Maulana Karenga

Who is Maulana Karenga?


Maulana Karenga was an influential black activist and scholar during the Black Power movement. He identified as a “cultural nationalist” [4] Maulana Karenga is known for his many contributions to the Black Power Movement, most famously the founding of the Us organization and the creation of the holiday Kwanzaa. 

The Us Organization 


The Us Organization stood for United Slaves, and it promoted ideas of black cultural nationalism and black cultural revolution, including a focus on Pan-Africanism. Karengaa co-founded the militant black nationalist organization with Hakim Jamal, the cousin of Malcolm X [2, 4]. The organization advocated for independent black schools, black student groups, and  the study of African and African American studies – including African languages. The Us organization’s ideals and goals partly conflicted with those of the Black Panther Party. Conflict arose in 1969, over the proposed leader of the UCLA Afro-American Studies Center. The conflict erupted with the shooting of two Black Panthers, and subsequent retaliatory shootings on either side [4]. The groups repeatedly disagreed on organizing styles and approaches. Karena, notably, critiqued the BPP’s free breakfast and health care programs for not being “revolutionary” [2]. Regardless of their disagreements, both parties had very similar goals. 

“By 1969, US and the Black Panther Party had grown to become certain about their respective standings as leading Black Power organizations. US sought to lead a cultural revolution transforming Black consciousness, group identity, purpose, and direction— which would lay the foundation for a collective African American political decision. The Black Panther Party defined itself as the vanguard party in the national liberation struggle to free the “Black colony” and simultaneously to unite with other progressive forces to combat racism, capitalism, and imperialism. Actually, the broad objectives of both organizations were complementary. The Black Panther Party’s goal of bringing about a “United Nations supervised plebiscite to be held throughout the black colony . . . for the purpose of determining the will of black people as to their national destiny” [2]

Many critiques of Karenga and the Us Organization were also rooted in Karenga being perceived as an intellectual, which created a class-based barrier within the black community. There was a rising number of anti-intellectual activists that critiqued scholars and activists, including Karenga and other famous intellectuals like Angela Davis [2].

The Us Organization followed rules outlined in a book written by Karenga, where members were told to “think black, talk black, act black, create black, buy black, vote black, and live black” [4]

Like the BPP, The Us Organization was targeted by the FBI. Karenga became increasingly paranoid, and was  arrested for the torture of two female Us members, whom were suspected to be disloyal. The Us organization crumbled while Karenga was in jail. When he was released on parole in 1975, he re-established the organization but adopted a more Marxist philosophy. Karenga has continued to remain politically active, and outspoken, to this day [4]


The most notable part of Karenga’s legacy is his creation of the holiday Kwanzaa. During the Black Power Movement, there was rising connection between African roots and Black identity. Within the Us and BPP, activists changed their names to create a closer connection with their African identities, which had been stolen from African Americans through slavery. Maulana Karenga’s birth name was Ronald McKinley Everett. HIs chosen name comes from KiSwahili. Maulana means “master-teacher” and Karenga means “keeper of tradition” [4]

Karenga’s goal with the establishment of Kwanzaa was to, give Blacks an alternative to the existing holiday and give Blacks an opportunity to celebrate themsevles and history, rather than simply imiate the practice of dominant society” [1]. Karenga also stated that, “Kwanzaa was not created to give people an alternative to their own religion or religious holiday . . . [a]nd it is not an alternative to people’s religion or faith but a common ground of African culture” [2]

Kwanzaa was literally established as a form of emergent memory to challenge the white-washed dominant narrative of the United States. The holiday is based on African agricultural traditions and is designed to allow people of African descent to reflect and celebrate their ancestral origins. The word “Kwanza”means first in KiSwahili. The holiday was given an extra a (Kwanzaa) in order to symbolize the seven days celebrated, and seven principles [2].


Here is a short video describing the history of Kwanzaa:

Note: Kwanzaa was intended to be a usable [6] form of memory; it was intended to reconnect African Americans with their African heritage. The video discusses the processual nature [6] of our memory of Kwanzaa, how it shifted from a radical civil rights tradition to a commercialized holiday.

When I reflect on my own previous understandings of the holiday, I remember being taught of Kwanzaa as an alternative to Christmas. In my memory, Kwanzaa was ahistorical, not a recently created holiday. While Kwanzaa was established as an attempt to disrupt a dominant memory of American history, but it has been forgotten over the past 50 years. I was curious about how Kwanzaa is remembered more broadly, and specifically in the black community. Here are two funny, and interesting, videos that are also monuments to the forgetting of Kwanzaa, and other aspects of the Black Power Movement. 


Note: It is clear from both of these videos that there has been a level of distanciation since the creation of the holiday, which I find very interesting because the holiday is so recent and even Karenga, the founder, is still alive. The term Kwanzaa has been conventionalized as an alternative holiday, but it is no longer widely instrumentalized as a symbol of black power.

Kwanzaa is a holiday that we are all at least somewhat aware of, but we know very little about. We also know very little about the history behind its creation, or Karenga himself. One of the central goals of both the BPP and the Us was to dismantle a racist system of that erased black history and culture from daily life and our educational system. Our lack of knowledge on these organizations, activists, and holiday, are a testament to how little has changed, and how much work is left to be done. 

Works Cited
[1] Ayubu, Kani Saburi. “7 Facts About Dr. Maulana Karenga, Founder of Kwanzaa.” Black Art Depot Today. Black Art Depot, 31 Dec. 2011. Web. 20 Apr. 2017.
[2] Brown, Scott, and Clayborne Carson. Fighting for Us: Maulana Karenga, the US Organization, and Black Cultural Nationalism. N.p.: New York U.P., 2003. ProQuest Ebrary. Web.
[3] Karenga, Maulana. “Kwanzaa: A Celebration of Family, Community and Culture.” The Official Kwanzaa Web Site. African American Cultural Center, n.d. Web. 20 Apr. 2017.
[4] “Maulana Karenga.” Discover the Networks. N.p., n.d. Web. 20 Apr. 2017.
[5] “Us: A History of Service, Struggle and Institution Building.” The Organization Us. Us Organization, n.d. Web. 20 Apr. 2017.
[6] Zelizer, Barbie. “Reading the Past Against the Grain: The Shape of Memory Studies.” Critical Studies in Mass Communication 12 (1995): 214-39. Web.

3 thoughts on “Maulana Karenga”

  1. This is an awesome post! I loved the videos you opted for, they’re really good descriptors, especially for people with no experience/ knowledge of Kwanzaa!

  2. This is a well-written, very interesting post! I agree that we could all do more to learn not just about Kwanzaa, but about the founders and the history surrounding the holiday. I remember only associating Kwanzaa with the Proud Family, Disney television show. It makes me sad that it took until reading this to learn more about the culturally rich and unique holiday. Similar to you, I believed it was a holiday that had been celebrated long before the 70s.

  3. Before reading your blog post I barely knew anything about the holiday and I had absolutely. no idea where it originated from. Kwanzaa would definitely be considered universal because many, many people celebrate it.

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