“Kuumba is very much a family, and sometimes after you graduate it’s hard to feel a part of that family,” says President Andrea M. Tyler ’10, “but one of the main goals that we really want to see happening is that everyone understands that family doesn’t end after we go home.” With the establishment of an alumni board, this preservation of history and culture will be possible for the Kuumba Singers. Created in the year of Kuumba’s 40th anniversary, the alumni board, known to members as “Rafiki Wa Kuumba,” (“Friends of Kuumba” in Swahili) is a move to form a community of black students and alumni that will preserve the institutional memory of the organization and foster communication with graduates.
The Kuumba Singers was founded in 1970 by Dennis W. Wiley ’72 and Fred A. Lucas ’72 at a time when racial hostility in Boston was rampant. Originally created as a safe space for black students on the Harvard campus and in the greater Boston area, the choir’s focus more recently has shifted towards celebrating black culture. Vice President Kaydene K. Grinnell ’10 says, “Our goal is to celebrate black creativity and spirituality, and that is done through music, dance, song, and spoken word.”
Kuumba intends to expand this focus by developing annual town hall meetings, the first of which took place last weekend as part of Kuumba’s 40th anniversary celebrations. After the current undergraduate executive board discussed their accomplishments for the year as well as problems they had encountered, the forum gave alumni an opportunity to communicate their visions and goals for the organization.
“The town hall meeting was amazing in the sense that it displayed the organization of the executive board, the passion of the students of Kuumba, the connectedness which is inter-generational now,” says returning alumni Dennis J. Henderson ’79. “They’re very concerned about connecting the past to the present and to the future so they have a vision for keeping Kuumba going and expanding it. I believe that it is also the foundation for greater stability in the future.”
Because Kuumba emphasizes exploring the whole range of “black creativity and spirituality,” which it claims is part of its mission, it also organizes other events throughout the year, such as the Black Arts Festival. The Festival is comprised of different elements, ranging from a visual arts gallery to a performing arts showcase that features spoken word, song, dance, and a photo gallery. The Festival gives Kuumba members and the surrounding community an opportunity to explore facets of black culture that would otherwise be unavailable in a singularly choral experience.
These events and the goals of Kuumba seek to enlighten black students about their rich history. “It’s really about education for us, learning about the whole African diasporic experience,” Tyler says. “So it’s not particularly a Black American culture, it’s also the West Indian cultures, and the first generation African culture. It’s about us educating ourselves about the full range of the black experience.”
Ultimately, Kuumba is unified by its ambition to explore black culture and its commitment to ensuring that undergraduates on campus view the choir as a safe space for black students. Members hope these goals will remain unchanged.
“The one thing you hear overwhelmingly year after year from the alums that come back [is that] they all say that although things have changed, Kuumba remains the same,” says Sheldon K. X. Reid ’96. “So we feel like we’re keeping true to the intent and the purpose of the mission and goals of the people that came before us, which is our goal.”