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Why You Need To Do Kwanzaa: Misconceptions, Propaganda and Afrikan Liberation

Blog posts reflect the views of their authors.
Principles of Kwanzaa
Principles of Kwanzaa
Women as the foundation of the struggle
Women as the foundation of the struggle
Kwanzaa principles
Kwanzaa principles

by Ajamu Nangwaya


"I have come to believe over and over again that what is most important to me must be spoken, made verbal and shared, even at the risk of having it bruised or misunderstood. That the speaking profits me, beyond any other effect." - Audre Lorde[1]

There is an annual year-end ritual that I have been observing on Facebook and in offline spaces: intense, partisan or emotional commentaries from across the ideological and political spectrum on the holiday of Kwanzaa and its controversial creator and university professor Maulana Karenga. Kwanzaa was first celebrated in 1966, and it goes from December 26th to January 1st. The Nguzo Saba or Seven Principles are at the heart of the holiday, and they reflect collectivistic, humanistic, oppositional and transformative values that are critical to any movement for Afrikan liberation. These principles are relevant to the struggle for the emancipation of enchained humanity.

Bruce Dixon, Black Agenda Report’s managing editor and columnist, and former member of the Black Panther Party (BPP), recently wrote an essay “Why I Don’t Do Kwanzaa” that has generated a fair degree of discussion on Facebook. It could become an essay that sparks a deeper examination of Maulana Karenga, his US organization and his activities during the Black Power period. I have read a number of comments from readers of the essay who have expressed their appreciation for the information on Karenga. It is my hope that the readers of the article will be inspired to do their own due diligence and come to an informed judgment at the end of this process.

Kwanzaa, Karenga and the Agent-card

With respect to others celebrating Kwanzaa, Dixon has taken a principled and broadminded position, “I have no quarrel whatsoever with those who celebrate and find value in Kwanzaa.”[2] On a personal and political level, the observance of Kwanzaa “evokes some difficult memories and feelings” for Dixon that are tied to the role of members from Karenga’s US organization in the killing of “2 leading members of the Black Panther Party in Los Angeles, Alprentice “Bunchy” Carter and John Huggins, and 2 more in San Diego, Sylvester Bell and John Savage.”[3]

The death of the Panthers at the hands of US operatives was orchestrated by the Federal Bureau of Investigation’s (FBI) Counter Intelligence Program (COINTELPRO) that were directed at Black Power organizations and individuals, as well as other social movements. In a 1968 directive, FBI director J. Edgar Hoover instructed his agents to engender animosity between the BPP and US “In order to fully capitalize upon BPP and US differences as well as to exploit all avenues of creating further dissensions within the ranks of the BPP.”[4] The American secret police were committed to preventing the emergence of coalitions or alliances between radical or revolutionary organizations. The FBI ruthlessly exacerbated and exploited ideological and programmatic difference within the Black Nationalist community.

Hoover was aware of the effects of the counterintelligence actions that were being executed against the two Black Power organizations, the BPP and US:

 “For the information of recipient offices a serious struggle is taking place between the Black Panther Party (BPP) and the US organization. The struggle has reached such proportions that it is taking on the aura of gang warfare with attendant threats of murder and reprisal.”[5]

The late Geronimo Ji Jaga Pratt, who rose to the position of Deputy Minister of Defense of the BPP’s Los Angeles chapter, later recounted some of the provocative activities of COINTELPRO, “We got anonymous calls, letters, insults, taunts. We found hate mails in our lockers at school – ‘Your girlfriend fucks Karenga.’ You’d get a phone call: ‘I just left US headquarters. Your wife’s panties are on the wall.’ Of course it was bullshit, but after the third or fourth report you begin to wonder. We found out later that the United Slaves[[6]] were hearing the same things about us.”[7]

