The Story of Ron Karenga, Kwanzaa’s Founder
Towards the end of October, the Malcolm X Institute of Black Studies (MXIBS), in cooperation with the Center of Inquiry in the Liberal Arts and the Wabash Center for Teaching and Learning in Theology and Religion, hosted the first ever Consultation on the Interdisciplinary Teaching of the Black Experience. According to Dr. Tim Lake, director of the MXIBS, the idea for the project came out of meetings that Dean of the College Gary Phillips started last spring with all of the “Center heads”. Phillips began meeting with Dr. Nadine Pence of the Wabash Center, Dr. Charlie Blaich of the Center for Inquiry in the Liberal Arts, Dr. Lake of the MXIBS, and Assistant Dean of the College Julie Olsen. The purpose of these discussions, said Lake, was to determine ways in which “the work in other centers can influence each other.”
From those conversations, the idea of a collaborative conference which would bring together the fields of black studies and religious studies to discuss Africa’s role in the teaching of the American black experience was born. The model chosen was the consultation model utilized by the Wabash Center which emphasizes small group settings and an emphasis on teaching. The consultation was structured so as to have a range of scholars from senior members of their respective fields all the way down to younger scholars who were “just on the cusp of their discipline.”
Among those who were selected for having made seminal contributions to their field of study was Ron Karenga. He was invited to the consultation because of his creation of Kwanzaa in 1966, the Kawaida philosophy he developed, and his subsequent contributions in the field of black studies. Of all the scholars, however, Karenga was clearly given special status as there were only two public lectures during the week and he was featured at both of them. But unlike the other participants flown in for the weekend, Karenga came with more than just a career of scholarship. He also came with a shadowy past and a rap sheet.
Ron Karenga, also known as Maulana Karenga (“Maulana” is Swahili for master teacher), was born as Ron N. Everett on July 14, 1941 as the fourteenth child of a Baptist minister and poultry farmer.
He eventually moved to California in 1978 to attend the Los Angeles City College. He then earned his bachelors and masters in both political science and African Studies from the University of California at Los Angeles.
In 1966, Karenga started Kwanzaa. “I created Kwanzaa in the context of the Black Freedom Movement,” he explained 1998 issue of Ebony magazine. “[We] began observing it in Southern California in the mid-1960s,” he continued, “We wanted to speak our own cultural truth to the world. We argued that culture is a fundamental way of being human in the world.” Kwanzaa recognizes seven principles which are represented by seven Swahili words. According to Kwanzaa’s official web site, the seven principles are: Umoja (Unity), Kujichagulia (self-determination), Ujima (collective work and responsibility), Ujamaa (cooperative economics), Nia (purpose), Kuumba (Creativity), and Imani (faith).
From a simple celebration in Karenga’s living room, Kwanzaa’s popularity has grown. As Karenga boasted in Ebony, “I’ve gotten letters from people in India, Turkey, and in Africa. People find common ground because it’s authentic.” Critics, however, take issue with this claim of authenticity, pointing out that the holiday is manufactured and is not native to Africa. In fact, the word Kwanzaa, which means “first fruits” in Swahili is actually spelled with only one “a”. In a 1978 article in the Washington Post, journalist Hollie West wrote more on the formation of Kwanzaa:
“I created Kwanzaa,” laughed Ron Karenga like a teenager who’s just divulged a deeply held, precious secret. “People think it’s African. But it’s not. I wanted to give black people a holiday of their own. So I came up with Kwanzaa. I said it was African because you know black people in this country wouldn’t celebrate it if they knew it was American. Also, I put it around Christmas because I knew that’s when a lot of bloods (blacks) would be partying!”
It is not the creation of Kwanzaa, however, that is Karenga’s most controversial part of his history. In 1971, Karenga was convicted of kidnapping and torturing two women from his US Organization. He was sentenced to one to ten years in prison.
After obtaining the original Los Angeles Times articles from this time period, the case appears no less bizarre. During the trial, Deborah Jones described the “brutal physical abuse inflicted on her and another 20-year old woman (Gail Davis) by Ron Karenga and three of his followers because they were suspected of poisoning Karenga.” Jones testified in graphic detail how she and Davis “were whipped with an electrical cord and beaten with a karate baton after being ordered to remove their clothes.” She further testified that “a hot soldering iron was placed in Miss Davis’ mouth and placed against Miss Davis’ face and that one of her own large toes was tightened in a vice.” According to the article, “Karenga, head [and founder] of the US organization, and others also put detergent and running hoses in their mouths.” That last bit was added by Karenga “who was upset because she [Jones] would not cry.” The reason behind the abuse was apparently because Karenga feared that the two women had placed “crystals” in his food that would kill him. According to damning testimony by his wife, Brenda Lorraine Karenga, “she heard him tell the victims that he wanted them to reveal where they were hiding the ‘poison’.” She further testified that she “heard screams and yells coming from the garage where the defendants were holding Deborah Jones and Gail Davis and noises which sounded like someone was being whipped.” The Times reported that during the trial that “scars from the cuts on [Jones’] back were shown to members of the jury” and that Jones testified that “Karenga finally let them go, but only after threatening to shoot them in the hands.”
