Habari Gani. It’s a phrase that means “What’s the news?” in Swahili. It’s a greeting used during the weeklong celebration of Kwanzaa. Kwanzaa was started in a period of unrest, much like today, by Dr. Maulana Karenga, professor and chairman of Africana Studies at California State University (and I don’t know if he’s delivered any babies, but please still call him doctor). A few quick Kwanzaa lessons: there are seven guiding principles, and each day a different one is discussed. Candles in the colors of the holiday, red, black and green, are lit on a kinara — a candleholder — each day to celebrate. The 7 principles are Umoja: Unity; Kujichagulia: Self-Determination; Ujima: Collective Work and Responsibility; Ujamaa: Cooperative Economics; Nia: Purpose; Kuumba: Creativity; and Imani: Faith. The emphasis of Kwanzaa is on family and culture. If you want to learn more, there are several different events happening throughout the city. We caught up this week with the talented Leslie D. Hamilton who will be participating in a myriad of events, sharing her artistic talents in celebration of the holiday.
I checked out your Facebook page and under places lived, where most people have one or two entries, you had 12. What gives?
I’ve lived a lot of places, yes. My father was in the army; he actually started out in the air force, but back in the day, advancement for African American men in that branch was not really happening. He went in as a young commissioned officer and they didn’t do anything with him so he went across town, as he used to say, to the army, and his career took off from there. And so we did the army move-around thing for a bit.
So where are you originally from?
I was born in San Antonio, Texas and we were there for about a year and a half and then moved to Germany, where we lived in Frankfurt first and then in Stuttgart. After about four years we came back to the states and lived in places like Texas and Florida, and of course Pennsylvania, Spring City and Philadelphia. I also lived in New York for grad school, and in Washington , DC for undergrad. Oh, and New Jersey, which was not New York on a technicality.
Were you in Germany long enough to learn the language?
Yes! Ich spreche ein bisschen Deutsch. I was totally fluent when I was a small child but I lost it when we moved back here until I took it up in high school and then went on to major in it college. But I went into business after graduating and I haven’t been speaking it much since. So I’m rusty all over again, but it’s perpetually astounding to me that when I meet someone from Germany, I seem to be able to pick it right up.
Where did you go to for undergrad?
[Smiles] Like our new VP, I went to Howard University! Go Bisons! H.U.! I was a language major with a political science minor.
And you decided that wasn’t enough schooling for you?
Exactly right. I thought that I wanted to be an interpreter for the United Nations and then discovered in my junior year that you needed at least two languages for to work at the UN and it was a little late to learn a new one. I decided that the marketing side of business was appealing to me so I went to Columbia to get my MBA.
So the description I saw on line of things that you’re interested in included; business, marketing, poetry, storytelling, dance, fitness, health, music, science spirituality, arts, technology, nature, lifelong-learning, books, and laughter. That’s quite a list!
I’ve always been someone who writes, as a kid my first story was “Beanie, Choo-choo and Hooves,” about a girl, her dog, and her horse. You can figure out which one was the horse! I actually still have the little book I made with the illustrations. Writing has always been one of my forms of expression. After college, I had to go out into the business world, you know, to live up to that Columbia MBA, but I would dabble in the arts, doing open mics here or there and then in 2018 I left my job and it turned out to be the best thing ever. I began to do performances that were a combination of poetry and storytelling. I tend to think in terms of stories.
What’s the overriding theme of your work?
There are a few different themes but the overriding theme is finding ways to uplift. I want to live in a world that celebrates women, children and people of color. So I write about it. I write about the importance of Black Lives Matter or the rejection faced when coming out, or just finding a way to let someone know that they are enough. I have a piece called “Blues for Trayvon Martin” and another called, “I Want to Be Nikki Giovanni bad”
I read that one.
Oh, great! I write about them because these are people you should know about, and knowing about them makes your life richer and can lead to a better state of being. Other times I write about people that nobody knows about, like my grandmother, but that everyone should know about because she was amazing.
Tell me about grandma.
My grandmother was a domestic worker and she was a simple woman with a lot of wisdom. She put my mother through college and she was also a kitchen artist. She could go into an empty kitchen and somehow prepare a full meal for her family. It was magical. She never used measuring spoons or cups or anything, and it was always just right and delicious. I never learned to cook like her because I’d pepper her with questions like, “Is that a teaspoon or a tablespoon? How much is in a scootch?” and she’d just look at me. That’s not how she cooked! She was also an amazing quilter, I have several of the quilts she made out of our old clothing. I make my bed each day with one she made 30 years ago and it makes me feel like I still have her with me. I wrote a piece about her called, “Grits and Boiled Eggs”.
She was a superwoman. She worked for the City of Philadelphia, before that she went to Florida A&M University as a sociology major, she was an exceptional mother, one of the smartest people that I knew, another life-long learner, she soaked things up like a sponge. She was one of the best people I had the blessing to know.
How did moving around affect you, was it hard trying to make new friends all the time?
