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.
While Kwanzaa is and must remain an Afro-centric celebration, Karenga says, that doesn't mean only blacks can — or should — celebrate it. Clearly, pride in one's heritage, a concern for the future and a commitment to the common good — all values stressed throughout the seven days of Kwanzaa — are important to all races and ethnicities.
"Certainly everybody can come," he says. "You don't lock the door. But there are rules. African people must always be the officiants at their own celebration.
"African people," he notes, "are always apprehensive that some group might feel that they're at the head of [the celebration], rather than being part of it. African people — adults and children, wherever they are — should be the main center of the holiday. Otherwise, it's not African — just like Jews must be at the center of Hanukkah, or it's not real and authentic."
Still, Karenga stresses, one thing Kwanzaa definitely is not is an alternative to Christmas or Hanukkah. True, all three are celebrated at roughly the same time. And there are clear similarities; all three, for instance, use candles to mark the passing of the days. For Hanukkah, it's the nine-candle menorah; for Christmas, the four-candle Advent wreath; for Kwanzaa, the seven-candle kinara.
But Kwanzaa, Karenga notes, is a cultural holiday, stressing the bonds of shared experience. Christmas and Hanukkah are religious holidays celebrating shared faith.
"There is no conflict between Christmas or Hanukkah or any of the religious holidays," he says. "They have a religious purpose, but Kwanzaa has cultural purposes: reaffirming our rootedness in African culture, reaffirming the bonds between us … and reaffirming the importance of communal values, those that stress and strengthen family, community and culture."
Karenga remains proud of his work, and confident that Kwanzaa has ensured the legacy he so craved. But perhaps what makes him the most proud, he says, is how the observance of Kwanzaa has for the most part remained true to his original vision. Black culture, history and achievement remain the focus, not the gaudy trappings that have come to dominate Christmas and so many holidays.
There is no huge commercial side to the celebration, he says, no massive Kwanzaa sales or shelves upon shelves of Kwanzaa tchotchkes. There's no Kwanzaa tree or Kwanzaa wreath or, Karenga notes with a chuckle, "Kwanzaa man."
The annual Kwanzaa celebration at the Reginald F. Lewis Museum of Maryland African American History & Culture, which in addition to the address from Maulana Karenga will include music, dance and storytelling, begins at noon Dec. 28. Admission is $5. The museum is located at 830 E. Pratt St. Information: 443-263-1829 or rflewismuseum.org.