One-on-One with Dr. Maulana Karenga, the Man and Mind Behind Kwanzaa

For almost 64 years, Dr. Maulana Karenga has played a significant role in shaping Black history and culture in America and beyond. During the turbulent “Black Power” era of the 1960s, the fiery advocate aggressively fought to push platforms focused on achieving social and political advancements, human rights, and self-determination amid a cultural revolution for Black people and the African Diaspora.

One of Karenga’s signature contributions to the African diaspora has been the creation of Kwanzaa in 1966. The annual Pan-African holiday, based on the ancient harvest celebrations of Africa, or “first-fruits celebration,” has been held annually from Dec. 26 – Jan. 1 since its inception. Kwanzaa is now celebrated on every continent by more than 30 million people in the world’s African communities.

“I created Kwanzaa in the midst of the Black liberation movement of the ‘60s and on the heal of the Watts Revolt in Los Angeles,” Karenga told this writer in an exclusive interview years ago in Los Angeles. “The holiday was designed to speak to our constant quest to be rooted in our own culture. It allows us to speak our own special cultural truth in a multicultural world, practice values, and share a vision that reaffirms and embraces the best of family, community, and culture.”

Karenga continued. “Kwanzaa was created to reaffirm our roots in African culture since we are an African people,” he said. “Therefore, Africa’s culture becomes our unique way of being human in the world. It becomes important for us to understand that our culture is the source of our identity, our purpose, and our direction.”

Kwanzaa is based on the seven principles of African culture called the Nguzo Saba in Swahili. The seven principles are Umoja (Unity), Kujichagulia (Self-determination), Ujima (Collective Work and Responsibility), Ujamaa (Cooperative Economics, Nia (Purpose), Kuumba (Creativity) and Imani (Faith).

“We see these seven principles as the moral minimum set of values that Black people need in order to rescue and reconstruct our history and humanity and to build the kind of world that we want to live in,” Karenga said. “The seven values are the hub and hinge on which the holiday turns. These principles were important during the struggles of the 1960s – and are important now.”

When asked about people of other ethnic groups celebrating Kwanzaa, Karenga said: “Kwanzaa is for African people. So the primary participants of Kwanzaa and those who officiate it must be African, otherwise it’s no longer an African holiday. But in a multicultural society, it’s natural for other people to want to embrace and recognize practices and principles that are beautiful and positive. And because Kwanzaa speaks to the best of what it means to be African and human at the same time, other people see the celebration as grounds for inclusion.”

In 1997, the U.S. Postal Service honored Kwanzaa by issuing the first-ever Kwanzaa Stamp, designed by noted artist Synthia Saint James. The stamp was unveiled at a grand gala outdoor event at the Natural History Museum of Los Angeles, with more than 700 people in attendance. The Postal Service issued a second Kwanzaa Stamp in 2004.

“The postal service saw that Black people take this holiday very seriously and have built it and embraced it as their special cultural truth to the world,” said Karenga, who was asked by the Postal Service to serve as the official consultant for the stamp’s authenticity to Kwanzaa.

As an iconic leader of speaking cultural truths, Karenga is one of a handful of Black Power and Black Nationalist leaders from the 1960s who are still around and active.

A native of Maryland, Karenga moved to the City of Angels in the late 1950s. Following the Watts Revolt in 1965, Karenga founded the Organization Us, a social and cultural change organization. He still chairs the storied organization.

Academically, Karenga holds BA and MA degrees in Political Science from UCLA, along with two earned doctoral degrees from the United States International University (Political Science with emphasis on theory and practice of nationalism) and the University of California (Social Ethics with emphasis on classical African ethics of ancient Egypt).

Karenga is currently a professor and chair of Africana Studies at California State University-Long Beach. He is the author of 17 books, including “Kwanzaa: A Celebration of Family, Community and Culture,” which is considered the most authoritative publication ever written on Kwanzaa.

According to Karenga, his last name is Swahili meaning “keeper of tradition,” while his first name, Maulana, is Swahili-Arabic for “master teacher.”

While Karenga has amassed an impressive resume as the creator of Kwanzaa and is one of the world’s leading Black Power/Black Nationalist minds and advocates from the ‘60s, his achievements have not gone without detractors.

In the early 1970s, Karenga was sentenced to prison on charges of felony assault and false imprisonment. Karenga has consistently denied any wrongdoing in the case, believing the charges were motivated to defame him and his impactful work in the Black Power and Black Nationalist Movements.

Nevertheless, allegations of Karenga’s legal entanglements in the ‘60s have not tarnished his track record of empowering Black people across broad spectrums. Globally, millions of Black people continue to uplift and celebrate Kwanzaa, while honoring Karenga’s empowering body of work to advance the African Diaspora for more than 60 years.

“There have always been attempts by some groups of the establishment to tarnish, destroy, and erase anything or anybody who uplifts Black people and our accomplishments,” said E. Muhammed Shaw, a lifelong Black resident of Southern California. “Even if the 50-plus- year-old charges are true about Dr. Karenga, he served his time and has been a giant in empowering people of African descent for decades. We, as Black people, can’t let anyone take the celebration of Kwanzaa, and its multiple meanings, away from us and the entire African Diaspora.”

For Dr. Maulana Karenga, the beat of Kwanzaa goes on. Karenga said celebrating Kwanzaa must be a time when differences are put aside to affirm the common thread that connects all African people. “Again, this year, we wish for Africans everywhere throughout the world African community, ‘Happy Kwanzaa,” Karenga said. “And we bring and send greetings of celebration, solidarity, and shared good in the world. In the still-high tradition of our ancestors, we wish for African people and all the people of the world all the good that heaven grants, the earth produces, and the waters bring forth from their depths.”

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