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Kwanzaa day 1, umoja

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By Andile Mngxitama

Today we observe the first principle of the seven principles of Kwanzaa, which is UMOJA or unity. Kwanzaa is a cultural and spiritual response of Black people to a white holiday and cultural practices. It’s founded by Professor Maulana Karenga, a genius Afro-American.

Prof Karenga has created a cultural and spiritual movement which is bigger than himself and all the sad controversies around himself.

Firstly umoja is one of the things that we as black people the world over have to achieve. Secondly, it’s important to note the diaspora origins of Kwanzaa. It was like many ideas of modern resistance developed outside of Africa but inspired by African cosmologies and mythologies. My view is that all quasi religious and cultural systems are driven by belief, not science or fact. This is so because humans are essentially creatures of belief. What makes Kwanzaa attractive is its systematic representation as a fairly thought out system of ritual and belief. It becomes a replacement for those who are alienated from the mainstream culture and rituals.

Like any cultural and religious practice Kwanzaa can be used to advance the struggle for black emancipation, alternatively it can be neutralized into a massive meaningless commercial and consumption jumboree. In fact, a one time fan who got dissatisfied with Kwanzaa was the late black panther poet Amiri Baraka who criticized the practice as becoming a black middle class commerical spectacle.

Followers of Kwanzaa need to know that its founder, Prof Karenga, is a tragic figure who served time for torturing some black sisters. This sad event occured within a framework of massive state repression against Prof Karenga and his ”US Organization”. What I find most disturbing is his involvement in the rivalry with the Black Panther Party, to a point where his organization got involved in fatal shootings of brothers from the Panthers. This episode shows just how much we need to take the principle of umoja seriously.

One write-up on the Black Panther Party vs US Organization summarized the situation as follows:

“The revolutionary Black Panther Party derided Karenga and his organization, US (as opposed to “them”), calling its members “pork chop nationalists.” Karenga fired back, labeling the Panthers “kamikazes.” But the people, the masses, the lumpenproletariat, as it were, tended to reward the most militant and stylish with their ardor. The cats in the black leather and berets, the women with the M-1’s. Karenga’s guys, by comparison, were nerds. Their boxy clothes and shaved heads blend right into black America today, but they looked odd back then. And scary, after a couple of Karenga’s guys were convicted of conspiring to assassinate a couple of key Panthers who were murdered in L.A. — ostensibly over control of a black studies program at U.C.L.A.”

What has happened over time is that Prof Karenga and the rivalries have become less significant and Kwanzaa has in some ways come to assimilate the temperament of the Black Panthers in popular imagination. It seems to me that one could argue that the political ideology of Kwanzaa is derived or inspired by the Black Panthers while its cultural and spiritual expression is derived from Prof Karenga’s genius creation. In other words, time and cross pollination has achieved Umoja between the practices of the Panthers and that of the US of Karenga. It must be stated that I’m not aware of an analysis that has come to this conclusion by students of the two processes.

What is critical is not to get bogged down on the unfortunate circumstances that compromise our possible march forward as one, but rather to labor for the radicalization of Kwanzaa and the realization of umoja amongst black people the world over.

Every weapon can harm or heal, depending on how we use it.


Andile Mngxitama is the President of Black First Land First (BLF), a radical black consciousness organization.

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