It’s Friday, POU Family! It’s the end of a work week and the start of the weekend.
Maulana Ndabezitha Karenga (born Ronald McKinley Everett on July 14, 1941) is an African-American professor of Africana Studies, activist and author, best known as the creator of the pan-African and African-American holiday of Kwanzaa. Karenga was a major figure in the Black Power movement of the 1960s and 1970s and co-founded with Hakim Jamal the black nationalism and social change organization US.
Ron Everett was born in Parsonsburg, Maryland, the fourteenth child and seventh son in the family. His father was a tenant farmer and Baptist minister who employed the family to work fields under an effective sharecropping arrangement. Everett moved to Los Angeles in 1959, joining his older brother who was a teacher there, and attended Los Angeles City College (LACC). He became active with civil rights organizations CORE andSNCC, took an interest in African studies, and was elected as LACC’s first African-American student president. After earning his associate degree, he matriculated at the University of California, Los Angeles (UCLA) and earned BA and MA degrees in political science.
He studied Swahili, Arabic and other African-related subjects. Among his influences at UCLA were Jamaican anthropologist and Negritudist Councill Taylor who contested the Eurocentric view of alien cultures as primitive. During this period he took the name Karenga (Swahili for “keeper of tradition”) and the title Maulana (Swahili-Arabic for “master teacher”). While pursuing his doctorate at UCLA, he taught African culture classes for local African-Americans and joined a study group called the Circle of Seven.
The Watts Riots broke out as Karenga was a year into his doctoral studies. Karenga and the Circle of Seven established a community organization in the aftermath called US (meaning “Us black people”). The organization joined in several community revival programs and was featured in press reports. Karenga cited Malcolm X’s Afro-American Unity program as an influence on the US organization’s work:
Malcolm was the major African American thinker that influenced me in terms of nationalism and Pan-Africanism. As you know, towards the end, when Malcolm is expanding his concept of Islam, and of nationalism, he stresses Pan-Africanism in a particular way. And he argues that, and this is where we have the whole idea that cultural revolution and the need for revolution, he argues that we need a cultural revolution, he argues that we must return to Africa culturally and spiritually, even if we can’t go physically. And so that’s a tremendous impact on US.
As racial disturbances spread across the country, Karenga appeared at a series of black power conferences, joining other groups in urging the establishment of a separate political structure for African-Americans.
US became a target of the FBI’s COINTELPRO and was put on a series of lists describing it as dangerous, revolutionary and committed to armed struggle in the Black Power Movement. US developed a youth component with para-military aspects called the Simba Wachanga which advocated and practiced community self-defense and service to the masses.
Karenga created Kwanzaa in 1966 to be the first pan-African holiday. He said his goal was to “give Blacks an alternative to the existing holiday and give Blacks an opportunity to celebrate themselves and their history, rather than simply imitate the practice of the dominant society.” It is inspired by African “first fruit” traditions, and the name is derived from the name for the Swahili first fruit celebration, “matunda ya kwanza.” The rituals of the holiday promote African traditions and Nguzo Saba, the “seven principles of African Heritage” that Karenga described as “a communitarian African philosophy”:
- Umoja (unity)—To strive for and maintain unity in the family, community, nation, and race.
- Kujichagulia (self-determination)—To define ourselves, name ourselves, create for ourselves, and speak for ourselves.
- Ujima (collective work and responsibility)—To build and maintain our community together and make our brother’s and sister’s problems our problems and to solve them together.
- Ujamaa (cooperative economics)—To build and maintain our own stores, shops, and other businesses and to profit from them together.
- Nia (purpose)—To make our collective vocation the building and development of our community in order to restore our people to their traditional greatness.
- Kuumba (creativity)—To do always as much as we can, in the way we can, in order to leave our community more beautiful and beneficial than we inherited it.
- Imani (faith)—To believe with all our heart in our people, our parents, our teachers, our leaders, and the righteousness and victory of our struggle.
US engaged in violent competition with the Black Panther Party in their claim to be a revolutionary vanguard. This heightened level of conflict eventually led to a shoot-out at UCLA in 1969 in which two Panthers were killed and a Simba was shot in the back. Following the UCLA shootout, Panthers and US members carried out a series of retaliatory shootings that resulted in at least two more murders of Panthers.
The FBI attempted to aggravate the conflict. Tactics used to foment and aggravate conflict between US and the Panthers included poison-pen letters, defamatory cartoons, agents provocateurs, and creating suspicion of members of each organization as agents.
In 1971, Karenga was sentenced to one to ten years in prison on counts of felonious assault and false imprisonment. One of the victims gave testimony of how Karenga and other men tortured her and another woman. The woman described having been stripped and beaten with an electrical cord. Karenga’s estranged wife, Brenda Lorraine Karenga, testified that she sat on the other woman’s stomach while another man forced water into her mouth through a hose.
A May 14, 1971, article in the Los Angeles Times described the testimony of one of the women:
“Deborah Jones, who once was given the Swahili title of an African queen, said she and Gail Davis were whipped with an electrical cord and beaten with a karate baton after being ordered to remove their clothes. She testified that a hot soldering iron was placed in Miss Davis’ mouth and placed against Miss Davis’ face and that one of her own big toes was tightened in a vise. Karenga, head of US, also put detergent and running hoses in their mouths, she said. They also were hit on the heads with toasters.”
Jones and Brenda Karenga testified that Karenga believed the women were conspiring to poison him, which Davis has attributed to a combination of ongoing police pressure and his own drug abuse.
Karenga denied any involvement in the torture, and argued that the prosecution was political in nature. He was imprisoned at the California Men’s Colony, where he studied and wrote on feminism, Pan-Africanism and other subjects. The US organization fell into disarray during his absence and was disbanded in 1974. After he petitioned several black state officials to support his parole on fair sentencing grounds, it was granted in 1975.
After his parole Karenga re-established the US organization under a new structure. He was awarded his first PhD in 1976 from United States International University (now known as Alliant International University) for a 170-page dissertation entitled “Afro-American Nationalism: Social Strategy and Struggle for Community”. Later in his career, in 1994, he was awarded a second Ph.D., in social ethics, from the University of Southern California.
Karenga is the Chair of the Africana Studies Department at California State University, Long Beach. He is the director of the Kawaida Institute for Pan African Studies and the author of several books, including his “Introduction to Black Studies”, a comprehensive Black/African Studies textbook now in its fourth edition. He is also known for having co-hosted, in 1984, a conference that gave rise to the Association for the Study of Classical African Civilizations, and in 1995, he sat on the organizing committee and authored the mission statement of the Million Man March.