An uncomfortable lull was settling in the room. The interruption of the program's flow was making some of us anxious. Technical difficulties - an old boom box and a scratched cd - contributed to my anxiety as I fumbled with the ancient P.A. system. The larger than expected crowd began to mumble amongst themselves and a few stood up to leave.
Desperately, I looked towards the empty podium and then to the woman standing off to the side. She turned to me, smiled warmly, then calmly walked up to the microphone, tapped her index finger against the tip, and glanced around the room.
In a thunderous voice, she said, "HERE. WE. ARE." Some jumped in surprise. All were immediately silenced.
"WE. ARE. HERE!" she repeated as she set the mic down.
I smiled and nodded. This was Tracy. A local, well-known storyteller of ancestral tales and urban truths. A powerful woman with a powerful voice and message of hope. "We are here, family," she told us, "And if you agree I want you to say, 'UMOJA!'"
"HERE WE ARE!"
"Umoja," I said.
"WE ARE HERE!" she said moving towards the girl in a yellow hoodie.
"Umoja!" We said.
"HERE WE ARE, FAMILY!"
"And now," Tracy said bending down, face to face, eye to eye with the old man holding a cane, "What time is it, my brother?" she asked.
He smiled, shrugged, then pointed to his watchless thin wrist.
Tracy looked around, from the east to the west and then asked again. "Family. Tell me what time is it?"
A few people yelled out the time of day and she shook her head. "Nooooo," she said in a rich, deep, slow midwestern tone. Then gently touching the shoulder of the teenage girl in the second row, she said, "My sister. It is the right time."
Griot: A member of a hereditary caste among the peoples of western Africa whose function is to keep an oral history of the tribe or village and to entertain with stories, poems, songs, dances, etc.
Umoja: Unity. Refers to building a community that holds together.