Earlier this season, countless schools and households celebrated Kwanzaa. They lit black, red and green candles (for black skin, red blood, and the green hills of Africa), and sang songs about the festival’s “seven principles,” such as faith, unity and creativity. Already big among blacks in the United States, Kwanzaa is catching on in Canada, too. Held each year from December 26 until January 2, Kwanzaa is increasingly seen as an appropriate multicultural alternative to Christmas, a holiday considered too religious and “Eurocentric” for public schools. But there is one not-so-insignificant problem with Kwanzaa. While many teachers believe it is an ancient African harvest festival, it was not born in pre-colonial West Africa, but in 1960s southern California. It is the brainchild of African-American radical activist, academic and convicted felon Ron Karenga.
In 1969, two rival radical groups were battling for control of the UCLA black studies program: the Black Panthers and the lesser-known US, or United Slaves, led by Mr. Karenga. Both groups sauntered around campus carrying loaded guns. Perhaps inevitably, violence erupted. As David Horowitz recalls in Radical Son, Black Panther John Higgins was “murdered — along with Al ‘Bunchy’ Carter — on the UCLA campus by members of Ron Karenga’s organization.” After the killing, the FBI infiltrated both groups, and the United Slaves turned to fighting “enemies within.” The result: two female members were tortured by their “comrades” in May, 1970. Both alledge Mr. Karenga ordered and participated in their assaults.
In 1999, writer Paul Mulshine published his research into Karenga’s violent past on FrontPageMagazine. Mr. Mulshine found a May 14, 1971, Los Angeles Times report of the victims’ testimony, which read: “The victims said they were living at Karenga’s home when Karenga accused them of trying to [poison] him… When they denied it, allegedly they were beaten with an electrical cord and a hot soldering iron was put in [one victim’s] mouth and against her face. Police were told that one of [the other victim’s] toes was placed in a small vise which was allegedly tightened by one of the defendants. The following day … Karenga, holding a gun, threatened to shoot both of them.”
Convicted of felonious assault and false imprisonment, Mr. Karenga was sentenced in 1971 to up to 10 years in prison. “A brief account of the sentencing ran in several newspapers the following day,” Mr. Mulshine writes. “That was apparently the last newspaper article to mention Karenga’s unfortunate habit of doing unspeakable things to black people. After that, the only coverage came from the hundreds of news accounts that depict him as the wonderful man who invented Kwanzaa.” Shortly after his release from prison in 1975, Mr. Karenga (now armed, not with a pistol, but a doctorate) took over the black studies department at California State University, Long Beach, which he runs to this day.
And what about Kwanzaa? The festival’s seven days commemorate allegedly “traditional African” principles, such as “collective work” and “cooperative economics,” each referred to by a Swahili name. “Why did Karenga use Swahili words for his fictional African feast?” asks Mr. Mulshine. “American Blacks are primarily descended from people who came from Ghana and other parts of West Africa. Kenya and Tanzania — where Swahili is spoken — are thousands of miles away. This makes about as much sense as having Irish-Americans celebrate St. Patrick’s Day by speaking Polish.” And why would Mr. Karenga schedule a harvest festival near the winter solstice, “a season when few fruits or vegetables are harvested anywhere?”
This month, the religious satire magazine The Door likewise questioned Kwanzaa’s authenticity. “Karenga cobbled together a mishmash of different traditions and languages and blended them with Marxist ideas to reflect a unified African culture that doesn’t exist anywhere,” it reported. Ujamaa, or “cooperative economics” — one of the seven principles of Kwanzaa — is the term the socialist leader of Tanzania, Julius Nyerere, used for his disastrous policy of putting tens of thousands of Tanzanians on collective farms.
“People think it’s African, but it’s not,” admitted Karenga in a 1978 Washington Post interview. “I put it around Christmas because I knew that’s when a lot of ‘bloods’ [Blacks] would be partying.”
Reprinted by permission of The Report Newsmagazine of Alberta, Canada.