Not many people realize that the founder of Kwanzaa, the black-nationalist Hannukah knock-off Christmastime seven-day celebration that begins today, is a living, breathing professor (indeed, Africana Studies department chair) at Long Beach State named Maulana Karenga. Fewer still know that his birth name was Ronald McKinley Everett, or that he served four years in federal prison for felony assault and false imprisonment of women who alleged he stripped them naked and beat them with a toaster.
Ron Karenga, as he has been known professionally as often as not, moved after high school from Maryland to Los Angeles in 1959, joined the burgeoning civil rights movement, got into African studies, became student body president of L.A. City College, got his bachelor’s and master’s from UCLA, took the Swahili name Karenga, and had moved on to his doctorate when the deadly Watts riots shook the city and nation in 1965. In the aftermath he founded the Malcolm X-inspired US Organization, a rival to the Black Panther party, and started publishing periodicals with names like Message to the Grassroot and Harambee.
It was during this tumult and ferment that Karenga hatched Kwanzaa. Named after the Swahili phrase matunda ya kwanza (“first fruits”), which itself referred to the common winter-solstice agriculture festivals in sub-Saharan Africa, Kwanzaa, whose extra “a” at the end was a exoticizing flourish that also produced a lucky seventh letter, was meant to "give blacks an alternative to the existing holiday of Christmas and give blacks an opportunity to celebrate themselves and their history, rather than simply imitate the practice of the dominant society." As Karenga told the Washington Post in 1978, “People think it’s African. But it’s not. I wanted to give black people a holiday of their own. So I came up with Kwanzaa. I said it was African because you know black people in this country wouldn’t celebrate it if they knew it was American. Also, I put it around Christmas because I knew that’s when a lot of bloods would be partying!”
The seven days, with requisite seven candles, are tethered to a Seven Principles (Nguzo Saba) of African Heritage: Unity, Self-Determination, Collective Work and Responsibility, Cooperative Economics, Purpose, Creativity, and Faith. Speaking of the latter, Karenga’s original idea was to challenge Christmas, which he alleged was the product of a “white religion.” Later it became more of an alternative or supplement, with Nancy Pelosi rocking the kente, and every president from Bill Clinton onward issuing respectful greetings to those Americans who celebrate.
Long before any of that, Karenga’s career arc careened like so many during the ‘60s, from idealism to armed self-defense to violent conflict to imprisonment and eventually academia. US Organization and the Black Panthers started shooting at each other by the late ‘60s, and people started getting killed. As happened all too often in those days of rage, the FBI and COINTELPRO had their fingerprints all over the schismatic contretemps, making the pursuit of comprehensive investigative truth a challenge to all but the most thorough and scrupulous observer. But certainly Karenga’s own estranged wife testified against him at trial that she had participated in sitting on the stomach of one of his victims—who a reportedly drug-addicted Karenga thought were trying to poison him—while another man shot hose-water into her mouth.
Karenga was sentenced to 10 years, characterized by a court-ordered psychology as “a danger to society who is in need of prolonged custodial treatment in prison,” and then paroled less than halfway through. His life ever since has been about academic pursuits, book-writing, and a less revolutionary flavor of activism. Kwanzaa grew for a while, crossed from Southern California into the rest of North America, plus Great Britain, France, and Brazil, though its reach has never been vast. The successful progenitor of this unusual winter holiday, in the meantime, has never much addressed his own role in the paranoid violence of late-’60s and early ‘70s pan-African activism, apart from describing himself as a former “political prisoner,” and that his criminal misdeeds “are absolutely not true and they know it.”
If you wish to offer a polite holiday greeting to celebrants, “Joyous Kwanzaa,” is recommended. Insiders may venture a Habari Gani?, Swahili for “How are you?” Those a bit more conversation-seeking may offer up a “Did you know that your man-made holiday (not that there’s anything wrong with that!) was made by a man convicted of torturing women?”