Monday, December 29, 2008

Interview: Dr. Maulana Karenga - Founder of Kwanzaa

Dr. Maulana KarengaDaood interviews Dr. Maulana Karenga, the founder of Kwanzaa. Learn more about Dr. Karenga (who was named in 2002 as one of the 100 Greatest African Americans by scholar Molefi Kete Asante) and about the tradition he helped establish...

Take us back to September 7, 1965 to the political climate that brought forth the Us organization?

Us emerged in the wake of two critical and shaping events: the assassination and martyrdom of Malcolm X and the Watts Revolt. Malcolm was for me, and later for Us, and the Black Power Movement that was to emerge as a model, an incisive instructor and inspiration for learning, organization and struggle. I had met Malcolm in the summer of '62 while I was at UCLA; had helped organize to bring him to campus, and talked to him at various times when he came to town. In fact, the first time I met him, he gave me a ride home and we talked about a wide range of intellectual and social issues. His work and philosophy had a profound effect on Us, the Movement and me. Indeed, we of Us saw ourselves as sons and daughters of Malcolm in the most revolutionary sense, as heirs of his legacy dedicated to continuing his struggle. Especially influential on Us and me were his ideas of self-determination, self-defense, cultural revolution, pan-Africanism, Third World solidarity and historical consciousness.

The second event which had profound effect on the development of the organization, Us, and on me was the Watts Revolt in August 1965. It was for me, my colleagues and the Movement a historic turning point, marking the end of the Civil Rights phase of the Black Freedom Movement and the rise of another phase which we would call the following year, Black Power. I was in the process of developing my philosophy Kawaida then, left my doctoral studies at UCLA on September 7, 1965, founded our organization, Us, along with several colleagues. Building on the teachings of Malcolm, I defined Black Power and the Revolt, its most vivid expression, as the collective action of a people to achieve, reaffirm and sustain three things: self-determination, self-respect and self-defense.

The Black Power Movement carried within it several tendencies all claiming a revolutionary status including Us. We argued over emphasis on the political, the religious, the economic and the cultural. We chose culture as our main emphasis, stressing cultural revolution, and the radical reorientation toward Africanness, what Sekou Toure called "full re-Africanization". I defined culture as a total system of thought and practice by which a people creates itself, celebrates, sustains and develops itself and introduces itself to history and humanity. This, we maintained, had to be on at least seven levels: religion (spirituality and ethics), social organization, economic organization, political organization, creative production (art, music, literature), and ethos (collective psychology).

So, we were as involved as anyone else in political struggle, and armed, highly trained and disciplined in a paramilitary formation second to none, the Simba Wachanga, the Young Lions. But we stressed the need of culture as grounding that made everything else possible. We argued together with Malcolm, Toure and Cabral, and even Mao, that the cultural revolution precedes and makes possible both the struggle and the people's commitment to it. Indeed, we said until we break the monopoly the oppressor has on so many of our minds, liberation is not impossible, it's unthinkable. But we also argued that in the process of struggle, culture is deepened and developed and remains a living and reinforcing component of the struggle. Thus, culture and struggle are mutually interactive and mutually reinforcing, but culture is key to conceiving and structuring the struggle. Indeed, Cabral said the struggle for liberation is an act of culture.

So, I created Kwanzaa and the Nguzo Saba out of Kawaida philosophy. And Kwanzaa was developed as an institution to teach and reaffirm the importance of cultural grounding. Indeed, I created Kwanzaa for three reasons: first, it was to reaffirm our rootedness in African culture and facilitate our return to our history for we had been lifted out of our own history and made a footnote and forgotten casualty in European history. Second, it was to establish a special time when we and other African people all over the world could come together to reinforce the bonds between us and meditate on the awesome responsibility of being African in the world. And now over 40 million African people all over the world, on every continent in the world, celebrate Kwanzaa and meditate on being African in the world. Thirdly, I created Kwanzaa to introduce and reaffirm the importance of communitarian African values, values that stress and strengthen family, community and culture. And, of course, the key communitarian values of Kwanzaa, the hub and hinge on which the holiday turns are the Nguzo Saba, The Seven Principles: Umoja (Unity), Kujichagulia (Self-Determination), Ujima (Collective Work and Responsibility), Ujamaa (Cooperative Economics), Nia (Purpose), Kuumba (Creativity), and Imani (Faith).

Briefly share with us your life in Parsonsburg, Maryland and the migration to Los Angeles, California?

I was born in Parsonsburg, Maryland, on a farm that grew products to truck to various local and regional markets. I grew up helping to plant, cultivate and harvest these crops. I went to school in Salisbury, the county seat and largest city on the Eastern Shore of Maryland. It was an all-Black school and I had wonderful teachers who taught the beauty and expansive meaning of Black history and culture, and instilled in us a love of learning and a sense of responsibility to represent the race, as we said then, in the most dignified and positive ways. Some of them were still alive and came to see me not too long ago, when the NAACP and City official gave me warm reception and awards for my achievements especially the creation of Kwanzaa. It was good to see them and I remembered those who were not there and could not come. I was honored and uplifted to have known them and admired them for the good they did and brought in such a racist, segregated and evil environment of that time.

Were your branches of cultural and socio-political consciousness rooted by your parents?