It is the above counterintelligence context created by the FBI that informs Dixon’s characterization of the Karenga-led US as “a tool of COINTELPRO.”[8] Bruce Tyler claims in his dissertation Black Radicalism in Southern California, 1950-1981, “Karenga was not only the chief street agent of the government, but he was the chief agent of the Black middle-class whose interest had been damaged by the riot and the emergence of Black revolutionaries.”[9] However, according to Ngozi-Brown, Tyler used himself as “the authoritative historical source”[10] behind his claim about Karenga being an agent of the state and he “employs a conspiracy theory based on suggestive misrepresentations” to further peddle his assertion.[11]

The evidence that is usually offered by the people who assert that Karenga served as an agent of the FBI/COINTELPRO would not be an acceptable claim to an objective investigator who is unwilling to draw conclusions beyond the weight of the available evidence. There are other actors who simply make the assertion without a shred of evidence, and expect their claim to be accepted as a self-evident truth. The preceding situation tends to happen when people believe they are speaking to the converted, and have no need to provide evidentiary support for their proposition.

It is unfortunate that there are activists who object to involvement with Kwanzaa and the Nguzo Saba based on unsubstantiated or questionable evidence. When Geronimo ji Jaga, who served as an active participant in the LA chapter of the BPP, experienced being targeted by the secret police, and spent twenty-seven years as a political prisoner (wrongful conviction) made the following declaration about Karenga and US, we ought to seriously do due diligence on this matter:

“We considered Karenga’s US organization to be a cultural-nationalist organization. We were considered revolutionary nationalists. So we have a common denominator. We both are nationalists. We never had antagonistic contradictions, just ideological contradictions. The pig manipulated those contradictions to the extent that warfare jumped off.

Truth is the first casualty in war. It began to be said that Karenga was rat, but that wasn’t true. The death of Bunchy and John Huggins on UCLA campus was caused by an agent creating a disturbance, which caused a Panther to pull out a gun and which subsequently caused US members to pull out their guns to defend themselves. In the ensuing gun battle Bunchy Carter and John Huggins lay dead.”[12]

Shrouding Kwanzaa with the Veil of Gender Violence

There are Afrikan Americans who are not favourable toward observing Kwanzaa based on Karenga’s conviction for torturing women in the US organization. Dixon shares a question from feminist and former BPP member Kiilu Nyasha on this matter, “How can I honor a holiday made up by a man who tortures women in his own organization?”[13] Karenga has been widely condemned for his role in brutalizing Deborah Jones and Gail Davis, two US women members. Karenga was convicted and sentenced in September 1971 for his acts of violence against Deborah Jones, and he served four years of an indeterminate sentence of one to ten years in prison.[14]

Karenga’s ex-wife Brenda Lorraine Karenga gave an eyewitness testimony of the incident and confirmed his violent actions against Deborah and Gail. Wesley Kabaila, a former high-ranking official of US who also served as a member of Karenga’s security detail states, “I wish to state here, unequivocally, that he [Karenga] and his wife not only tortured these two sisters for a period of over 3 weeks, but also directed two young brothers in the torture also.”[15] Kwanzaa’s founder, not surprisingly, has labelled himself as a former “political prisoner” and he has consistently maintained his innocence.[16] He attributes his imprisonment to the work of COINTELPRO. It should be noted that Deborah Jones only fingered Karenga in the torture incident after being cleared of theft by a grand jury.

There are people who do not associate with the celebrations of Kwanzaa because of Karenga’s conviction for the serious charge of brutalizing Deborah. However, these same individuals are totally comfortable maintaining the legal personal names and the religion of Christianity bequeathed to them by the former slave masters. The enslavers and colonizers raped and brutalized Afrikan women and girls on a scale and intensity that dwarfed Karenga’s action. We ought not to be selective and inconsistent with respect to the ethical or moral standards that we apply to celebratory events in society.