For me it was a positive thing. I felt like the world was my neighborhood, like, “There’s so much out there people, have you seen it? Wow! Have you been there, have you done that? What about these people, listen to that language! It’s amazing!” I manage to make friends easily, and in fact just yesterday spoke to one of them from Germany. She was the daughter of my kindergarten teacher. My parents were forward-thinking enough to not put me in the school on the base but registered me in the regular school in Germany. We’ve stayed in touch all these years.
What kinds of organizations or clubs were you into?
I did a lot of singing, I was in several choirs. I was in a group called, “Rights of Passage.” [Laughing] We would sit and have “deep” conversations contemplating life. And I danced with various studios over the years.
What was an early sign that you were gay?
Well, here’s the thing. For me it was muuuuch later in life. I’m 56 but the first time I got into a relationship with a woman was when I was 38. It wasn’t a rendering and tearing, “Oh my gosh, what does this mean!” It was more, “Oh my gosh, this is so cool!” I had no idea. I met a woman at a gym and at first it was, “That’s nice, you’re interested in me, but that’s not my orientation” and then I found out it was. It was someone I grew to care for and found that I had a capacity to love and it was the most natural thing, the easiest thing. I learned that in terms of my sexuality, gender didn’t matter to me. I have a full heart and the capacity to love people — whatever gender they express.
How did the family react?
It wasn’t the easiest thing with them. I knew my father would have a problem with it, but I was surprised at how long it took my mother to come around. I was raised in Germantown and Mt. Airy which is very open and diverse and it never occurred to me that her response would be anything other than, “It’s fine, it’s great” and when it wasn’t, it was devastating. Because I didn’t anticipate it. It was like, “Who are you? You raised me here, what just happened?” It took us a while, but she did come around and I’m thankful for that.
Good to hear. So switching gears, we have Kwanzaa coming up, what are some events that you’re participating in?
I’ll be playing percussion with “Sistahs Laying Down Hands.” We’re doing a processional from the African American Museum of Philadelphia to Franklin Square & telling the history of Kwanzaa. There will be a big tent at Franklin Square and there will be a craft table demo and lots of music and drumming, people like Karen Smith and DCL Violin Trio will be performing. I’ll also be part of the Philly Jawns presentation of Poetry and Stories. Their book, “For Women Revisited,” which is a tribute to Nina Simone, will be published shortly. That will be on both the 26th & 27th at 1:30pm. I’ll also be performing at the Germantown Mennonite church and will be doing a virtual Kwanzaa event with Philly Black Pride on the 26th at 6pm. It’s their 14th annual event!
I’ve been to several of Philly Black Pride’s Kwanzaa events, I’m glad that they’re keeping it going in some format.
Yes, it’s going to be different, but I think we’ll have fun.
Did you celebrate Kwanzaa at home?
Yep, I have a kinara, the candle holder, and we used to do a big Kwanzaa thing with my daughter’s Godmother, with the libations and reciting the daily principles.
What’s a tradition that you do? In my family we would write the names down of all the relatives who have passed and each person would randomly pull a name and have to share a story, memory or fact about that person.
Oh that’s wonderful, I think I may have to borrow that. I think, similar to what you were saying, telling stories about people and history, I love the reverence for the ancestors and the elderly, especially living in a society that doesn’t really honor age and aging. I love the significance of the ancestors and how they impact us now. And I love all the children being there and hearing things for the first time, or maybe the 20th!
One of the things that Kwanzaa emphasizes is turning away from the commercial aspects of the holidays. Why do you feel it’s especially important this year?
Kwanzaa puts a priority on eschewing store bought gifts and focuses on homemade and heartfelt gifts, something much appreciated in this time period when many are struggling just to put food on the table. As a kid, I used to hand make my cards. I used the cardboard insert that would come inside stocking packages. I would fold them and decorate them each individually. I was an artistic kid and they came out like beautiful works of art. Just the idea of reusing things and reducing our carbon footprint while creating an object of beauty is important. But one of the greatest gifts is the gift of spending time, whether it’s at one of the live, safe events that are being staged around town or virtually, or making promises with a loved one for a future date. A gift certificate promising to make dinner when this is over, or to bake together, just setting aside time for loved ones is so important.
Okay, random question, what was a funny fashion moment?
Well, it’s funny looking back through the lens of time because at the time, we all thought we looked so sharp! Harkening back to the days of bell bottom pants, I had these white bell bottoms and a white body suit which I would wear with a black velvet jacket and white platform shoes and you could not tell me that I didn’t have everything going on! And I’ll admit to having some Gaucho pants, but I mean really, there is no good reason for them, who ever came up with that?
Right? Though I miss the fun of outfits back in the day. Let’s wrap up with a motto or words to live by?
I don’t have any quotes that come to mind, but I try to express in some fashion the belief for myself and others that I am enough, and the audacity to say that I am beautiful. I don’t mean superficial beauty, I mean mind, body, spirit. And as a woman, daring to say it out loud and own it and claim it.