Ron KarengaAug 18th, 2011 | By BHS | Category: Activism, Faith & Religion
1941 - Ron Karenga’s early work as an activist and Black Nationalist leader grew into a career as an academic specializing in African American studies. His interest in promoting black culture and identity led to his creation of Kwanzaa, a weeklong celebration of African culture and heritage.
Farm to City
Karenga was born Ronald McKinley Everett in 1941 in Parsonsburg, Maryland. One of 14 children of a Baptist minister, he grew up on the family’s poultry farm there. By the late 1950s, he had relocated to Los Angeles, California, without completing high school, but was able to attend Los Angeles City College, becoming its first black student body president. With the support of a federal program for high school dropouts, he was then able to enroll at the University of California, Los Angeles (UCLA), from which he would earn both bachelors and masters degrees.
Against the background of the early 1960s, a period of great racial ferment, Karenga met leading activist and Black Power advocate Malcolm X, and became interested in Black Nationalism. He joined the Black Power movement after the 1965 Watts riots in Los Angeles, and adopted the title maulana from the Swahili, a title of respect for revered community members. At that time, he founded the United Slaves (US) Organization, a Black Nationalist group. With the creation of a new Afro-American Studies Center at UCLA, the US Organization conflicted with the prominent Black Panthers group over the choice of a center director. The Black Student Union’s efforts to conciliate between the factions ended when two Black Panther members were shot in a violent encounter.
Out of this swirl of political and cultural activity, Karenga created the Kwanzaa holiday in 1966, with the US Organization as its official institutional sponsor. Taken from a Swahili phrase meaning “first fruits” (matunda ya kwanza), Kwanzaa’s goal, according to Karenga, was to “…give Blacks an opportunity to celebrate themselves and history, rather than simply imitate the practice of the dominant society.” First observed in California from December 26, 1966 through January 1, 1967, this “Celebration of Family, Community and Culture” was designed to foster a sense of connection to traditional African thought and values.
Kwanzaa is celebrated over a seven-day period, and is based on Nguzo Saba or “The Seven Principles of Kwanzaa.” Each day focuses on one principle. The seven principles are:
• Umoja (Unity): To strive for and maintain unity in the family, community, nation and race.
• Kujichagulia (Self-Determination): To define ourselves, name ourselves, create for ourselves and speak for ourselves.
• Ujima (Collective Work and Responsibility): To build and maintain our community together and make our brothers’ and sisters’ problems our problems, and to solve them together.
• Ujamaa (Cooperative Economics): To build and maintain our own stores, shops and other businesses, and to profit from them together.
• Nia (Purpose): To make our collective vocation the building and developing of our community in order to restore our people to their traditional greatness.
• Kuumba (Creativity): To do always as much as we can, in the way we can, in order to leave our community more beautiful and beneficial than we inherited it.
• Imani (Faith): To believe with all our heart in our people, our parents, our teachers, our leaders, and the righteousness and victory of our struggle.
Kwanzaa went on to become a widely celebrated holiday throughout the African American community, and around the world. However, Karenga’s turbulent young adulthood was marred by his conviction on felony assault and false imprisonment charges, and his imprisonment in 1971. During his four years of incarceration at California State Prison, he became interested in Marxist philosophy. When he emerged in 1975, he restructured the US Organization as the Organization Us, and began developing a secular humanist set of principles that he called Kawaida, meaning “tradition” in Swahili.
An Academic Leader
In addition to his continued work with Organization Us and the Kwanzaa holiday, Karenga then went on to become a highly respected scholar, author, and teacher. He completed the first of two doctoral degrees in 1976, awarded by United States International University in political science, with a dissertation entitled Afro-American Nationalism: Social Strategy and Struggle for Community. His second doctoral degree, in social ethics, was awarded in 1994 by the University of Southern California. The dissertation was entitled Maat, the Moral Ideal in Ancient Egypt: A Study in Classical African Ethics.
He has published extensively, and served in a variety of capacities as a distinguished scholar, including chairman of the African American delegation to the Second World Black and African Festival of Arts and Culture, Lagos, Nigeria, in 1977; member of the Planning Committee for the Pan-African Festival of Arts and Culture, Dakar, Senegal, in 1986; Inaugural Lecturer for the initiation of Black History Month, London, England, in 1987; and Official Guest and Lecturer, 160th Anniversary of Emancipation, Port-of-Spain, Trinidad and Tobago, in 1998.
He is currently Professor of Africana Studies at California State University, Long Beach, and also serves as chair of the Organization Us and the National Association of Kawaida Organizations, and as executive director of the Kawaida Institute of Pan-African Studies. Karenga is the recipient of numerous awards, including the National Leadership Award for Outstanding Scholarly Achievements in Black Studies from the National Council for Black Studies; the Richard Allen Living Legend Award from the African Methodist Episcopal Church; the Pioneer Award from the Rainbow PUSH Coalition and Citizenship Education Fund; the C.L.R. James Award for Outstanding Publication of Scholarly Works that Advance the Discipline of Africana and Black Studies, from the National Council for Black Studies; and the Distinguished Africanist Award, from the New York African Studies Association.
Millions of people around the world continue to celebrate Kwanzaa. There have been two commemorative stamps issued by the U.S. Postal Service, one in 1997 and the second in 2004.