Toronto-based author and Share newspaper columnist Murphy Browne points out the contradiction in some people’s ethical selectiveness and shows her commitment to Kwanzaa, “In spite of the fact that Christians and Muslims enslaved our ancestors many of us cling to those religions. In spite of the fact that Christmas, Easter, Christmas trees, Santa Claus are all based on "pagan" beliefs, Christians continue to celebrate. Kwanzaa is much bigger than the man to whose name it is linked so I will continue to celebrate Kwanzaa. It is now my celebration!!”

Kwanzaa being Disloyal to the Colonial Project

Some Afrikans Americans are uncomfortable with Kwanzaa, because it might alienate them from the imposed capitalist and Western culture of the American colonizer. Debra Dickerson, a lawyer and author, shares her problem with Kwanza, “More important, insofar as Kwanzaa negates the quintessential Americanness of the slave-descended, it is an affront to the heroism and enunciated goals of our oppressed ancestors. They demanded to be considered, and treated, as Americans, not as Africans.”

Apparently, this holiday is a mortal threat to one’s attachment and loyalty to the settler-colonial project that is the United States. Philosophically-speaking Afrikans in the United States are not Americans. They were never a party to the racial social contract that gave rise to the United States and were made Americans by way of the 14th Amendment. A kidnapped and enslaved people cannot be incorporated into the citizenry by the enslaving state like settlers or immigrants. They should be able to exercise that right to self-determination by a referendum on their national status.

Kwanzaa and its founder Karenga are seemingly akin to spectres haunting America’s national unity according to Wisconsin’s state Senator Glenn Grothman. Grothman declares with a straight face, “Of course, almost no black people today care about Kwanzaa — just white left-wingers who try to shove this down black people's throats in an effort to divide Americans.”[17] The state Senator is of the opinion that Karenga was motivated by anti-Christian sentiments in his creation of Kwanzaa.

Grothman sets himself up as someone who is best able to determine the appropriate representatives of Afrikans in the United States with his proclamation, "With tens of millions of honorable black Americans in our country's past, we should not let a violent nut like Karenga speak for them."[18] Afrikans supposedly lack the capacity to exercise self-determination so the all-knowing and benevolent master is compelled to provide moral and political guidance.

 The perception of Kwanzaa and the Nguzo Saba as mere cultural interventions in the lives of Afrikans in America is problematic for some Afrikans. An academic, Nagueyalti Warren, asserts, “While Kwanzaa caught on, the fact that it was invented as a diversionary tactic cannot be ignored. Kwanzaa might liberate the mind, but it does little to eliminate economic and political oppression.”[19] Warren is making the critique that Kwanzaa is all about cultural affirmation, and is unconcerned with the material struggles of the people without taking into considerations its principle of economic empowerment.

Warren’s assertion is a misguided and ahistorical one. All colonizers or oppressors attempt to destroy the culture of the colonized, and that happened to enslaved Afrikans across the Americas and the Afrikan continent. The revolutionary, military strategist and national liberation leader Amilcar Cabral had this instructive take on culture in his famous essay National Liberation and Culture, “History teaches us that, in certain circumstances, it is very easy for the foreigner to impose his domination on a people. But it also teaches us that, whatever may be the material aspects of this domination, it can be maintained only by the permanent, organized repression of the cultural life of the people concerned.”[20] Organizers and organic intellectuals who ignore the culture of the people as a site of resistance will discover their strategic error soon enough!

The above line of argument advanced by Warren ignores the seven principles that are the foundation of Kwanzaa. These values are expected to serve as the foundation on which the material aspirations of the people are pursued, organized and accomplished. The cultural nationalists during the Black Power period were also focused on practical issues such as housing, education, and political representation and participation.

There are people who assert that Kwanzaa is a made-up or invented holiday to undermine its cultural legitimacy among Afrikans. These characters behave like they are expressing a profound, insightful or revealing thought on the question of the genesis of Kwanzaa. All holidays are invented or created by people, and, as such, are not gifts from the gods. Therefore, Kwanzaa is keeping an illustrious and esteemed company. Should we not celebrate all the holidays on or off the calendar, because they were invented at some point in the time?

