Updated: Mar 29
Kwanzaa- a holiday that I only know because it is on my calendar, but it must be important because it is on my calendar. The holiday was started in 1966 by Dr. Maulana Karenga (born Ronald McKinley Everett), professor and chairman of Black studies at California State University, until 2002, because he believed that Africans that did not live in Africa were detached from the values and culture of Africa. This need to reaffirm the African culture came after a deadly riot in 1965 in the Watts neighborhood of Los Angeles that left 34 people dead, 1,032 injured, and about $40 million worth of property damage.
Now, this is a sad story- On Wednesday 11 August 1965, Marquette Frye, a 21-year-old young black man, was arrested for driving drunk with his stepbrother, Ronald, in the car. While Frye was fighting with the officers, Ronald ran to get their mother. The mother arrived on the scene, witnessed the fighting, jumped in, and started a fight with the officers, and ended up tearing an officer's shirt. The officer then struck Frye in the head with his nightstick, and all three were arrested. While all this was going on, hundreds of people had gathered to watch the whole transaction, and rumors when quickly through the neighborhood that white cops were beating black men and women.
This is when things get out of hand. Residents of the neighborhood started stoning cars and beating any white person that came into the community. Even though a neighborhood meeting was called on Thursday by the Los Angles County Human Relations Commission, this failed to quash the rising anger. That night, the riots started again in full force- Firemen were shot at if they tried to put out the burning building, looting of neighborhood stores, officers were unable to protect homes or businesses. By Friday, the riots had risen to such a level that almost 14,000 National Guard troops were called in to patrol a 46 miles area.
The violence gets to such a level that Martin Luther King fly's to the area on 17 August to help calm the situation. However, the next night police stormed a Nation of Islam mosque, firing hundreds of ammunition rounds into the building and wounding 19 men. During his discussions with local people, King met black residents who argued for armed insurrection and others who claimed that "the only way we can ever get anybody to listen to us is to start a riot" (King, 19 August 1965). These expressions concerned King, and before he left Los Angeles, he spoke on the phone with President Lyndon B. Johnson about what could be done to ease the situation. King recommended that Johnson roll out a federal anti-poverty program in Los Angeles immediately. Johnson agreed with the suggestion, telling King: "You did a good job going out there" (Branch, 308). While maintaining his peaceful protesting stance, King was quick to point out that the problems that led to the violence were "environmental and not racial. The economic deprivation, social isolation, inadequate housing, and general despair of thousands of Negroes teeming in Northern and Western ghettos are the ready seeds which give birth to tragic expressions of violence" (King, 17 August 1965).
On 7 September 1965, Karenga created the organization 'Us' (us African people) and structured it as a cultural and social change organization. According to the Us website- "In that framework and spirit, we co-founded the Brotherhood Crusade, the Black Congress, Mafundi Institute, the Community Alert Patrol, and the Operational Unity Committee. Us also co-planned Kedren Community Mental Health Center and the Watts Health Foundation and co-planned and named it the Ujima Housing Project. Us worked with schools and parent groups to establish and maintain quality education. Us worked with the Los Angeles Human Relations Commission in the '60s to disband gangs and improve and maintain good relations between the Black and Brown communities. Us also built a youth movement, the Simba Wachanga (The Young Lions), which have become a model and inspiration for numerous rites of passage programs and youth formations nationally and internationally." Us engaged in programs of political and cultural education, organizing, institution-building, and social service. Using his expansive knowledge of African culture and languages, Karenga, in 1965, also developed the Nguzo Saba (The Seven Principles) as a key-value system for Black life and struggle.
Kwanzaa comes from the Swahili phrase "matunda ya kwanza" or first fruits, referring to the agricultural harvest festivals found throughout Africa. The day is not a religious holiday, but rather a cultural holiday celebrated from 26 December to 1 January.
The period, seven days, is fundamental to the celebration because, during this time, you are thinking about the seven principles - unity (Umoja), self-determination (kujichagulia), collective work and responsibility (ujima), cooperative economics (ujamaa), purpose (nia), creativity (kuumba), and faith (Imani). Each of the seven candles signifies the principles. Like the Jewish Hanukkah, candles are used to represent concepts of the holiday. When observing Kwanzaa, the black candle symbolizes the people themselves. The three red candles are for the struggle or bloodshed in the past. The three green candles represent the Earth or the abundance of possibilities the future holds.
According to the National Museum of African American History and Culture oral history specialist Kelly Navies, children sometimes receive educational or homemade gifts related to their African heritage. The idea of Kwanzaa, a holiday that celebrates culture and way of life, seems like a breath of fresh air to me. So it is not a religious holiday. It is not federally acknowledged. It is traditionally only celebrated by a particular race (so is the Jewish Hanukkah), and most Americans have no idea what it is about! This year, we have all learned that it is okay to learn about other cultures and be excited about them. I was watching a live stream of Kwanzaa drummers, and I had to get up and move- because it was exciting, loud, fun, and for one moment, I felt invited into something that I am generally not allowed to visit. So I am sharing the video...
As we have learned through journey's into the past- there is always a reason 'why' something happened and 'who' the key players are. I usually don't shy from the gray and murky, and in the case of this particular story, I have been struggling with sharing the darker side. However, since we can not hide from the truth- 3 days later, I have decided to explain why this holiday is not completely accepted.
The Official Kwanzaa Web Site says that Kwanzaa's origins lie in "the first harvest celebrations of Africa." Which are allegedly "are recorded in African history as far back as ancient Egypt and Nubia," but it does not explain why any ancient Egyptians or Nubians might have held harvest festivals just after the winter solstice. Neither does it mention what crops they harvested. And though Kwanzaa celebrants are instructed to use maize in their holiday rituals, maize is a New World plant that was nonexistent in ancient Africa.
In the late 1960s, Karenga and Us was investigated by the FBI's COINTELPRO operation, an operation established to counteract subversive groups' influence. Us was placed on a watch list of dangerous, revolutionary organizations. Many believe that Dr. Karenga established the organization, not as a feel-good organization for African Americans that would promote equality and mobility, but as in "us" -- blacks -- against "them" -- whites. It is/was considered a black power militant group, which frequently ended in violence with police and even other black power groups. Members of the Us group even killed two Black Panthers in 1969 when the two groups clashed over who would control the Afro-American Studies Center at UCLA.
In 1971, Dr. Karenga was convicted for brutally torturing two females in his organization. According to a news article- "Karenga tortured Jones and Davis with the help of other members of his cult because Karenga believed that the torture victims were using magic crystals to assassinate him on behalf of his enemies...The victims said they were living at Karenga's home when Karenga accused them of trying to kill him by placing 'crystals' in his food and water and various areas of his house."
Dr. Karenga has denied involvement in the crimes and stated that the prosecution was political. He was sentenced to the California Men's Colony and served four years. He was released on parole after petitioning several black state officials' support on fair sentencing grounds, and it was granted in 1975. During his imprisonment, the Us organization disbanded (later re-established). Since his release to talk about the crimes that he was convicted with, always denying the charges and instead describes himself as a former political prisoner.
These are my thoughts; I have never talked to Dr. Karenga...I don't know his side of the story. This is what I do know- take the full story of what happened in LA, listen to MLKs speech because he is truly an amazing speaker who had a great message, enjoy the idea that cultures can celebrate their past and present, and knowledge who people were and who they are now.
Branch, At Canaan’s Edge, 2006.