind of resented it," says Waterman, 26, who grew up in Grandmont Rosedale and now lives in the city's Woodbridge neighborhood.

It's not that she wasn't interested in her heritage, it's just that these events were, well, kind of boring.

After graduating from the University of Detroit Mercy with a degree in biology, however, Waterman began to search for more meaningful and exciting ways to celebrate Black History Month that were not only creative, but incorporated people of all ages.

"In October, I started looking into Black History Month in contrast to National Hispanic American Heritage Month," says Waterman. "I noticed a disparity in the festiveness and how the two were celebrated."

Around this same time, she also began wondering how she could help contribute something positive amidst unrest in black communities around the country in reaction to the slaying of unarmed black men at the hands of white policemen -- from Michael Brown in Ferguson, Missouri, to Eric Garner in New York City to 12-year-old Tamir Rice in Cleveland.

She decided that bringing people together around literature, one of her lifelong passions, would be a great place to start. At the end of 2015 she conceived of Kumbuka, "an event designed to honor African-Americans in history by the audible reading of their spoken and written words." The event, which gets its name from the Swahili word for "remember," will take place Tuesday, Feb. 16, from 7-9 p.m. at the Jam Handy Building (2900 E. Grand Blvd.) in Detroit's North End.

"The readings will be focused on successes and achievements, not so much on what has been taken away," says Waterman. "The point is to celebrate, not dwell in the darkness. There's been a lot of pain in the last 2-3 years, so I thought it would be important to celebrate."

Waterman hopes Kumbuka will differentiate itself from many other Black History Months she has attended in the past, which she feels tend to repeat many of the same stories.

"Kumbuka is not so much a storytelling event as it is a literary event," she says.

The event will incorporate multiple generations of African-American Detroiters, from Waterman's 10-year-old brother to her over 60-year-old neighbor, each reading their own literary selection. Other notable readers include Cornetta Lane, whose "Core City Stories" oral history project earned her recognition by the Knight Foundation as a K880 Emerging Cities Champion, and Mahogany Jones, an R&B singer who has toured the world as a cultural ambassador of the U.S. Department of State.

Waterman will also be reading, choosing Zora Neale Hurston's essay "How It Feels to Be Colored Me" for her piece.

Waterman hopes Kumbuka will become an annual event.

"I chose to stay in Detroit after I graduated," she says, "and I want to build something here."

Kumbuka will take place Tuesday, Feb. 16, from 7-9 p.m. at the Jam Handy Building, which is located at 2900 E. Grand Blvd. The event is free and open to the public, though donations will be accepted to help pay for the event space. Light refreshments will be provided. For details, visit the event's Facebook page.
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Matthew Lewis is a writer and former managing editor of Model D. He's currently the communications officer for the New Economy Initiative.