Maulana Karenga (born 1941) introduced the holiday of Kwanzaa to African Americans. Kwanzaa, derived from African agricultural rites and communal activities, urges blacks to look back to their cultural roots as a source of celebration.
Known as the man who brought the cultural holiday of Kwanzaa to the United States in 1966, Maulana Karenga has played a key role in programs that have defined black identity and helped blacks connect themselves to their cultural roots. His identities since the mid-1960s have run the gamut from black power revolutionary and supporter of Malcolm X to mediator with whites in times of racial strife. Throughout, Karenga has stressed the importance of culture to blacks as a means of strengthening solidarity and overcoming oppression.
Karenga has played a great role in providing positive symbols to blacks through cultural reaffirmation. In speaking of his movement in Emerge!, he said, "As cultural nationalists, we believe that you must rescue and reconstruct African history and culture to revitalize African culture today in America." Karenga has acknowledged his debt to black thinkers of the past in shaping his view. Veronica Chambers wrote in Essence that Karenga's "intellectual voice is born of a mixed palette of teachings, from W. E. B. DuBois to Anna Julia Cooper, a legendary Black nineteenth-century feminist who attended the Sorbonne while in her sixties and received a Ph.D." The holder of two Ph.D.s of his own, Karenga pays particular homage to path-breaking blacks such as DuBois, Cooper, Fannie Lou Hamer, Malcolm X, Mary McLeod Bethune, Martin Luther King, Jr., and Frederick Douglass.
Leadership Skills Revealed in College
The son of a Baptist minister, Karenga was born on a poultry farm in Maryland. He moved to Los Angeles in the late 1950s to attend Los Angeles City College, and while there became the first black ever elected president of the student body. He earned his masters' degree in political science and African studies at the University of California at Los Angeles (UCLA) before embracing the black power movement.
After some initial interest in becoming a Black Muslim, Karenga became disenchanted with the religion and became a supporter of Malcolm X, although he did not agree with all of the black leader's teachings. Karenga thought that violence should be resorted to by blacks only as a self-defense measure, unlike radical black power advocates who supported more aggressive measures against the white establishment. In one of his first efforts to unify blacks in a positive rather than destructive manner, he helped establish the Black Congress among residents of Los Angeles' Watts district that helped restore the community after the 1965 race riots.
In the mid-1960s Everett started the group known as US (meant as a counterpoint to "them") that he "created as a social and culture change organization," according to The Black 100. It was at this time that he adopted the name Maulana Karenga—Maulana is Swahili for "master-teacher." All members of US were required to take on Afro-Swahili surnames, learn Swahili, shave their heads, and wear African-style attire. A central element of US was the embracing of the seven principles of the Nguzo Saba, a black value system that was to be a code of living for blacks. The principles consisted of Umjoya (unity), Kujichagulia (self-determination), Ujima (collective work and responsibility), Ujamaa (cooperative economics), Nia (purpose), Kuumba (creativity), and Imani (faith). The goal of this value system was to promote a national liberation of African Americans and US soon attracted a large following among blacks on the West Coast.
With US, Karenga was instrumental in building independent schools, black-studies departments, and black-student unions. As he gained status in the black power movement, he proceeded to organize a series of gatherings to provide blacks with a platform for social change. Working with other black leaders, he set up major black-power conferences in Washington DC, Philadelphia, and Newark, New Jersey, where he was instrumental in triggering development of an ideological framework for black politics in the years to come. Central to Karenga's efforts was the espousal of cultural nationalism to instill racial pride and confidence among American blacks.
Among the blacks who took leadership roles in the black cultural movement of the 1960s were LeRoi Jones (who became Amiri Baraka), Sonia Sanchez, Addison Gayle, Jr., Larry Neal, and Haki Madhubuti (formerly Don L. Lee). During this period Karenga worked alongside such people, founding the Brotherhood Crusade, as well as housing projects, community health centers, and other associations to aid blacks. "From the beginning, we were into institutional building for both the local and national community," he claimed in Essence. Karenga made it clear, however, that blacks had a right to act up if the system did not change. "Unless America awakens to the fact that she must contend with us as an enemy, or bargain with us as citizens, it will be to her serious disadvantage," he was quoted as saying in Newsweek in 1966.
Cultural Holiday Becomes Worldwide Phenomenon
One year after the creation of US, Karenga introduced a lasting source of black unity by introducing Kwanzaa to African Americans. Kwanzaa, which is Swahili for "first fruits," is a holiday based on African agricultural rites and communal activities that urges blacks to look back to their cultural roots as a source of celebration. On each of the seven days of Kwanzaa—from December 26 through January 1—a principle of the Nguzo Saba is acknowledged.
Although it coincides with the Christmas season, the holiday has no religious aspects and therefore allows people from all countries and backgrounds to join in without conflicts. A pan-Africanist, Karenga's support of Kwanzaa was an offshoot of his belief that blacks should consider themselves one people, regardless of their country. "Kwanzaa was created to reaffirm our culture and the bonds between us as a people," he told Essence. After initially being observed by a few hundred people, Kwanzaa celebrations have spread well beyond the borders of the United States in ensuing years.
