My Rocky Relationship With Kwanzaa

Mary Katharine Ham
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Posted: Dec 27, 2005 5:04 PM

LaShawn Barber got me started on this this morning, but my story's a little different from hers.

When I was a kid, Kwanzaa was real to me. I learned about it in school, so it was real. Period.

The African tradition? Real. Its connection to my black classmates' heritage? Real. The seven principles? All real. I didn't celebrate it, but I assumed everything I knew about it was true. I learned it in school, you see.

Years later, I found out that assumption was wrong. Really wrong. Or at least, incomplete.

Over the years, I began to piece together that a radical black activist of the '60s had invented the holiday. Maulana Ron Karenga invented the holiday in 1966.

1966? I know 1966. I know its songs. I know people who saw 1966. My point being, 1966 is fairly close to, you know, NOW, to be the origin of a holiday that is supposed to reflect the ancient African roots of our African-American citizens. But no one ever told us about that part in school.

Later, I found out why. Revealing that Kwanzaa was created by Ron Karenga leads to revealing Ron Karenga, and that subject is hardly one that's fit for a second-grade classroom.

Why? Because at various times during his life, Karenga was head of a black nationalist group not known for its non-violent tactics; he was convicted and served time for torturing two women-- members of his own group-- by whipping them with electrical cords and burning their mouths and faces with a hot iron; he invented Kwanzaa as a way to "de-whitize" Christmas, as Al Sharpton once put it, expressly as a way to separate the races.

Here's a great Front Page Magazine article on all of Karenga's exploits.

Today, he is a professor at California State University, Long Beach. Basically, Karenga went Tookie Williams on us. Kwanzaa was his children's book, and it lifted him higher than Williams' was able to lift him (although, Kwanzaa actually came before Karenga's convictions, which makes the case for Kwanzaa-as-redemption weaker). In news coverage of Kwanzaa tonight, Karenga is referred to as an "African-American scholar," "Dr.", "a convicted felon who got out of prison and gave his life to academics," and a man with a commemorative postage stamp to his name. There is very little mention of his checkered past.

I found out about his past only because I was asked to do a story on a local Kwanzaa celebration when I worked at a newspaper a couple years ago. Between second grade and then, I had figured out that Kwanzaa was created about the same time as Nancy Sinatra's career. But I didn't know about Karenga until I started Googling.

Then I found the Front Page Magazine article linked above, written by Paul Mulshine, a columnist for the Newark Star-Ledger. After I clicked on it, I almost wished I hadn't.

I had planned to do the dutiful, fluffy Kwanzaa story. I had planned a sprinkling of history, some winning photos of 6-year-olds, and quotes lauding the act of gourd-painting as a path to cultural awareness. I had it planned.

Paul Mulshine threw off my plan, and I knew I was in trouble. In trouble because I couldn't, in good conscience, leave all the bad stuff about Karenga out of a story about the holiday he created. In trouble because I knew this would cause problems with my editors.

I called Mulshine, who was nice enough to do an interview with me and send me some of his sources, so that I could have some back-up when my editors asked me about it. I called Karenga and left a message on his machine, but never heard back from him.

I interviewed the teachers and students involved with the Kwanzaa celebration. I got all the gourd-painting quotes I needed, but I also asked what they knew about Karenga and his unsavory past. They knew nothing about it. I asked if they knew why Kwanzaa used Swahili terms when most American slaves came from thousands of miles away from anywhere Swahili was spoken. They didn't know. Many of them didn't know the holiday was created in California in 1966, just as I hadn't.

In the end, I compromised. I wrote 10 inches of fluffy holiday story. The childrens' Kwanzaa artwork was beautiful and deserved to be spotlighted, no matter what kind of man Karenga was. But I also wrote 10 inches on Karenga. Nothing too graphic. I didn't get into the specifics of the torture. I didn't list every one of his misdeeds. But I thought a little of that was important to the story, especially since it seemed no one knew anything about it.

The next day, I picked up the paper. My 20-inch story had become 10 inches long overnight. Can you guess which 10 inches they cut?

This paper never cut for space. It rarely edited a word I wrote. As a result, a 10-inch cut was conspicuous, to say the least. And indefensible. And in this case, expected.

My editor and I had a civil conversation about it, the conclusion of which was something along the lines of, "well, you just can't write stuff like that. Just because...you just can't."

Just another mile-marker in my journey out of the newspaper business.

Now, I'm not trying to be the grinch who stole Kwanzaa here, but I think it's a sin that the rather radical, Marxist, black nationalist origins of the holiday are ignored every year-- ignored with the power of a thousand suns.

It is a shame that everyone acts as if Karenga's violent crimes are immaterial, despite the fact that he was convicted and sentenced for them several years after he invented Kwanzaa. It's not as if he reformed, then became the father of Kwanzaa.

These things are not the whole story of Kwanzaa, but they are part of it, and they should be told. They are not pleasant, but I don't ever remember being told about our Founding Fathers' accomplishments in school without also hearing about their failings.

Surely, Ron Karenga should be subject to at least the same scrutiny as George Washington in a public school setting.

I have a feeling that won't happen, though, because a lot of people feel like "you just can't write stuff like that. Just because...you just can't."