When I was in college, my housemate, Larry, was BSU president. For those who don’t know what that is: BSU stands for Black Student Union.
Larry introduced me to blood sausage and collard greens, Back bacon, the switch (in name only), Marvin Gaye and most of all, what it meant to be African in America.
In fact, he was the first person I ever met to use the term African to describe his ancestry — not Black, not Colored, nothing hyphenated — just African.
From listening to the stories of his father, I learned about the struggles of the African diaspora in America.
I cried when I discovered how, as a child, his father – a military man – watched a younger brother die from eating lye because the white hospital, in his small Texas community, would not admit this dying child because of his skin color
“The Black Hospital was just too far away,” I was told and they couldn’t make it in time and the child was left to die in his mother’s arms.
“How could you still serve a country that allowed that to happen to your little brother?” I remember thinking. But he did – and did so proudly.
In this man, I saw great strength and witnessed the respect he garnered from it. However, sadly, I also saw him bend to the point of breaking after describing how a police officer, in their small Montana town, called him “Boy” during a routine stop.
Though the officer was forced to publicly apologize for his ignorance, it wasn’t the apology that has stuck with me after all these years. It was the woeful words of a father to a son, sadly wondering, “When is it going to end?”
From these experiences, I learned about importance of the Black family, of Black unity, and the roots of Black culture — and how these three are so tightly woven into the fabric of America they often go unnoticed. Like the strands of our DNA, without these strong imperceptible threads, the fabric of our nation could not stay bound.
Gladly, not every experience was so melancholy. Many good memories were shared.
There were the BSU socials and parties. Whitney Houston, Michael Jackson and En Vogue were all hot back then. And since Larry was BSU president, our house on Higgins Avenue in Missoula, Montana was party central.
Then, there was the time I walked into the living room and discovered my housemate sitting in front of a roaring fire in the fireplace on a seasonably warm day. After a closer look, I saw that he was burning all of his Diana Ross albums. She apparently married another white guy – and broke a young Black man’s heart.
All these experiences made me a better man.
My most memorable experience came on the day a Hollywood movie producer arrived in our college town searching for a “no name” child star for an upcoming film.
I went to the auditions not to be cast, but to talk to the producer. You see, I secretly had a dream of becoming a screenwriter – and I only shared that dream with one person: my housemate, Larry.
I was shy back then and not very assertive. So, Larry forced me to go to the auditions. And to make sure I went, he escorted me.
Now, if you’ve never attended a Hollywood audition, let me just tell you that they are very long and boring. However, Larry wouldn’t let me leave; and when it was finally over, he pushed me forward, like an overly aggressive stage mom, and made me introduce myself, which I did, though not very assertively.
To my surprise, the producer was warm and friendly. We talked for a long period of time. And at the end, the producer gave me the encouragement to follow my dream – along with his business card.
On cloud nine, I turned to share this experience with Larry, but he was gone. I found him outside, waiting. He silently listened to me recount the story, as we walked home. (Probably much like his father would have done.) Finally, when I was finished, he said something to me that I would never forget.
“Promise me, Dubba, when you make it to Hollywood, you won’t forget my people.”
“I promise,” I laughed, but Larry wasn’t joking.
“Promise me,” he repeated.
“I promise,” I wholeheartedly replied.
From that day on, I’ve kept my promise – or at least I’ve tried.
I did eventually wind up in Hollywood. And I wrote several scripts; most of them with African American characters and story lines.
My most popular script was an urban family-movie titled ‘Twas. The script was in option to be a major motion picture. It was in the hands of a major African-American film studio – then the writer’s strike happened. Times got tough. And for the first time, it seemed that I would not be able to keep my promised to Larry after all.
So what’s this have to do with Dreaming of a “White” Kwanzaa?
Well, ‘Twas is warmhearted family-oriented story about a down-and-out dad, who screws up the Yuletide and then spends the days after Christmas trying to make it right.
And those days after Christmas are…?
You guessed it: Kwanzaa! Its working title was: Kwanzaa Klaus (though I preferred ‘Twas.)
I fought many battles to keep this project afloat, foremost, not to allow this story to become the next Soul Plane. To do that, I had to fight to keep myself attached to the project – which was difficult once people discovered that I was … well … White. (In fact, I’m so White, someone once asked me for my street name and I gave him my home address.) Finally, I had to fight to keep Kwanzaa in the story from the production company that had optioned it!
It was exhausting.
By the time the writer’s strike in Hollywood ended, my optioned had expired and I started teaching to make ends meet.
I’m not complaining.
I have a life that is better than I deserve. I married up. My children are bright and beautiful. Today, I live in a great small town with a great school. I can’t complain about my job. (Teaching really isn’t a job.) Most of my students enjoy my class and, so far, their parents seem to appreciate my efforts.
Though I stay in contact with some of my housemates from college, I haven’t spoken to Larry in years. From time-to-time, he pops into my life and then seems to disappear without a trace. Much like an angel one might say, but I spent a lot of time with Larry. He wasn’t an angel back then, and I doubt he is today.
A few years back, when I was at a loss of bedtime stories to tell, I dusted off ‘Twas and started reading it to my oldest. My son so enjoyed the story, he asked for me to continue doing so nightly. Soon, after tucking him in, I started sneaking into living room to turn on my iBook, and began rewriting ‘Twas as a book.
When I was finished, I asked Faith Ties co-creator (and close friend) John “Rusty” Proctor, to read it and, if he enjoyed it, to write the Forward — which he did. Here’s just a slice of what he wrote:
“This story is a multicultural romp through Los Angeles streets (and rooftops) that is set against the background and lessons of the celebration of Kwanzaa and it’s guiding principles (the Nguzo Saba). The reader gets to enjoy this story while at the same time learning a bit about other cultures (shhh, don’t tell your children they’ll be learning too).”
When I was done, I published it on Amazon under the title “Kwanzaa Klaus” at the suggestion of another good friend, a Public Relations manager. We started promoting the book and received some good feedback, and it felt good to be back in the game.
For most, that would be the end of the story. But remember, I had a promise to keep – and with that I’m asking you for help.
Go to the website, KwanzaaKlaus.com.
Simply read what the story is all ABOUT. I promised, you’ll discover a story for all, and a Santa Claus who is magically re-imagined to match today’s multicultural norms. Recreated and original, Saint Nick appears and reappears in many forms as he unknowingly morphs from “Compton Claus” to Kris Kringle to “Sheng Dan Lau Ren” to “Papai Noël” and back again, depending of who’s in the “Hood”.
Kevin Hart or Jamie Foxx as the down-and-out dad…
Cedric the Entertainer or Ice Cube as “Compton Claus”.
Jackie Chan as Sheng Dan Lau Ren.
George Lopez as Papai Noël.
Can you imagine it?
In the end, share this with someone else. You may know someone, who knows someone, who knows someone and maybe this story will make the silver screen, where it truly belongs.
You’ll be helping someone keep a promise long overdue.
James Henry is also the author of Corporation YOU: A Business Plan for the Soul and the new book series Hail Mary. To contact James or book an interview, please contact Mark of Goldman/McCormick PR at (516) 639-0988 or Mark@goldmanmccormick.com