Karenga frames the above critiques of Kwanzaa in this spirited and laughter-inspiring manner:

“The questioning of Kwanzaa comes with each season of its celebration as a kind of background noise and verbal nonsense, noted for its racialized rancor and irrationality rather than its relevance and for its strange preoccupation with Kwanzaa’s value and durability while annually announcing its imminent death. Each year, the corporate media and its internet affiliates and imitators and those beyond known and recognized borders pose Kwanzaa as a kind of terminally-ill patient and conduct racial rituals performed for no other holiday, reading Viking runes and various other questionable signs to determine how close it is to death and dying. And each year, there emerges a surly assortment of haters, howlers, fear mongers, venom spitters, stone throwers and mean spirited types with various issues and ailments, expressing numerous kinds of ignorance, idiocy, falsehood, misinformation and disinformation about Kwanzaa and its creator.”[21]

Kwanzaa as Afrikan Liberation Politics

Kwanzaa emerged in the context of the Black Power movement in the United States that was committed to fighting the violence of white supremacy, capitalist economic exploitation and patriarchal domination of Afrikan women. Kwanzaa is the collective expression of a people who were taught to devalue all things Afrikan and to embrace the anti-Afrikan cultural practices of the American colonizer. The ethos of Kwanzaa and its principles of Umoja/Unity, Kujichagulia/Self-determination, Ujima/Collective Work and Responsibility, Ujamaa/Cooperative Economics, Nia/Purpose, Kuumba/Creativity, and Imani/Faith promote an alternative and transgressive framework for a struggle that is consistent with the political claims and thrust of the Black Radical Tradition.

The Black Radical Tradition is committed to structural transformation and adopts an unapologetic stance on Afrikan liberation from white supremacy, capitalism, patriarchy and imperialism. Adam Hudson in his essay “Any National "Conversation About Race" Must Include Black Radical Tradition” largely captures the tenor and thrust of the Black Radical Tradition, and implicitly highlights the relationship of the principles of Kwanzaa to it:

“Black radicalism is more of a collective political tradition than a coherent ideology. It encompasses ideologies such as Pan-Africanism, black nationalism, Black Marxism and black internationalism with varying beliefs and goals among them. What unites the black radical tradition is the challenging of systemic racism, the liberation of African peoples, and the goal of achieving fundamental change. If anything, black radicalism is a tradition of African peoples' resistance and self-determination.”[22]

I am asserting the inclusion of Black feminism or the politics of Afrikan women’s liberation as a central component of the Black Radical Tradition. The work of Ida B. Wells,[23] Frederick Douglass[24], Claudia Jones,[25] Sojourner Truth,[26] W. E. B. DuBois[27] and the Combahee River Collective[28] represents a radical contribution to the discourse on Afrikan American women’s liberation. Ula Taylor documents the activism and organic intellectual role of Afrikan women to the Black Radical Tradition in the United States in her the paper “Read[ing] Men and Nations”: Women in the Black Radical Tradition.”[29] It is only exclusionary gender politics or the oppressive presence of patriarchy that prevents many revolutionary or progressive men (and some women) from instinctively reading women and feminism into the Black Radical Tradition. The value of gender equity ought to have a prominent role in the “tradition of African peoples' resistance and self-determination.”

It is extremely difficult for a colonized or oppressed people to advance emancipation claims while staying within the ideological or cultural framework of the dominant ideologies of the oppressors. Kwanzaa and its values are much bigger than Karenga in spite of his significant contribution as its creator. It is the Afrikan/Black Liberation Movement that has transformed Kwanzaa into a national reality, and facilitates the current level of awareness and participation in the celebratory part of it. The Nguzo Saba or Seven Principles should not be confined to the last week in December as ritualistic symbols that are taken out of the closet, dusted off, mechanically vocalized like received religious mantras, and dutifully packed away on January 2nd.

