Kwanzaa embodied in cartoon characters who make a difference
It was after his daughter, Darriel, was born in 2011 that Darryl Crosby realized how few children’s books and heroes were available by African-American artists for African-American kids.
“I searched for culturally relevant books and shows that were fun, informative and resonated with my lived experience,” said Crosby, 58, a marketing associate and designer for Kent State University Press. “I saw few books or other media that spoke to African-American values and ideas.
Rather than rail against the lack, the graphic designer set out to be the change. “I couldn’t find it. So I created it.”
Crosby had also noticed that Kwanzaa, a weeklong celebration that honors African heritage, wasn’t observed as much as when he was a kid, and was understood even less.
“Many people have heard of Kwanzaa and its seven principles, but may not think of them as a guide for everyday living,” he said.
“My mom used to read me African fables,” he said. “There was quite a use of anthropomorphic characters. I could do that with these seven principles. I can start to make them more than words on paper. I can show how it can work in the community, how it can work in people’s lives.”
Crosby’s collection of Kwanzaa-inspired “Everyday Heroes” were born on a whim in late 2014. Crosby created cartoon characters to embody each of the nguzo saba — the seven principles: unity, self-determination, collective work and responsibility, cooperative economics, purpose, creativity and faith.
He called them Kinara’s Children.
Kinara is a Swahili word that means candle holder. The kinara is used in Kwanzaa celebrations to hold the seven candles that represent the seven principles. During the week of Kwanzaa, which ended New Year’s Day, a new candle is lit on the kinara each day.
“Everyday Heroes is not your typical superhero group,” Crosby said. “They’re all regular people from the neighborhood, but they each possess amazing skills and talents based on hard work and determination. They put those skills to use in their community every day.”
For example, Everyday Hero Umoja (unity) is the wife of Kuumba (creativity) and mother of Nia (purpose).
According to the Kinara’s Children website: “The most important and demanding job there is, Umoja’s duties as mom go 24/7/365. Though she only has one biological child, she acts as surrogate for all the kids and young folk on the block. Her heart is big enough to embrace them all. Umoja acts as historian and peacekeeper of her extended family. She knows who’s related to who, who’s going with who, and who just needs to get going.”
The character Umoja demonstrates the principle of unity, which is to strive for and maintain unity in the family, community, nation and race, according to Crosby.
Then there’s Ujima (collective work and responsibility): “He’ll take on any challenge, any opposition without regard for the consequences. Through his organization Habitat for the Hood, Ujima renovates abandoned homes and creates urban gardens and playgrounds on empty lots. He can fix or build just about anything and will gladly lend a hand for the benefit of his community.”
“The ironic thing is that we have practiced these principles for 400 years but only recently were they written down,” Crosby said.
The Kwanzaa celebration was created in 1966 by Maulana Karenga and based on African harvest festival traditions from various parts of Africa.
There’s a lot of misinformation about Kwanzaa, and its ideals often are misunderstood, Crosby said. The seven principles are pro-family, pro-community, and about taking personal responsibility and helping each other. It’s not a culture of victimization and pointing fingers; it’s about what can I do to be the change I want to see, Crosby said.
Teaching the seven principles through cartoon characters makes the message more accessible and less confrontational, he said.
“I always wanted to do something that brings positivity to the community. I wanted more for the young people that was culturally relevant,” he said.
Crosby grew up in Kent and now lives in Akron. His father, Dr. Edward W. Crosby, became the first chair of the Department of Pan-African Studies at Kent State University in 1969.
The younger Crosby attended Kent State, but took a roundabout route to education. He took a few years off to play guitar in local bands before finally getting back to classes to earn his first degree in 1992. He holds a master’s degree in visual communication design as well.
Kinara’s Children wasn’t meant to be a business, and still isn’t, really. Crosby said he posted the images on social media that first year and pretty much forgot about it. But people — parents in particular — kept reaching out for more to use as a teaching resource. He launched the Kinara’s Children website besides his own Creations by Crosby (“Positive Images for Positive People”) and has gotten trading cards and mini-posters printed at Minuteman Press in Youngstown.
He said he hopes that eventually, his hobby can be developed into a curriculum that can be used in group settings. For now, Crosby is satisfied to teach Kwanzaa and the seven principles one family at a time, with coloring pages, pictures, stories and challenges on how to put the principles into practice year-round.
“Understanding the power of words, images, animation and film to influence and educate, I want to add culturally relevant, educationally based images and ideas to the media stream for the benefit of African-American youth, their parents and educators,” he said.