ON DECEMBER 24, 1971, the New York Times ran one of the first of many articles on a new holiday designed to foster unity among African Americans. The holiday, called Kwanzaa, was applauded by a certain sixteen-year-old minister who explained that the feast would perform the valuable service of "de-whitizing" Christmas. The minister was a nobody at the time but he would later go on to become perhaps the premier race-baiter of the twentieth century. His name was Al Sharpton and he would later spawn the Tawana Brawley hoax and then incite anti-Jewish tensions in a 1995 incident that ended with the arson deaths of seven people.
Great minds think alike. The inventor of the holiday was one of the few black "leaders" in America even worse than Sharpton. But there was no mention in the Times article of this man or of the fact that at that very moment he was sitting in a California prison. And there was no mention of the curious fact that this purported benefactor of the black people had founded an organization that in its short history tortured and murdered blacks in ways of which the Ku Klux Klan could only fantasize.
It was in newspaper articles like that, repeated in papers all over the country, that the tradition of Kwanzaa began. It is a tradition not out of Africa but out of Orwell. Both history and language have been bent to serve a political goal. When that New York Times article appeared, Ron Karenga's crimes were still recent events. If the reporter had bothered to do any research into the background of the Kwanzaa founder, he might have learned about Karenga's trial earlier that year on charges of torturing two women who were members of US (United Slaves), a black nationalist cult he had founded.
A May 14, 1971, article in the Los Angeles Times described the testimony of one of them: "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 Miss Davis' mouth and placed against Miss Davis' 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."
Back then, it was relatively easy to get information on the trial. Now it's almost impossible. It took me two days' work to find articles about it. The Los Angeles Times seems to have been the only major newspaper that reported it and the stories were buried deep in the paper, which now is available only on microfilm. And the microfilm index doesn't start until 1972, so it is almost impossible to find the three small articles that cover Karenga's trial and conviction on charges of torture. That is fortunate for Karenga. The trial showed him to be not just brutal, but deranged. He and three members of his cult had tortured the women in an attempt to find some nonexistent "crystals" of poison. Karenga thought his enemies were out to get him.
And in another lucky break for Karenga, the trial transcript no longer exists. I filed a request for it with the Superior Court of Los Angeles. After a search, the court clerk could find no record of the trial. So the exact words of the black woman who had a hot soldering iron pressed against her face by the man who founded Kwanzaa are now lost to history. The only document the court clerk did find was particularly revealing, however. It was a transcript of Karenga's sentencing hearing on Sept. 17, 1971.
A key issue was whether Karenga was sane. Judge Arthur L. Alarcon read from a psychiatrist's report: "Since his admission here he has been isolated and has been exhibiting bizarre behavior, such as staring at the wall, talking to imaginary persons, claiming that he was attacked by dive-bombers and that his attorney was in the next cell. … During part of the interview he would look around as if reacting to hallucination and when the examiner walked away for a moment he began a conversation with a blanket located on his bed, stating that there was someone there and implying indirectly that the 'someone' was a woman imprisoned with him for some offense. This man now presents a picture which can be considered both paranoid and schizophrenic with hallucinations and elusions, inappropriate affect, disorganization, and impaired contact with the environment."
The founder of Kwanzaa paranoid? It seems so. But as the old saying goes, just because you're paranoid it doesn't mean that someone isn't out to get you.
ACCORDING TO COURT DOCUMENTS, Karenga's real name is Ron N. Everett. In the '60s, he awarded himself the title "maulana," Swahili for "master teacher." He was born on a poultry farm in Maryland, the fourteenth child of a Baptist minister. He came to California in the late 1950s to attend Los Angeles Community College. He moved on to UCLA, where he got a Master's degree in political science and African Studies. By the mid-1960s, he had established himself as a leading "cultural nationalist." That is a term that had some meaning in the '60s, mainly as a way of distinguishing Karenga's followers from the Black Panthers, who were conventional Marxists.
Another way of distinguishing might be to think of Karenga's gang as the Crips and the Panthers as the bloods. Despite all their rhetoric about white people, they reserved their most vicious violence for each other. In 1969, the two groups squared off over the question of who would control the new Afro-American Studies Center at UCLA. According to a Los Angeles Times article, Karenga and his adherents backed one candidate, the Panthers another. Both groups took to carrying guns on campus, a situation that, remarkably, did not seem to bother the university administration. The Black Student Union, however, set up a coalition to try and bring peace between the Panthers and the group headed by the man whom the Times labeled "Ron Ndabezitha Everett-Karenga."
On Jan. 17, 1969, about 150 students gathered in a lunchroom to discuss the situation. Two Panthers—admitted to UCLA like many of the black students as part of a federal program that put high-school dropouts into the school—apparently spent a good part of the meeting in verbal attacks against Karenga. This did not sit well with Karenga's followers, many of whom had adopted the look of their leader, pseudo-African clothing and a shaved head.
In modern gang parlance, you might say Karenga was "dissed" by John Jerome Huggins, 23, and Alprentice "Bunchy" Carter, 26. After the meeting, the two Panthers were met in the hallway by two brothers who were members of US, George P. and Larry Joseph Stiner. The Stiners pulled pistols and shot the two Panthers dead. One of the Stiners took a bullet in the shoulder, apparently from a Panther's gun.