The principles of Kwanzaa ought to inform the organizing and institution-building work that are carried out to emancipate the people from the various forms of oppression. Therefore, the most compelling thing about Kwanzaa and its foundational principles is the expectation that they should direct the lives and activities of Afrikans on a daily basis. The holiday period of Kwanzaa becomes the moment for stocktaking, (re)assessment, celebration, recalibration, and recommitment to the goals and objectives of Afrikan liberation. This Afrikan liberation project is inclusive of gender, sexual orientation, class struggle, race, alienation based on (dis)ability, age and other grounds on which the people might be oppressed.

Lukata Mjumbe, an evangelist and community organizer with a religious non-profit organization agrees that Dixon’s essay is an “important article” and provides “good historical info” on Karenga’s political history. Mjumbe’s comment below correctly captures the approach that revolutionaries, radicals and progressives ought to take towards Kwanzaa and its principles:

“The article fails to adequately consider the celebratory value and revolutionary opportunities associated with focusing and engaging Black people on the seven principles (Nguzo Saba) of Kwanzaa --- unity, self- determination, collective work and responsibility, cooperative economics, purpose, creativity and faith. There is no other time that we intentionally celebrate a holy-day which honors Black life, Black culture and Black values. If Karenga's Kwanzaa hollow-day is inadequate or too beset with historical contradictions, Black radicals need to co-opt it or create a holy-day for us. I'll party with you.”

Now is the time to organize and build the embryonic social, economic and political structures of the new society while living in the bowel of this oppressive social and economic order. The humanistic and communitarian values of Kwanzaa provide a framework for the organizing that must be done within the ranks of Fanon’s “wretched of the earth.”

Ajamu Nangwaya, Ph.D., is an educator. He is an organizer with the Network for the Elimination of Police Violence and Campaign to End the Occupation of Haiti.

[1] Audre Lorde, Sister Outsider: Essays and Speeches, (Freedom, California: The Crossing Press, 1984), 40.

[2] Bruce A. Dixon, “Why I Don’t Do Kwanzaa,” Black Agenda Report, December 17, 2014. Accessed December 21, 2014,

[3] Dixon, “Why I Don’t Do Kwanzaa.”

[4] Ward Churchill & Jim Vander Wall, Agents of Repression: The FBI’s Secret Wars Against the Black Panther Party and the American Indian Movement, (Boston: South End Press, 1988), 42.

[5] Ward Churchill &Jim Vander Wall, The COINTELPRO Papers: Documents from the FBI’s Secret Wars Against Dissent in the United States, (Boston: South End Press, 1990), 130.

[6] It is a widespread understanding with the political Afrikan American community “US” is the acronym for “United Slaves.” It is for the preceding reason that I will quote at length Ngozi-Brown on this issue: “Perhaps the most conspicuous example of the acceptance and widespread usage of the Black Panther Party's anti-Us epithets is the repeated reference to the organization as "united slaves. "The name "Us" actually means Black people: The pronoun "Us" as opposed to "them," the White oppressors - as an article written in the journal Black Dialogue in 1966 states, "US means exactly that-all of US (black folks)" (Batuta, 1966, p. 7). Nevertheless, the slur united slaves was commonly used by members of the Black Panther Party to ridicule Us, and it has unfortunately been repeated by many writers and scholars in spite of the fact that there are no documents or recorded speeches in which Karenga or any Us organization members refer to their organization as such. Historians and social scientists such as Clayborne Carson (1987, p. 218), Kathleen Rout (1991, p. 102), Ronald Walters (1993, p.66), and Gerald Horne (1995, pp. 198, 200, 370 n.38), and many others, have mistakenly used this slur when referring to Us” p. 163-164.

[7] Jack Olsen, Last Man Standing: The Tragedy and Triumph of Geronimo Pratt, (New York: Doubleday, 2000), 45.

