Sunday, December 23, 2007

Kwanzaa Started in Los Angeles

Kwanzaa started right here in Los Angeles County in 1966. The first mention of it in the L.A. Times, as far as I can tell, was not until December 1973. By that time Kwanzaa was being celebrated nationwide.

Seven years earlier, however. . .

In the wake of the Watts Riots (summer 1965), Maulana Karenga (ne Ron Everett) designed a 7-day holiday specifically for African Americans to celebrate, starting on December 26. It excluded "the dominant society" in favor of an alternative holiday revolving around Black history and reinforcing a sense of community.

Who was Karenga? A scholar and a mover-and-shaker in the Black Power efforts. In 1965, Karenga formed US, which reportedly stood for either United Slaves Organization or "us Black people." US was a radical group that rivaled the Black Panthers, but without the Marxism. In fact, a power struggle between the two groups sparked a double murder at UCLA in 1969. When the Times ran their 1973 Kwanzaa story, Karenga himself was in prison, convicted of leading others in the torture of two women in his home. So the Times went all the way to Chicago to find a professor they could quote.

Back to 1966. Karenga was in the newspapers frequently, giving speeches, leading panels and grass roots efforts to establish economic cooperation and self-determination in Watts and other neighborhoods. He even performed marriages, at the US Headquarters. Karenga was not a fan of European Christianity, believing that it diminished human worth. He took issue with principals like original sin and a vengeful God--although his later writings about Kwanzaa show that he's mellowed in his outlook. Still, Kwanzaa is a Pan-African holiday in America, not a religious one.

By the late 1970s, Karenga was appointed Chair of the Black Studies Department at California State University Long Beach. He'd picked up a 2nd PhD from USC in the 90s. In the new century he's added filmmaker to his cv. Here's a biography from History Makers, which is where the above picture appears.

The other picture is from the Herald Examiner collection at the L.A. City Library and was taken by Steve Grayson. It's the rainy Kwanzaa parade in 1988, near Crenshaw and Exposition.

There are many sites about Kwanzaa, but the one maintained by Dr. Karenga is here.

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