Kwanzaa, like black America, was birthed in struggle and chaos, then bathed in blood. It was born in the freedom movement, against the backdrop of the Watts rebellion, the rise of the Black Panther Party, the FBI’s COINTELPRO and the assassination of Malcolm X (el-Hajj Malik el-Shabazz).
Maulana Karenga, professor and chair of Africana studies at California State University, is often credited as the sole creator of Kwanzaa, while the collective efforts of the Us Organization—a black liberation group founded in 1966 by Karenga and Malcolm X’s cousin Hakim Abdullah Jamal—are minimized to prop up Karenga as a revolutionary messiah of Pan-African culture.
Jamal ultimately ended his association with Karenga as a result of clashes over ideological and organizational differences, but Kwanzaa continued to grow in popularity despite a war, fueled by COINTELPRO, between Us and the Southern California chapter of the Black Panther Party for Self-Defense. Even without FBI interference, there was an intracommunity battle for the allegiance of young black radicals intensifying between Us and the BPP. It was the machinations of the FBI, though, that ultimately drove Us members to murder Alprentice “Bunchy” Carter, leader of the BPP’s Southern California chapter, and his comrade John Huggins on Jan. 17, 1969, on UCLA’s campus.
Despite this tramautic history—or, perhaps, because of it—it is important to position Kwanzaa as freedom work and not the whitewashed, often commercialized version we may see today during public school recitals. The seven principles—unity (Umoja), self-determination (Kujichagulia), collective work and responsibility (Ujima), cooperative economics (Ujamaa), purpose (Nia), creativity (Kuumba) and faith (Imani)—serve as a survival blueprint for black people in this nation and around the world. This is why Kwanzaa has grown so much larger than its regional origins. These seven days, for many black people, feed an ancestral need for connection to the African roots from which we were so brutally ripped.
So what happens when black men crying freedom don’t adhere to their own moral compass?
In 1971, five years after Kwanzaa’s founding, Karenga was convicted of felonious assault and false imprisonment for torturing two women at his Inglewood, Calif., home, crimes for which he served four to five years in prison.
The Los Angeles Times reported on May 13, 1971:
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.
Karenga has also been accused of rape by people within his community. Today, though, he seems to be too beloved or, perhaps, inconsequential for any criticism of him to matter. In 2006, Rosemary Lytle, president of the Colorado Springs NAACP branch and communications director of the ACLU Colorado, told The Gazette that she was not even aware of Karenga’s past and that it didn’t change her thoughts on Kwanzaa.
“It doesn’t diminish, for me, Kwanzaa, because Kwanzaa is not based on any kind of charismatic personality or a personality of any sort, but more on community,” Lytle said.
This may be true, since the creation of Kwanzaa was a collective endeavor, but the question remains: With what “community” in mind?
Karenga’s history of violence against black women—more specifically, the widespread willful ignorance of it—is both disturbing and instructive, particularly in the #MeToo era.
When organizer and activist Tarana Burke created “Me Too” over a decade ago, she did so to create a safe space for black women and girls who had been victimized in their homes, in their schools and in their churches. She did it for the black women and girls who suffer in silence. She did it for black women and girls who are deemed collateral damage in the service of the so-called greater good—in this context, protecting black men from the blunt force of the state by not reporting them for rape and/or abuse.
What we see in the protection of Karenga is black women’s pain, black women’s bodies and black women’s stories—black women—being thrown into the trash bin of history. Even now, though there are numerous articles discussing the charges against Karenga, some links are broken or no longer available. I’m sure that in a few years, there will be fewer articles still, until all talk of Karenga’s crimes will be reduced to white supremacist myth.
When framing Pan-Africanism as a racist fail, white supremacists often use Karenga’s violent past to undermine Kwanzaa’s credibility—and that troubles some who observe Kwanzaa. Distancing themselves from Karenga means that the racists win—so how to reconcile Karenga’s violence against black women with the Pan-African week of observation that he created?
More generally, how do we grapple with the reality that the freedom dreams of some black men do not include free black women?
How do we insist on modeling forward-facing movements that do not deify and protect those who would harm black women, but instead cast them out?
How do we do all of this while calling out the hypocrisy of a nation that either vilifies or whitewashes Kwanzaa because of the actions of its main architect, but will honor, with complete sincerity, the genocidal colonizers of the land on which we stand?
Writing for the Los Angeles Sentinel last week, Karenga shared that this year’s Kwanzaa theme is “Practicing the Principles of Kwanzaa: Repairing, Renewing and Remaking.”
As old heteropatriarchal templates for movement building are being thrust aside for a movement that demands accountability for crimes against black women and the LGBTQ+ community—as well as clear, unapologetic investment in the material conditions of our lives and trust in our leadership—this is perfect timing for such a theme.
John Henrik Clarke made it clear that Karenga went to prison for “mutilating black women.” The Kwanzaa founder has “not atoned to the community for his attempt to destroy the Panther movement. He has not atoned for being a police informant. He has not atoned for the way he treated black women,” Clarke is also quoted as saying.
Not only has he not atoned, but Karenga cast himself as a political prisoner instead of owning his actions—including, but not limited to, his violence against black women.
Perhaps, in the spirit of Kwanzaa and this year’s theme, he should start practicing there.