In a very bizarre testimony, Karenga attempted to defend himself by claiming that he last saw the women leave his Inglewood, CA home “to find other lodging” and that they “appeared healthy looking” when they left. Furthermore, he testified that “he did not know why his wife testified against him” and that his wife and children had not fled to Virginia to get away from him, but rather he had sent his wife and children away for “rest and recuperation”. “If he had known there was any violence within US, such as the alleged beating of the two women, he would have stopped it,” wrote the Times reporter, “adding [the US Organization] was against violence.”
Despite this claim of pacifism, it was just six years prior that members of Karenga’s organization had gunned down two members of the Black Panthers party in an apparent disagreement over who should head the Black Studies Department at UCLA. But as Karenga would explain later, “You’ve got to stop calling them murders, because both groups were shooting at each other. They were shoot outs. The liberal media always wants to make out that the Panthers were totally innocent victims.”
After his conviction, the judge ordered that he undergo a 60 day psychiatric evaluation. In July 1971, psychiatrist W. D. Achuff described Karenga as “a danger to society who is in need of prolonged custodial treatment in prison” according to the Los Angeles Times. Achuff went on to say that, “Karenga was friendly and cooperative, but irrational and bizarre in his behavior.” At times he appeared “confused and not in touch with reality.” After this evaluation, Karenga was sentenced to prison and released in 1975, barely four years later.
It is after this release from prison that Karenga’s past began to undergo an amazing whitewash. Although his release merited a brief mention in the Los Angeles Times, the thousands of articles about Karenga and Kwanzaa that would follow in the next thirty years often bore no mention of his criminal past. With the burgeoning of the internet, there has been some information on his sordid past that has crept up. One can find numerous web sites and blogs that claim to quote Karenga or court transcripts from the torture trial. The problem is that all the information seems to be fragmentary and is not cited, which fails to instill confidence in its accuracy. After doing research of my own, I can understand why the information is so fragmentary. Although many web sites seem to just parrot information found on other blogs, those few pundits and journalists who are actually interested in researching this topic hit a number of roadblocks. First of all, Karenga himself is unwilling to discuss the case. In a 2005 article in the New Jersey Star Ledger, Karenga stated, “I’ll only talk about philosophy.”
Judge Alarcón, who presided over the case and is now serving on the Ninth Circuit, was reluctant to comment on the case, saying “I believe it would be inappropriate for me to discuss Mr. Karenga’s case. That trial occurred 36 years ago. I am sure Mr. Karenga is a different person today.”
This sentiment was echoed by Charlie Blaich, director of the Center for Inquiry in the Liberal Arts. According to Blaich, Karenga’s past does seem to contain “serious crimes” but he has nonetheless “paid his price and become a successful scholar.” As such, “it doesn’t concern me. His past shouldn’t be hidden, but he did his time.”
It seems to me that Judge Alarcón’s comments are rational – he hasn’t had any contact with the man in almost four decades and would prefer not to comment on his past. However, Karenga’s story is not one of a man who has admitted past wrongdoing and is attempting to move on. Even at Wabash he referred to himself as a “political prisoner”.
In fact, when he was at Wabash, I asked him about this very issue. After an exhaustive speech where he talked about, among other things, man’s “deep ethical obligation to bring good into the world” and claiming that “damage to one is damage to another,” he opened up for a few questions. I first stated that I had agreed with several of his points about ethics and then asked whether he would then be willing to denounce torture in general and the torture, specifically, of Deborah Jones and Gail Davis that led to his 1971 felony conviction. After several minutes of posturing where he started spouting off about President Bush, he did manage to say that he condemns torture and that those charges against him “are absolutely not true and they know it.” I wasn’t allowed time to ask him who “they” were. (After having read the psychiatric report introduced during his trial, this comment makes a bit more sense.)
Perry Swanson, a journalist for the Colorado Springs Gazette, is one of the few journalist who has mentioned Karenga’s conviction in a news story. Karenga was coming to give a Kwanzaa lecture at the University of Colorado at Colorado Springs in fall of 2006. After the Swanson started asking questions about Karenga’s past, UCCS asked that Karenga denounce torture or provide examples of previous statements where he had done so. According to Tom Hutton, spokesman for the university, “UCCS felt it was important that he provide such a statement as an indication of respect for human rights.” Continuing, he remarked, “To my knowledge, Mr. Karenga did not provide such statements.” The event was eventually moved off campus at the request of Karenga to a local community center.
While writing the story, Swanson interviewed a number of people involved with the event, none of whom seemed to have much knowledge of his incarceration. One such person, Anthony Young, helped organize the event and his comments typified the sort of response Swanson received. “It doesn’t disturb me so much about what happened in those early years of the civil rights movement [sic] about our leaders having been jailed for various things,” Young said. “The real test is exactly what types of contributions are made to society.” According to Swanson, it was only after considerable effort that he was able to get Mr. Young to comment on the issue. “He did not want to confront the idea of this man doing such a terrible thing,” explained Swanson.
