Maulana Karenga

Maulana Karenga (Courtesy of Maulana Karenga / November 29, 2011)

As a player in the Black Power and civil rights movements of the 1960s, even at only 25 years old, Maulana Karenga was concerned about legacy. He wanted to leave behind something that would both celebrate the accomplishments of his people and challenge them to go even further.

And so, in 1966, he created Kwanzaa, a seven-day celebration of family, community and culture that is rooted in the traditions of Africa, but just as firmly focused on accomplishments yet to come. Karenga envisioned it as a holiday meant to both celebrate the past and enhance the future, an annual opportunity for people of African descent everywhere to honor their ancestors by ensuring the best possible world for their descendants.

"The question for me, and for other people who left school to join the movement, was, 'How do I take my knowledge and use it in the interest of my people?'" said Karenga, 72, speaking from his home in Los Angeles. "When I was doing Kwanzaa, I asked, 'How can I conceive and construct something of enduring value that would serve the interest of our people and the movement?'"

Almost 50 years later, Kwanzaa has become a part of America's cultural landscape, and celebrating it has become an end-of-year tradition for many African-American families. Karenga will be speaking as the centerpiece of the annual Kwanzaa celebration at Baltimore's Reginald F. Lewis Museum of Maryland African American History & Culture on Dec. 28.

"For most of us, this will probably be the first opportunity to actually listen to and learn from the founder of Kwanzaa," said A. Skipp Sanders, executive director of the Lewis museum. "He will probably find a way of adding an extra dimension of depth to why he felt it was so important to make this holiday, and to why it has struck the chord it has among so many people."

Celebrating Kwanzaa, which begins Thursday and ends on New Year's Day, involves a combination of private reflection and communal ritual. It includes carefully planned meals, the lighting of candles and the telling of stories. And it offers, Karenga says, the chance for the African diaspora throughout the world to be proud of who they are.

"I created Kwanzaa for three basic reasons," he says, beginning with, "to reaffirm our rootedness in African culture, because we had been lifted out of that by the holocaust of enslavement."

The second consideration, he says, was to "give us a time when we, as Africans all over the world, could come together, reaffirm the bonds between us, celebrate ourselves and meditate the awesome meaning of being African in the world."

And finally, he says, "I created Kwanzaa to introduce and reaffirm the importance of communal African values, values that stress and strengthen family, community and culture."

The goal, he says, is similarly threefold: "To know our past and honor it, to engage our present and improve it, and to imagine a whole new future and forge it in the most ethical, effective and expansive ways."

Establishing Kwanzaa has been the highlight of a life long centered on the struggle for African-American rights and recognition. Raised Ronald Everett in Wicomico County, Karenga was the son of a Baptist minister; both of his parents were farmers, often living as sharecroppers. He was one of 14 children — seven boys (he was the youngest), seven girls — and attended elementary and high school in Salisbury.

That Maryland's Eastern Shore was home to such prominent black leaders as Frederick Douglass and Harriet Tubman was not lost on him, even as a young man, Karenga says. "We were on a peninsula, a shore where some of the great people in our history lived, where they were born and fought for our freedom and liberty. That was always a big point in our school."

After moving to California in 1959, the teenage Ronald Everett became embroiled in the civil rights struggle. At a time when many African-Americans were taking African names, he says he chose Karenga, meaning "keeper of the tradition" in Gikuyu, and was given the name Maulana, Swahili for "master teacher," by members of his Organization Us. An early proponent of the black studies movement, Karenga has served since 1989 as chair of Africana Studies at California State University, Long Beach.

Karenga's life has had its share of controversy. Organization Us, a black nationalist group he helped found in the 1960s, was often at odds with the rival Black Panthers; their dispute erupted into gunplay on the UCLA campus in January 1969 that left two Panthers dead. Two years later, Karenga went to prison on charges of assault and false imprisonment, after a trial in which two women claimed they were assaulted and tortured. He was released on parole in 1975.

Karenga has always maintained his innocence of the charges, and regards himself as having been a "political prisoner" for four years. Similarly, he claims the Organization Us rivalry with the Panthers, while real, was exacerbated by the FBI and others, in an effort to discredit both groups.

"All the groups that had any presence and any authority in the movement were targeted," he says. "Some of us were driven underground and into exile. Some people are still in captivity on those trumped-up charges." As for the Us-Panthers rivalry, "that was from external pressure, not from anything that we fundamentally disagreed on."

Following his release from prison, Karenga revived Organization Us and immersed himself in academics, concentrating on the black studies he would help pioneer and referring to himself proudly as an "activist scholar." He earned his first doctorate, in political science with a focus on the theory and practice of nationalism, in 1976 from United States International University. Karenga's second, on social ethics with a focus on the classical African ethics of ancient Egypt, was awarded by USC in 1994.

And he has continued to beat the drum for Kwanzaa.

The celebration is based on seven principals (the Nguzo Saba) that Karenga says he drew from his studies of African culture and history. They include unity (in Swahili, umoja), self-determination (kujichagulia), collective work and responsibility (ujima), purpose (nia), creativity (kuumba) and faith (imani). Those values are represented in the seven candles of one of Kwanzaa's most recognizable symbols, the kinara; a new candle is lit each day.

Other aspects of the celebration are included in the Kwanzaa set, a group of symbolic items — including fruits and vegetables, corn, a cup (called the kikombe cha umoja, or unity cup) and books on African life and culture, all placed on a mat (mkeka) laid atop a piece of African cloth. Children are presented with gifts, usually books or symbols of their African heritage.