[8] Dixon, “Why I Don’t Do Kwanzaa.”

[9] Cited in Nagueyalti Warren, “Pan-African Cultural Movements: From Baraka to Karenga,” Journal of Negro History 75, Issue 1/2 (1990), 24. Accessed December 20, 2014,!/SugahData/Essays/Warren.S.pdf.

[10] Scot Ngozi-Brown, “The Us Organization, Maulana Karenga, and Conflict with the Black Panther Party: A Critique of Sectarian Influences on Historical Discourse,” Journal of Black Studies 28, Issue 2 (1997): 160

[11] Scot Ngozi-Brown, “The Us Organization,”: 161.

[12] Bakari Kitwani, “Remembering Geronimo,” San Francisco Bay View, June 9, 2011. Accessed December 22, 2014,

[13] Cited in Dixon, “Why I Don’t Do Kwanzaa.”

[14] “Another View of Ron Karenga,” Chicken Bones: A Journal for Literary & Artistic African-American Themes, March 10, 1999. Accessed December 21, 2014,

[15] Wesley Kabaila, “On Dr. Maulana Karenga: An open letter,” Accessed December 20, 2014,

[16] Chris Kaltenbach, “Kwanzaa creator Maulana Karenga will speak at Lewis Museum,” The Baltimore Sun, December 20, 2013. Accessed, December 20, 2013,

[17] Adam W. McCoy, “State Sen. Glenn Grothman Declares War on Kwanzaa,” Shorewood Patch, January 3, 2013, Accessed December 21, 2013,

[18] McCoy, “State Sen. Glenn.”

[19] Nagueyalti Warren, “Pan-African Cultural Movements,” 26.

[20] Africa Information Service, ed., Return to the Source: Selected Speeches of Amilcar Cabral, (New York: Monthly Review Press, 1973), 39. Electronic version of the essay,

[21] Maulana Karenga, “Reaffirming Kwanzaa and Black Culture: Questioning Wrongful and Dubious Concerns,” Los Angeles Sentinel, January 10, 2013, Access December 20, 2014,

[22] Adam Hudson, “Any National "Conversation About Race" Must Include Black Radical Tradition,” Truthout, February 16, 2014. Accessed December 21, 2014,

[23] Lee D. Baker, “Ida B. Wells-Barnett and Her Passion for Justice,” Accessed December 22, 2014,

[24] Ta-Nehisi Coates, “Frederick Douglass: 'A Women's Rights Man,'” The Atlantic, September 20, 2011. Accessed December 22, 2014,; Frederick Douglass, “Frederick Douglass on Women’s Suffrage,”, April 1888. Accessed December 22, 2014,

[25] Claudia Jones, “An End to the Neglect of the Problems of the Negro Woman,” Political Affairs, 28, no. 6 (June 1949). Accessed December 22, 2014,

[26] Sojourner Truth, “Ain’t I A Woman,” Delivered December 185i, Women's Convention, Akron, Ohio. Accessed December 22, 2014,

[27] Farah Jasmine Griffin, “Black Feminists and Du Bois: Respectability, Protection, and Beyond,” Annals of the American Academy of Political and Social Science 568 (March 2000): 28-40. Accessed December 22, 2014,

[28] Combahee River Collective, “A Black Feminist Statement,” in But Some of Us Are Brave: All the Women Are White. All the Men Are Black, ed. Gloria T. Hull, et al. (Old Westbury, New York: The Feminist Press, 1982), 13-22. Here is an electronic copy of the Statement: The Combahee River Collective Statement -

[29] Ula Y. Taylor, “Read[ing] Men and Nations”: Women in the Black Radical Tradition,” Souls: A Critical Journal of Black Politics, Culture, and Society 1, Issue 4, (1999): 72-80. Accessed December 20, 2014,

















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Ajamu Nangwaya (Ajamu Nangwaya)
toronto (downtown)
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