There were other beatings and shooting in Los Angeles involving US, but by then the tradition of African nationalism had already taken hold—among whites. That tradition calls for any white person, whether a journalist, a college official, or a politician, to ignore the obvious flaws of the concept that blacks should have a separate culture. "The students here have handled themselves in an absolutely impeccable manner," UCLA chancellor Charles E. Young told the L.A. Times. "They have been concerned. They haven't argued who the director should be; they have been saying what kind of person he should be." Young made those remarks after the shooting. And the university went ahead with its Afro-American Studies Program. Karenga, meanwhile, continued to build and strengthen US, a unique group that seems to have combined the elements of a street gang with those of a California cult. The members performed assaults and robberies but they also strictly followed the rules laid down in The Quotable Karenga, a book that laid out "The Path of Blackness." "The sevenfold path of blackness is think black, talk black, act black, create black, buy black, vote black, and live black," the book states.
In retrospect, it may be fortunate that the cult fell apart over the torture charges. Left to his own devices, Karenga might have orchestrated the type of mass suicide later pioneered by the People's Temple and copied by the Heaven's Gate cult. Instead, he apparently fell into deep paranoia shortly after the killings at UCLA. He began fearing that his followers were trying to have him killed. On May 9, 1970 he initiated the torture session that led to his imprisonment. Karenga himself will not comment on that incident and the victims cannot be located, so the sole remaining account is in the brief passage from the L.A. Times describing tortures inflicted by Karenga and his fellow defendants, Louis Smith and Luz Maria Tamayo:
"The victims said they were living at Karenga's home when Karenga accused them of trying to kill him by placing 'crystals' in his food and water and in various areas of his house. When they denied it, allegedly they were beaten with an electrical cord and a hot soldering iron was put in Miss Davis' mouth and against her face. Police were told that one of Miss Jones' toes was placed in a small vise which then allegedly was tightened by one of the defendants. The following day Karenga allegedly told the women that 'Vietnamese torture is nothing compared to what I know.' Miss Tamayo reportedly put detergent in their mouths, Smith turned a water hose full force on their faces, and Karenga, holding a gun, threatened to shoot both of them."
Karenga was convicted of two counts of felonious assault and one count of false imprisonment. He was sentenced on Sept. 17, 1971, to serve one to ten years in prison. A brief account of the sentencing ran in several newspapers the following day. 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.
LOOK AT ANY MAP OF THE WORLD and you will see that Ghana and Kenya are on opposite sides of the continent. This brings up an obvious question about Kwanzaa: Why did Karenga use Swahili words for his fictional African feast? 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 several thousand miles away, about as far from Ghana as Los Angeles is from New York. Yet in celebrating Kwanzaa, African-Americans are supposed to employ a vocabulary of such Swahili words as "kujichagulia" and "kuumba." This makes about as much sense as having Irish-Americans celebrate St. Patrick's Day by speaking Polish. One possible explanation is that Karenga was simply ignorant of African geography and history when he came up with Kwanzaa in 1966. That might explain why he would schedule a harvest festival near the solstice, a season when few fruits or vegetables are harvested anywhere. But a better explanation is that he simply has contempt for black people.
That does not seem a farfetched hypothesis. Despite all his rhetoric about white racism, I could find no record that he or his followers ever raised a hand in anger against a white person. In fact, Karenga had an excellent relationship with Los Angeles Mayor Sam Yorty in the '60s and also met with then-Governor Ronald Reagan and other white politicians. But he and his gang were hell on blacks. And Karenga certainly seems to have had a low opinion of his fellow African-Americans. "People think it's African, but it's not," he said about his holiday in an interview quoted in the Washington Post. "I came up with Kwanzaa because 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 would be partying." "Bloods" is a '60s California slang term for black people.
That Post article appeared in 1978. Like other news articles from that era, it makes no mention of Karenga's criminal past, which seems to have been forgotten the minute he got out of prison in 1975. Profiting from the absence of memory, he remade himself as Maulana Ron Karenga, went into academics, and by 1979 he was running the Black Studies Department at California State University in Long Beach.
This raises a question: Karenga had just ten years earlier proven himself capable of employing guns and bullets in his efforts to control hiring in the Black Studies Department at UCLA. So how did this ex-con, fresh out jail, get the job at Long Beach? Did he just send a résumé and wait by the phone? The officials at Long Beach State don't like that type of question. I called the university and got a spokeswoman by the name of Toni Barone. She listened to my questions and put me on hold. Christmas music was playing, a nice touch under the circumstances. She told me to fax her my questions. I sent a list of questions that included the matter of whether Karenga had employed threats to get his job. I also asked just what sort of crimes would preclude a person from serving on the faculty there in Long Beach. And whether the university takes any security measures to ensure that Karenga doesn't shoot any students. Barone faxed me back a reply stating that the university is pleased with Karenga's performance and has no record of the procedures that led to his hiring. She ignored the question about how they protect students.
Actually, there is clear evidence that Karenga has reformed. In 1975, he dropped his cultural nationalist views and converted to Marxism. For anyone else, this would have been seen as an endorsement of radicalism, but for Karenga it was considered a sign that he had moderated his outlook. The ultimate irony is that now that Karenga is a Marxist, the capitalists have taken over his holiday. The seven principles of Kwanzaa include "collective work" and "cooperative economics," but Kwanzaa is turning out to be as commercial as Christmas, generating millions in greeting-card sales alone. The purists are whining. "It's clear that a number of major corporations have started to take notice and try to profit from Kwanzaa," said a San Francisco State black studies professor named "Oba T'Shaka" in one news account. "That's not good, with money comes corruption." No, he's wrong. With money comes kitsch. The L.A. Times reported a group was planning an "African Village Faire," the pseudo-archaic spelling of "faire" nicely combining kitsch Africana with kitsch Americana.
With money also comes forgetfulness. As those warm Kwanzaa feelings are generated in a spirit of holiday cheer, those who celebrate this holiday do so in blissful ignorance of the sordid violence, paranoia, and mayhem that helped generate its birth some three decades ago in a section of America that has vanished down the memory hole.