I live in an area where the population is 50% African American. So I assumed there would be Kwanzaa celebrations here. To find out more about it I spoke with Randy Stelly, a Creole businessman and publisher of a newspaper called The Real Views, that I have been associated with for several years. I asked Randy if he celebrated Kwanza and if so, how he was doing it so I could pass that along to readers. I assumed good things about it so I wasn’t prepared for Randy's reply.
His eyes narrowed and brows furrowed, Randy looked earnestly at me and said, “First of all, remember that black folks are no more homogeneous than white folks so don’t assume we all celebrate Kwanzaa. It isn’t part of my tradition. And I think if people really knew what was behind it and how it began, it wouldn't be celebrated by anybody except those who just want to be stupid. I can tell you a lot about it because it’s important. That’s because I think folks shouldn’t side with something that was built on a history of intimidation and violence.”
I was curious since intimidation and violence aren’t words associated with Kwanzaa images. I wondered, as many people might, how could Kwanzaa could be anything but good. So my eyes were opened as I listened to Randy talk about his California experience, in the black power movement of the 1960’s. Randy knew some of the Black Panther members, since he was always interested in politics and the news. He was never a member of any black extremist group but had the journalist’s inquiring mind. That led him to getting involved with a number of people back then who figured prominently in the development of the “black identity.”
Eldridge Cleaver, Kathleen Cleaver, Angela Davis, Bobby Seale, and Mohammad X were familiar names to me since I was a young adult at the time. These folks were described by the media in the 60's as the more outwardly demonstrative, somewhat aggressive, always assertive, members of “the movement.” There were other names, however, that I hadn't known, names like Ron Karenga and Geronimo Pratt. And that's where Randy's story started--leading me to find out about these characters, to learn more about Kwanzaa’s founder and whether his life reflected the teachings of the holiday he initiated.
Mr. Karenga, the founder of Kwanzaa, has quite a past. Randy told me that Karenga had been the head of the opposition party on the campus of UCLA, struggling against the Black Panthers for control of the black movement in the area. He went on to tell me that a group called Cointelpro, connected with the FBI and the government, got involved with that opposition group which called itself US, a euphemism for United Slaves. Research supports that Randy’s narrative to be right..
Karenga, born July 14, 1941 according a resource
on the Internet, has been also referred to by the title “Maulana” which means “master teacher” in Arabic and Swahili. Kwanzaa was founded by Karenga with the first observed celebration in California from December 26 until January 1, 1967. Four years later Karenga was convicted of felony assault for having kidnapped and tortured two of US female members.
Randy recalled that at the time Karenga was rumored to have a particular dislike of black women. A Los Angles Time article
on his trial dated May 14, 1971 summarized the testimony of one of the women: “Deborah Jones, who once was given the Swahili title of an African queen, said she and Gail Davis were whipped with an electrical cord and beaten with a karate baton after being ordered to remove their clothes. She testified that a hot soldering iron was placed in Ms. Davis's mouth and placed against Ms. Davis's face and that one of her own big toes was tightened in a vise. Karenga, head of US, also put detergent and running hoses in their mouths, she said.” They also were hit on the heads with toasters.
During Karenga's trial there were questions about his sanity. He was described by a psychiatrist as someone who “represents a picture that can be considered both paranoid and schizophrenic with hallucinations and illusions, inappropriate affect, disorganization and impaired contact with the environment.” Yet in spite of his criminal acts, for which he was prosecuted, found guilty and imprisoned until 1975, and his questionable sanity, Karenga has become the symbol of the importance of family, community and culture in the holiday known as Kwanzaa.
The idea that Ron Karenga is associated with a recognized holiday is ironic to Randy Stelly because he sees it as a made-up holiday by Karenga to establish black identity through ties to Africa. In fact Karenga, in his treatise The Quotable Karenga, has detailed the sevenfold path of blackness to think black, talk black, act black, creat black, buy black vote black and live black.”
After leaving prison Karenga went on to obtain two doctoral degrees, became head of the Black Studies Department at California State University, where he toned down his speech but continued to espouse black alternatives to mainstream experiences. The Kwanzaa Information Center states, 'red, or the blood, stands as the top of all things. We lost our land through blood; and we cannot gain it except through blood. We must redeem our lives through the blood. Without the shedding of blood there can be no redemption of this race.' The Information Center also observes that the flag is a symbol of devotion for African American people to create an independent African nation on the North American continent.
Randy notes that we have all seen the result of separatism and extremism in the world and throughout our own United States history. Such movements, bred in violence, continually breed violence, even within its own members, as occurred during the time of the rise of the Black Panthers and US, when people were condemned, tortured and killed. Such views have no place in the world of God and should be discarded.
That’s one man’s opinion but one that clarified enough for me not to be politically correct about Kwanzaa.
References: Scholer, J. Lawrence, “The Story of Kwaanza,” The Dartmouth Review, Monday, January 15, 2001. Mulshine, Paul “Happy Kwanzaa,” , FrontPageMagazine.com, December 26, 2002. Snow, Tony, “The Truth About Kwanzaa,”Jewish World Review, December 31, 1999.