The Black Nationalist community is divided about the relevance of both Kwanzaa and Dr. Maulana Karenga, the man that created it. This of course stems from the reality that Black people have varied political views and values, the misinformation surrounding Dr. Karenga, and legitimate critique of the man and his organization called “US” (versus “them”).
Nevertheless, I maintain that both Kwanzaa and its creator are important and relevant to Black people and to the Black Liberation Movement. This essay aims to demonstrate this premise.
Kwanzaa was born in the year 1966, during the infancy of the Black Power Movement. Among other things, this movement – largely influenced by the ideas of Malcolm X – sought to:
1. Rescue and reaffirm a positive and empowering Black identity within a historical context in which we were taught “we are nothing, have nothing, have done and can do nothing of significance.”
2. Cultivate and privilege Black agency, liberation perspective, and expression.
3. Challenge internal and external forms of oppression targeted toward Black folk (I.e. white supremacy, Black ignorance, and Black accommodation to oppression) and to solve our problems in a proactive manner.
4. Unify and politicize Black people throughout the world.
5. Encourage the study and analysis of Black history and experience by Black people.
6. Develop independent Black institutions to serve Black people.
7. Explore, discuss and implement strategies for cultural and political revolution.
However, some forces in America stubbornly held on to oppressive and anti-Black views and practices. Therefore advocates of Black Power did not operate without white resistance. In fact, our people faced organized police resistance/brutality, propaganda campaigns designed to confuse and misinterpret their aims and objectives, and Cointelpro, a domestic counterintelligence program spearheaded by J. Edgar Hoover and the FBI. This point is important because it explains both how this movement was sabotaged and the development of debilitating rivalries among Black power organizations.
Agents coordinated with local police departments around the country to spy on, misdirect, unfairly arrest and imprison, intimidate, harrass and in some cases, outright MURDER Black Power activists and intellectuals.
Some of our courageous and committed elders in the Black Panther Party, Republic of New Afrika, Organization of African American Unity, US, Black Liberation Army, Revolutionary Action Movement and other organizations suffered persecution, mental disorder, imprisonment and death due to Cointelpro and its illegal/unethical practices.
Within these contexts, Kwanzaa was born via the US organization which embraced a cultural nationalist branch of Black Nationlist ideology. They believed for example that Black people were primarily oppressed through culture and that a revitalized culture was our most revolutionary tool. Put simply, Black people must reject the oppressive views, values and priorities of white supremacists.
Accordingly, cultural nationalists sought to “Rescue and reclaim” African or African -centered views, values, and priorities.
With this in mind, the US organization created “Kawaida Theory” which attempted to accomplish these very aims. It intended to be a blueprint of sorts to rewire our minds and transform our self-defeating thinking and practices.
Kwanzaa then, became an important vehicle to facilitate this “Cultural revolution” that brother Malcolm identified. By learning and embodying the Nguzo Saba (7 principles) for example, we turn away from tribalism, materialism, self absorption, and apathy. Ideally, we stop becoming parties to our own victimization and instead agents of our own liberation.
Yet some in our community hold Kwanzaa in low regard and look upon it with suspicion. How in good conscience can any Black person be cynical or skeptical about embodying principles like Unity, Self-Determination, Collective work and responsibility, Cooperative Economics, Creativity, Purpose or Faith? How does practicing these ideas worsen our circumstances or condition?
To the contrary, it would appear that incorporating such ideas and practices is an adequate remedy for many of the problems (poverty, in-fighting, broken families, hopelessness, political impotence…) still confronting us right NOW!
And yet, some of us still nitpick the holiday without taking the time to fully understand it. Common critiques of Kwanzaa include: It’s not really based on traditional African principles, the candlelighting ceremony is a form of witchcraft, it’s just an attempt to sabotage or compete with Christmas, it offends my religious principles, it’s an outdated relic of the 60s and 70s, it promotes hatred of white people….
Another reason that some of our people disavow the holiday comes down to their negative opinions of its Creator Dr. Maulana Karenga. Based usually on hearsay and no independent research, such people depict Karenga as a charlatan, misogynist, and even FBI agent!
Certainly Karenga made errors in judgement like anyone. He, like other Black Nationalist leaders of the Black Power Movement began purging members – a practice which stemmed from the political paranoia induced by Countelpro. But there is no evidence to suggest he ever was or is a FBI agent or that his efforts on behalf of educating or liberating Black people are insincere or disingenuous. For balanced and well-researched perspectives on both Karenga and the US organization, I’d suggest you read my good friend Scot Brown’s book, Fighting for US.
Reviewing cynical thoughts about Kwanzaa led me to post the following thoughts on Facebook:
“Attacks against or suspicions of Karenga don’t invalidate his contributions to history, culture and Black liberation any more than Edison’s vicious mistreatment of Nicoli Tesla or his association with bloodsucking capitalist J.P. Morgan invalidate his hundreds of inventions and contributions to science or communications. Dr. King’s adulterous ways don’t invalidate his contributions to the struggle for civil and human rights. Malcolm’s criminal past or formerly patriarchal views of women don’t invalidate his contributions to Black Studies, Pan African liberation or the Black Power Movement. We can’t be selectively understanding and accepting in this regard. People are imperfect, conflicted and muti-dimensional. But we should give credit when due and stop acting like issues on one account negate achievements or contributions on others.” We should also not participate in gossip or spreading rumors, but rely on solid research when drawing conclusions about people and events.”
We also cannot forget that Dr. Karenga was an important advocate for Black Studies, along with being a scholar of the discipline and a prolific writer and defender of Black issues and interests. His text Introduction to Black Studies, is one of the most widely used textbooks of Black Studies in the country.
Despite all the controversy however, millions of people, celebrate this African American and pan African holiday around the world; many Black people have named their children after Kwanzaa principles (most popularly, Nia, Kuumba, and Imani); There are countless Kwanzaa celebrations held on college campuses, museums, community centers, places of worship and households every year between December 26th and January 1st every year.
This celebration and its principles continue to educate, inspire, and influence our people and many others by having us embody and practice culturally affirming and nation-building thoughts and habits. It is responsible for us to credit and be grateful to Dr. Karenga for his vision and contribution, while also understanding that Kwanzaa transcends one person…Habari Gani?
Agyei Tyehimba is an educator, activist and author from Harlem, N.Y. Agyei is a former NYC public schoolteacher, co-founder of KAPPA Middle School 215 in the Bronx, NY, and co-author of the Essence Bestselling book, Game Over: The Rise and Transformation of a Harlem Hustler, published in 2007 by Simon & Schuster. In 2013, he wrote The Blueprint: A BSU Handbook, teaching Black student activists how to organize and lead. In April of 2014, he released Truth for our Youth: A Self-Empowerment Book for Teens. Agyei has appeared on C-Span, NY1 News, and most recently on the A&E documentary, “The Mayor of Harlem: Alberto ‘Alpo’ Martinez.” Currently, Agyei is a member of the Black Power Cypher, five Black Nationalist men with organizing backgrounds, who host a monthly internet show addressing issues and proposing solutions. He runs his own business publishing books, public speaking, and teaching Black people how to organize and fight for empowerment.
Agyei earned his Bachelor’s Degree in sociology from Syracuse University, his Master’s Degree in Africana Studies from Cornell University, and his Master’s Degree in Afro-American Studies from the University of Massachusetts at Amherst.
If you are interested in bringing Agyei to speak or provide consultation for your organization, please contact him at email@example.com.