The Eastern Shore-born activist who created Kwanzaa told a standing-room-only crowd the Reginald F. Lewis Museum of Maryland African American History & Culture on Saturday that the post-Christmas holiday is a celebration of "all that is good in life."
Maulana Karenga, who launched the seven-day observance of African culture and values nearly a half-century ago, received an enthusiastic reception from hundreds who jammed the museum's theater and overloaded its elevators.
"We're not afraid of saying we're celebrating black people," said Karenga, chairman of the Africana studies department at California State University in Long Beach.
Kwanzaa has been denounced on conservative blogs as a "fake" and "the ultimate politically correct holiday." A year ago, a Wisconsin Republican state senator, Glenn Grothman, declared that "almost no black people today care about Kwanzaa — just white left-wingers who try to shove this down black people's throats."
That didn't seem to be the case in Baltimore on Saturday. The crowd was almost entirely African-American and observed Kwanzaa with African music and dance, traditional "griot" storytelling and children's activities. The museum, which has struggled to keep up attendance at other times of year, was packed to the point at which some could not get into the theater to hear Karenga.
Much of the ire directed at Kwanzaa is connected with the career of its founder. The 72-year-old Karenga went from leading a black nationalist group in the 1960s to serving a prison term for imprisoning and assaulting two women in the 1970s — charges he has consistently denied. For some, the holiday represents a front in the so-called "war on Christmas" — intended to divert black people from the traditional Christian holiday.
Karenga said that's nonsense.
"People who fear that it's doing something to Christmas, the reality of it is that the majority of African-Americans who celebrate this are Christians," Karenga said in an interview. He said black Christians, Jews, Muslims and those of other religions can all find something to celebrate in the nonsectarian holiday.
"What we're celebrating is African culture, that's our common ground," he said. He said the name is derived from the Swahili phrase "matunda ya kwanza" — for "first fruits."
Karenga makes no apologies for creating a holiday people of African descent can call their own.
"I don't know of any holiday that's not made up," he said. "This is self-consciously created. I self-consciously created this as a cultural holiday."
The Kwanzaa celebration centers around seven principles — unity, self-determination, collective work and responsibility, cooperative economics, purpose, creativity and faith.
While the celebration is not partisan, it is by no means apolitical. Karenga said he created Kwanzaa to affirm the importance of what he calls the traditional "communitarian" values of Africa.
"Everybody deserves a life of dignity and decency," he said.
Karenga, born Ronald Everett in Wicomico County, said the "pan-African" holiday he launched 46 years ago is now celebrated all over the world.
"I'm very glad and pleased with how it has grown, how African people have embraced it," he said.