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
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
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
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 r�sum� 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
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.
� 1999 Frontagemag.com