Another one of the MXIBS panelists, Dr. Yvonne Chireau, Associate Professor of Religion at Swarthmore College, was even more direct in her defense. In an email to the Phoenix, she boldly stated, “Ron Karenga is one of the founders of the black studies movement so it is appropriate that he take part in [the MXIBS Consultation]. As for his conviction, it is fairly common knowledge that African American leaders in the 1960s and 1970s were targeted by the authorities and the repressive state apparatus for any number of reasons. It is no secret, although the historical sources on the issue are not consistent on what they reveal.”
The historical sources on the issue are not consistent on what they reveal? The court records are pretty clear on what they reveal in regards to Karenga – he was convicted by a jury of his peers and his own wife even testified against him! According to The Los Angeles Times, the jury was composed of “six blacks, five Anglos, and one Mexican-American.” So much for a repressive state apparatus.
Chireau’s comments were echoed by Dr. Lake. When asked about Karenga’s past, Lake responded, “Everything was so charged … black power nationalist projects emerged after integration movements … the new political agenda was highly charged.” He continued to describe how he viewed the times, stating, “I would be suspicious of the history because it was so heated. Agents of our government have not always acted with the highest level of integrity.”
For former FBI agents, mentalities like this are aggravating. Cal Black ’66, Wabash alumnus and Director of Development for the College, had a long career in the Bureau. At one point in his career, he was in charge of desegregating schools in Mississippii. Later on he would be assigned to San Francisco and be charged with monitoring the Black Panther party. The BPP were of interest because they had “threatened to overthrow the government” and were “trying to intimidate the public” according to Black.
When asked about the confusion about the FBI’s role in the time period, Black countered by saying, “To me that’s a cop-out. To blame the FBI … they do such a rigorous background check. The Bureau does not hire thugs. I’ve been there; I’ve seen it. I never saw any organization abused by the FBI. It was our job to listen to a complaint and open an investigation.” He went on further to explain the amount of coordination undercover agents had with the US Attorney’s Office to ensure that nothing was illegal and that the agents weren’t involved in entrapment. If they were, he explained, the information would be useless anyway as it would be inadmissible in court.
“To dismiss this all as a conspiracy,” said Black with a shake of his head “is a cop-out. It is unfortunate that people want to forget about reality.”
And this sort of commentary is not limited to “outsiders” but even comes from those within the movement. In 1978, a few years after being released from prison, The Washington Post profiled Karenga in a story entitled, “The Father of Kwanzaa”. In this piece, the author spoke to infamous writer and poet Amiri Baraka. Baraka was heavily influenced by Karenga and was encouraged to change his name because of him. As the profile states: “But Baraka, a former black nationalist who’s become a Marxist, is not so charitable in his current assessment of the man whose ideas he once proselytized. Said Baraka: ‘There was a vacuum created after Malcolm X died . . . Karenga was very well organized. He moved into the vacuum. He did a positive thing as far as Kwanzaa was concerned. But in a way it was another form of bourgeois nationalism. And he taught male chauvinism’.”
In a 1995 article in The Washington Post, staff writer Mary Ann French wrote, “So some folks shake their heads in wonder, as they wander past supermarket displays of Kwanzaa greeting cards featuring mahogany-colored families and candles packaged for seven days’ worth of ritual. Those are the folks who remember how the holiday began. With Karenga.
“I think that’s one of those huge ironies,” says Francille Wilson, a professor of Afro-American studies at the University of Maryland. It’s somewhat bizarre for people like Wilson to see Kwanzaa ending up as one of the most institutionalized and lasting by products of the period.
“It’s become bigger than Karenga, who I have some very mixed feelings about, especially because of him allegedly torturing women and all that and his whole role in the movement, which even then was controversial. It bothers me as a historian that people don’t know who he is,” says Wilson. “I think we (African Americans) are averse to having serious internal critiques. I think no one has taken a good hard look at us, and they are worth examining … I think people need to look and see who Karenga is.”
In all, I think it should be clear that no matter what else one may think about Karenga’s past, he should not be viewed as a role model. Although he sought to claim the mantle of true leaders and intellectuals like W.E.B. DuBois and Martin Luther King, Jr., Karenga’s tactics and personal philosophy betray him. Although the Black Panthers started calling the US Organization Karenga created in 1965 “the United Slaves Organization”, the original meaning behind the name was meant to be divisive. (“Us” as opposed to “Them”). This man, who during lectures adopts the style and vocabulary of an African-American minister, all the while a devoted Marxist who has made several disparaging comments about Christianity, is an untrustworthy character who seems unworthy of the status given to him by some.
By all accounts, the consultation experience itself was a success. The Bachelor reported that Dr. Dwight Hopkins, Associate Professor of Theology at the University of Chicago, remarked afterwards that, “To my knowledge this is the first time in the history of the United States that African-American Religious Studies scholars and African-American Studies scholars have come together formally. People will be reading about this for the next 10 to 15 years.” Without a doubt, this event has raised the profile of both Wabash and the MXIBS and provided students involved with the consultations a greater glimpse into some of the most prominent members of the African-American studies and religious studies programs. The problem is the squelching of information about this man’s dark past and this transitive assignment of blame to everyone but Karenga. Both Karenga and others need to own up to reality.