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December 23, 2004

A Little Kwanzaa Research

Now that I've been fishing, I'm in a bit of a more charitable mood and decided to write up something new that I haven't seen compiled anywhere about Kwanzaa. Those of you that know me, know I defend Kwanzaa like I defend my parents, sorta. That is because my parents have something to do with the creation of Kwanzaa, sorta.

The man on the left is 'Brother Damu'. We kids are the Young Simbas. That's me in the front. We are marching for the cover of Look Magazine. I would guess that's the summer of 67 and we are most definitely in front of Dr. Alfred Ligon's Aquarian Center on Santa Barbara (now MLK) Blvd. in Los Angeles.

It turns out that Damu died in '95. Unless the following excerpt (which was all I could get for free) is not an obituary:

Shelia Hardwell

Los Angeles Sentinel


Sam Damu, Longtime Angeleno.

Sam Carr Damu was born Dec. 15, 1930 in Dayton Ohio. He moved to Los Angeles during the summer of 1960.

After arriving in Los Angeles he developed an interest in acting and joined a black actors ensemble while simultaneously working with various political campaigns.

These early interests introduced him to a variety of people to include Dr. and Mrs. Alfred Ligon, owners of Los Angeles' oldest black bookstore and the Aquarian Spiritual Center.

In 1964 while taking a night class in Swahili from Dr. Ron Karenga at Fremont H.S., the Afro American cultural group "US" was formed with Damu as a founding member. He was the founder of the "US" Taifa Dance troupe in California. It was a great success boasting performances at the Dorothy Chandler Pavillion, several local television shows and numerous community and college events.

So Googling 'Taifa Dance' I came upon this conference program, and I'm going to see what I can get out of Scot Brown at UCLA about Damu and others influenced by the ideas behind Taifa Dance in LA. All this is part and parcel of the intellectual ferment behind Kwanzaa.

I cannot tell which came first for Damu, Taifa or US. But I think the simple fact that he saw his contribution to black society through the vehicle of dance as very significant. I would hope others stop and consider this before being cowed by the virulent diatribes against the founding of Kwanzaa.

Now that I think of it, I have another old photo which is worth mentioning. bootsy's-art-show.jpg
This shot was taken in October of 68, the year everything was burning. The fashionable woman on the left is my mother, and this was the backyard of a friend of the family just south of Liemert Park. It was a community art show organized under the auspices of my father's little group. I helped build the displays which were constructed of 2x2s and pegboard, painted white. Again, this is the kind of black cultural power we were all about.

My point in bringing this forward is, as I wrote to Dr. Brown. As an original member of the Young Simbas, I have been frustrated by the distortion of the origins of the celebration of Kwanzaa which travel around the net around this time of year. In particular I am offended by the 'legitimacy' of Kwanzaa attacked through ad hominem attacks on the person of Karenga. I find these attacks a constant source of irritation, and I am motivated to fight back with some historical precision as well as personal passion. Moreover, I seek to express some dimension of the intellectual ferment of the black cultural nationalism independent of the individuals, organizations and politics of the time.

It is not my aim to be an uncritical champion of Kwanzaa. In fact I am particularly put off by its association with the person of Karenga as if its celebrants were victims of a cult of personality. I have my own interpretation of its value and applicability as both symbol and substance. Yet there is no question in my mind that it has transcended its origins. It is that transcendent quality I seek to preserve, and if I stand as something of a heretic, sobeit.

Here are a few more links from last year:

Ujamaa: The Problem Child.
Dickerson On My Tits.

Posted by mbowen at December 23, 2004 01:42 AM

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Why I defend Kwanzaa from Solotude (formerly The S-Train Canvas)
My conservative brutha Cobb (who was at the original and first Kwanzaa celebration) sums up why I defend Kwanzaa: As... [Read More]

Tracked on December 23, 2004 03:13 AM

Cobb on A Little Kwanzaa Research from Booker Rising
The moderate-conservative Republican - who as a youth participated in a program run by a close associate of Dr. Maulana Karenga, the founder of Kwanzaa - defends the holiday: "In particular I am offended by the 'legitimacy' of Kwanzaa attacked throug... [Read More]

Tracked on December 24, 2004 11:04 AM


Thanks for posting more about this. It is helping me get over the unease I have been feeling the last two years. I hope in time my appreciation of Kwanzaa will be increased by taking a critical look at it instead of being weakened.

Posted by: Scott at December 23, 2004 07:36 AM

All of my children have African names. The name I go by when around family is not Lester, but rather Kenyatta. I am a different sort of cultural nationalist though, and I am not one for the cult of personality that surrounds people like Karenga, Asante, and others. I wasn't for Kwanzaa for much of the same reasons--we KNOW what the Ancients revered...why do we have to INVENT anything? It's already THERE.

But the critiques of Kwanzaa that I've seen are at base ahistorical (every holiday is invented, every one--including xmas--has either pagan roots or influences) or ad hominem (the first president of the modern nra was a convicted murderer...do we toss out the 2nd amendment now?). And all with a slick patina of racism. What people should appreciate about your account is how much our experiences with holidays in general are really driven by socialization. If we lived in Israel we would think about Hanukkah the same way Americans think of Christmas. If we were Jehovah's Witnesses, we wouldn't think much of Christmas (or any other holiday) at all.


Posted by: Lester Spence at December 23, 2004 12:31 PM

If we lived in Israel, we wouldn't think much of Hanukkah at all. It's relatively obscure, as Jewish holidays go. It's just a big deal here because it's so close to Christmas.

As to separating Kwanzaa from Karenga, I'm not sure how that's possible, or why it is even desirable. Even if it can be, so what? Black nationalism is no better than white nationalism or any other attempt to carve out some separate nation within a nation. It's nothing to celebrate.

Posted by: Xrlq at December 23, 2004 12:50 PM

It's interesting that one of the central purposes of Kwanzaa was to break the socialization of the Negro from the apolitical aspects of the Black Christian Church. When US' braintrust (such as it was) dispersed and it all fell to Karenga, it became a cult of personality with the most ugly sort of socialization.

Posted by: Cobb at December 23, 2004 12:51 PM

I think it's just as legitimate a study to understand the difference and distance between the black nationalism of Karenga and its current proponents as it is to distinguish bewteen the Zionism of David Ben Gurion and Benjamin Netanyahu.

In fact considering the facts of citizenship and loyalty, it is far more reasonable to draw broad conclusions about Israelis than it is to draw them about Kwanzaa celebrants. If nationalism is 'nothing' then perhaps there is nothing to celebrate. But I think anyone who studies the matter will find that men like Vernon Jordan and other prominent African Americans took the concepts of black nationalism and transferred them to America when it became permissible, but the core of nationalism is the same.

I think you will also find anywhere you read that people who prefer the term 'black' to 'African-American' do so because of what black nationalism was and is, and that this is an intense and important distinction.

Posted by: Cobb at December 23, 2004 01:00 PM

"Black nationalism is no better than white nationalism."

This is the type of comment that sounds good but sheds no light, and very little heat.

What are the components of black nationalism? Of white nationalism? What type of material benefit has organizing around "blackness" given black citizens?

Finally this is a sentence fragment--black nationalism is no better than white nationalism at WHAT?

Posted by: Lester Spence at December 23, 2004 05:48 PM

Finally this is a sentence fragment--black nationalism is no better than white nationalism at WHAT?

Not a sentence fragment, just a general statement. Any form of nationalism that attaches to anything other than a nation breeds balkanization, which is bad for that nation as a whole.

Posted by: Xrlq at December 24, 2004 08:14 PM