Throughout the mid-1960s, Karenga's voice was clearly heard in speeches across the nation about the importance of racial pride. His reputation soared due to his role in helping the Los Angeles police limit black rioting after Martin Luther King, Jr.'s assassination in 1968. Karenga's mediating skills made him in demand for meetings with political leaders that included then-California Governor Ronald Reagan, ex-Los Angeles Mayor Sam Yorty, Senator Hubert Humphrey, and Ford Foundation head McGeorge Bundy. At the same time he was working with these leaders, Karenga's continued outspokenness also put him under surveillance by the FBI.
A number of factors isolated Karenga within the black-power movement. While some African Americans did not care for his overpowering manner, others disagreed with his philosophy for dealing with the problems of blacks; more extremist blacks spoke out against his dealing with whites. The cultural nationalists could not bridge the gap between blacks who wanted to overthrow the system and those who were willing to promote change through the normal political process.
Karenga's status was eroded considerably after the killing of Black Panther members John Huggins and Alprentice "Bunchy" Carter by US gunmen in 1969. It was also felt by many that the so-called cultural movement promoted by Karenga and Baraka compromised the rights of women. Karenga's male chauvinism came to the fore in 1971 when he was arrested and convicted of assaulting a female US member. After he was sent to prison to serve time for his offense, the US organization began to dissolve and was officially ended in 1974.
Ideological Shift During Imprisonment
In prison, Karenga actively complained that his sentence was more harsh than for others convicted of a similar offense, and noted that his repeated parole recommendations were ignored. During his incarceration he maintained a rigorous schedule of activity and received a steady flow of visitors. He would often endure 19-hour work days consisting of work in the prison library, running a humanist discussion group, and conducting research. His studies resulted in articles published in Black Scholar magazine that encompassed subjects ranging from feminism to pan-Africanism.
After three years, Karenga won his freedom due to the efforts of various black elected officials in California. After his release he admitted that US had made mistakes that weakened the movement and compromised its ability to change appropriately with the times. He also revealed an ideological reawakening by announcing his adherence to Marxist principles of class struggle. As Thomas L. Blair said in Retreat to the Ghetto, "In Karenga's new view, black nationalism is reactionary because in the pursuit of an elusive ideal of unity it makes class contradictions among blacks." Baraka also made the shift in philosophy, thus ending the militant cultural revolution of blacks started in the 1960s.
In the years that followed, Karenga would continue to rethink his position on black identity and once again embrace the principles of black culturalism. Prominent in his thoughts was the need for blacks to work together toward common goals and, especially for Africans to transcend borders of country and tribe. "In the final analysis shared social wealth and work are key to African economic development," he said, according to The Black 100.
Karenga's Marxist leanings continued to show in his negative opinion of black capitalism, which he felt subverted the black cause and resulted in blacks losing touch with their true identity. To further press the cause of black unity, Karenga and his wife Tiamoya increased their involvement with the Kwanzaa holiday over the years. By having no elements of elitism, exclusivity, or intellectualism, Kwanzaa is fully accessible to the masses and cannot be claimed as the special province of any one group, according to Karenga.
Voice of Reason During Los Angeles Riots
In addition to serving as professor and chairperson of the Department of Black Studies at California State University at Long Beach in the 1990s, Karenga became chairperson of the President's Task Force on Multicultural Education and Campus Diversity at the school. He also was appointed director of the African American Cultural Center in Los Angeles. After the 1992 riots in Los Angeles that followed the beating of Rodney King by police, Karenga once again became a voice of healing in the aftermath.
Karenga sponsored workshops and lectures to help close the racial wounds resulting from the event. Karenga remained reasonable and called for cool heads while the Rodney King trial was underway and blacks were threatening retribution if the jury gave the police a light sentence. "L.A. can be a model in a positive way or a negative way," he was quoted as saying in Newsweek while the trial was underway.
The Kwanzaa holiday remains Karenga's most important legacy to the black cause. His influence is demonstrated by the fact that by the 1990s Kwanzaa was celebrated by over 18 million blacks in the United States, Canada, the Caribbean, Europe, and Africa. He and his wife have presided over hundreds of Kwanzaas all over the world. "As cultural nationalists, we believe that you must rescue and reconstruct African history and culture to revitalize African culture today in America," he said in Emerge. "Kwanzaa became a way of doing just that. I wanted to stress the need for reorientation of values, to borrow the collective life-affirming ones from our past and use them to enrich our present."
Further Reading on Maulana Karenga
Blair, Thomas L., Retreat to the Ghetto, The End of a Dream, Hill& Wang, 1977.
The Eyes on the Prize Civil Rights Reader, Penguin, 1991.
Salley, Columbus, The Black 100, Citadel Press, 1993.
Van Deburg, William L., New Day in Babylon, The Black Power Movement and American Culture 1965-1975, University of Chicago Press, 1992.
Black Enterprise, December 1991, p. 22; December 1993, p. 107.
Detroit Free Press Magazine, December 4, 1994, p. 6.
Ebony, September 1975, p. 170.
Essence, December 1989, p. 50; December 1992, pp. 96-98,129.
Emerge, January 1992, pp. 11-12.
Newsweek, August 22, 1966, pp. 28-29; March 29, 1993, p. 30.