From my father I learned to value knowledge; to cultivate the mind; to master concepts, words and varied ways of expression; to seek the absent in knowledge; to question knowledge present and to be prepared, confident and assertive. From my mother I learned to feel deeply; to care; to sit for hours in silence in meditation and in support of the ill, aged and bereaved; to discipline myself for suffering and sacrifice; to love learning, flowers, gardens and growing things; and to achieve, do and share good. From both of them I learned to speak truth, do justice, care for the needy; to stand in awe and amazement of the beauty and good of creation; and to value the little and yet important things in life. And they taught me too - to avoid vices and acquire virtues; to appreciate silence and self-reflection, and walks in the woods and watching the birds, animals, insects, trees, plants, leaves and streams that filled the woods. They taught me a consciousness of race, a solidarity in sameness, i.e., shared history, culture and struggle; and commitment to race responsibility, pride and progress. Also, they taught me the dignity and value of work and the importance of commitment, excellence and perseverance. Moreover, they cherished justice and condemned injustice and they believed in the eventual triumph of good and right in the world, and the necessity for good people to stand up for what is right and good. And, of course, I was greatly influenced by their views.

Your national and Pan-Africanism outlook developed at what juncture in evolutionary journey?

The sources of my nationalism perhaps go back to my appreciation of the works of the writers and heroes and heroines of our history. It did not become influential and a conscious choice until later. But it was like Malcolm's introduction to Marcus Garvey by his father that did not become influential until later. I came into consciousness in the 60's [through] the activism in the Civil Rights Movement, the Peace Movement, the Anti-Capital Punishment Movement and of course, the Student Movement. At Los Angeles City College, I was involved in all these Movements and became active and interacting with and organizing international students. Indeed, they became a core constituency for me in my becoming the first Black student body President of LACC.

But also an important influence on my nationalist consciousness and that of all of us in the Movement was the teachings of the Honorable Elijah Muhammad and the Nation of Islam, put forth most brilliantly and incisively by Min. Malcolm X, Al Hajj Malik El-Shabazz. This essential and transformative message, as I understood and interpreted it, was: (1) to remind us of our divinity and dignity, our sacred and inherent worthiness as a people; thus, (2) to raise Blackness up to a sacred observance and awesome ethical responsibility; (3) to deconstruct and demystify the nature of our oppression and the identity of our oppressor; and (4) to charge us with the responsibility to wake up (come into consciousness—historical and spiritual); clean up (live moral lives worthy of our status as bearers of dignity), and stand up (act audaciously to free ourselves mentally and socially and build a community and nation in our own image and interest).

Also, by now I'm deeply involved in studying continental African history and culture and the works of African revolutionaries like Nkrumah, Nyerere, Toure, Fanon and of course, Marcus Garvey and DuBois, and Malcolm X. I would also read Senghor, Cesaire, Cabral, Padmore, Kenyatta and others. And it is out of these theories and philosophies and others that I crafted Kawaida, defining it as an ongoing synthesis of the best of African thought and practice in constant exchange with the world.

2007 was the 41st Kwanzaa celebration. Being the creator of this, now, international holiday, impart your perspective of its success?

Kwanzaa represents a profound reorientation of how we as African peoples understand and assert ourselves in the world. One of the most impressive aspects of Kwanzaa is its phenomenal growth among Africans throughout the world and the interest it has gained among others around the world because of this growth and its central message of creating and celebrating good in the world. It is now practiced by over 40 million people throughout the world African community on every continent in the world. And it is important to recognize why Kwanzaa is embraced and continues to grow among so many people. Kwanzaa is embraced and continues to grow worldwide among African people for several reasons.

First, Kwanzaa is embraced and grows among African people because it speaks to our need and appreciation for its cultural vision and life-affirming values, values which celebrate and reinforce family, community and culture, and it challenges us to constantly bring forth the best of what it means to be African and human in the fullest sense. Second, it represents an important way we as Africans speak our own special cultural truth in a multicultural world. Third, it reaffirms a rich and most ancient tradition which teaches that the fundamental meaning and mission of human life is to "constantly increase good in the world and not let any good be lost." Fourth, it reinforces our rootedness in our own culture in a rich and meaningful way. Finally, Kwanzaa is embraced and grows because it brings us together from all countries, all religious traditions, all classes, all ages and generations, and all political persuasions on the common ground of our Africanness in all its historical and current diversity and unity, providing us with a unique and ongoing opportunity to reflect on and celebrate the African initiative in the world.

And, of course, I feel blessed and honored to see my work flourish in my lifetime and I'm profoundly grateful to former and especially current members of Us who first practiced and promoted it and continue to do so; to the larger nationalist community who accepted and promoted it also; and to our people who made it a fundamental part of their lives, especially thru the practice of The Seven Principles, the Nguzo Saba, all year round, using them as value orientation, cultural and philosophical grounding and the basis for program development in the work they do in and for our national and international community.

As you and the organization embrace the New Year, what challenges and goals are in place for prosperity and grandeur?

As I said in my 2008 Annual Founder's Kwanzaa Message, our task in these and other difficult, troubled and trying times has been and must remain: to know our past and honor it, to engage our present and improve it, and to imagine our future and forge it in the most effective, expansive and ethically grounded ways for our ancestors, ourselves and those who come after us. And this means boldly facing the difficulties and dangers that confront us, seeking and speaking truth, doing and demanding justice, treating each other with ultimate respect and loving kindness, walking and working together righteously, resisting wrong, oppression and injustice everywhere, and struggling constantly to bring and sustain good in the world.

For more information about the organization, books that you've written as well as Kwanzaa, is there an office location, website and contact number?

I have written 16 books including: Introduction to Black Studies; Maat, The Moral Ideal in Ancient Egypt: A Study in Classical African Ethics; Kawaida and Questions of Life and Struggle, and Kwanzaa: A Celebration of Family, Community and Culture.

For a longer list of books and articles, visit my website,

Other addresses and phone numbers are on our websites: and

Heri za Kwanzaa!! Happy Kwanzaa!!!

-Daood, Contributing Blogger

1 comment:

Anonymous said...


I am new here..First post to just say hi to all community.