GATES: Maulana, hearing you speak reminds me of the first time I ever
saw you. And I was a kid, I mean I was 17 years old, and I was a senior in
high school, and I was watching... I grew up near Washington, so I was
local cable. All these people now think that cable was invented in the
cities in the '80s. But cable was invented for the country in the 1950s.
Piedmont, West Virginia got it in 1949, 1950. All of our TV programs came from
D.C., so I'm watching this film called, "Color Me Black," that was produced at
Howard University. And you had just given a speech there. Bang, bang, boom,
boom, ungowa. Black power.
And that was one of the refrains in the film and they were using Yr Nquzo
Saba speech. I mean you were explaining what the Nquzo Saba was, and this cut
away was about this couple, a black guy had this white girlfriend and at the
end of the film he cuts her loose, and becomes black, and grows an Afro, and
lives happily ever after. But it was the first time I had ever seen you and I
hadn't, I didn't know who you were, and a little bit later, in Paris when I was
working for "Time" magazine in London, I did this piece on the Cleavers living
underground. And I had to go over there and live underground with them for two
weeks. So I talked to Eldridge Cleaver around the clock, and it was sort of
interesting. He said, he used to read you in prison, when you had another
name. Your first name was Ron Everett, I believe, and from Baltimore.
KARENGA: That's a European name. I don't want to start that.
GATES: Okay, your European name. But he said how you'd been this worthy
antagonist for them, but he really admired your mind and your readings, and
that was important to him when he was in prison. And Lord knows, you and
Baraka's allegiance was important to me. I used to go down from Yale on
weekends and just to see Baraka do his -- I forget what it was called, the
KARENGA: That's right.
GATES: On Sunday. And then I worked for Gibson too. I never was a
nationalist, but my heart was always more that way than it was for the
Panthers. So if you don't mind, I'd like to go back and talk about that era,
because in this program we're trying to figure out how we got to this place
with the largest black middle class in our history and the largest black
underclass in our history. But, I'm taking everybody back from the 60s and in
a way it's sort of an after-the-revolution piece.
And I can't help but think about this question in light of the murder
yesterday of Biggie Smalls the notorious BIG, and the shoot-out between the
Panthers and US at UCLA which led to the terrible death of John Huggins. Tell
us about that time and that event. You were talking about the nature between
political factions, the warfare between political factions in the late 60s.
Would it have been positive in retrospect for the Panthers and us to have
forged an alliance?
KARENGA: Oh, certainly we could have. In fact, this is interesting about
this is that at the beginning, we worked together.
GATES: You did?
KARENGA: The first time, as Earl Hutchins pointed out in the article he
wrote, the first time that Huey Newton left Oakland to do a national speech, he
came to our organization to commemorate with us the Watts revolt, so it wasn't
like they didn't know us, and also, they borrowed a lot of techniques from our
community alert patrol of following the police around, taking their names,
giving legal defense and counsel to people who were harassed by the police, and
actually checking the police. They learned that from us, OK? So, it's not
like -- and actually, our organization, US, in spite of the established orders
campaigning against it, would measure its history by anybody else. The
fundamental things by which we consider ourselves black and measure ourselves,
US has played a vanguard role in it whether we talk about Kwanzaa, which
everybody knows -- 200 million people around the world -- and Nquzo Saba, which
formed the basis --
GATES: US didn't invent Kwanzaa, you invented Kwanzaa.
KARENGA: No, US did.
GATES: But you did.
KARENGA: Oh no. Well, modesty prevents totally agreeing with that, and
also, history demands that we see all great
things are collectively produced. I take the initiative in it.
Leadership is initiative, innovation and insight.
GATES: I tell my classes each year that you're the only person I know who
invented a holiday. And in our time, it's a very rare thing to do.
KARENGA: But let me finish. Things like the black arts movements and your
anthology. And you clearly said Maulana gave us the ideology, but Baraka took
it ahead, but Maulana gave us the idea.
GATES: Oh yeah, that's why you're in the anthology.
KARENGA: You're much too kind. The ancient Egyptian studies movement in
the academy, the rights of passage program, independent schools, black studies,
black student unions, we played -- Afrocentrism, we played fundamental roles in
the development of all of these. So, a lot of times people don't even know
that and more groups use our philosophy than any other group I know. Hundreds
of groups use the seven
principles and Kawaida, which is my philosophy. Now, so we had a
tremendous impact on the movement and we continue to
have that. We have not only survived, we developed. We celebrate our
thirty-second anniversary. How many other groups are left like that?
So, we have a fundamental core and we're serving the injured, the masses.
So here we are, we're in the struggle, and everything is rough, and we live in
a time when we are first contending with each other ideologically. So, that's
the first reason for the struggle, but it turns violent for another reason. In
a minute, we'll talk about that. But first, both of us are claiming to be the
vanguard of the movement, OK, so that would go on just like the Baptists and
GATES: Oh sure.
KARENGA: OK? But there's a difference, there's some more factors in it.
The first is, see, Panthers make the move to bring whites back into the
movement. This becomes a fundamental source. They get a lot of white money,
they begin to defend the whites. We have a serious struggle over that, and
also, this is important because these whites, when we're having these
conflicts, would advise the Panthers that they are the vanguard and they don't
have to come to terms with us.
KARENGA: In fact, SDS -- that's Students for a Democratic Society --
tells them they're not only the vanguard of the white movement, they're the
vanguard of the black movement now. So, this element of bringing the whites
back into the movement and justifying, in fact, I was just going over this the
other day. David Hilliard puts out the point that black studies, Karenga and
all them talking about black studies, the Panther party's against it, we need
class studies. See, they've gone into that Marxist mode.
KARENGA: Our argument, we need black studies. We got enough white
studies regardless or whatever kind you call them. So we argued over things
like that too. The third thing that happened, though, is the emergence of the
COINTELPRO, and that is in '68, J. Edgar Hoover asked from his field officers
for hard-hitting ideas to disrupt, discredit, destroy and otherwise neutralize
all real and potential leadership -- this affected the nation earlier, OK? It
affected our organization, it affected King because they were already doing it.
What he did in '68 was simply took it even further, you see what I mean? So, a
lot of times people think it's just the Panthers who were affected, but we were
affected. We were driven underground, put in captivity on trumped-up charges,
driven out of the country. Some of our people are still out of the country and
some of them are still underground?
KARENGA: Because of this. Yes. And what happens here is that they begin
to shoot at the Panthers instead of us and shoot at us instead of the Panthers.
Well, we're all armed, OK, and the gun had become elevated to the concept of a
political God. You solved problems with it, OK?
It's not a middle class problem, it is not an underclass problem. It's a
black community problem because you're going to have this up and down situation
throughout black history if you don't build the community, if you don't have a
national body to deliberate and to plan critically. We need critical
We need the black middle class to stop swinging on this pendulum between
massive self-congratulatory pronouncements and pronouncements of self-guilt and
angst. If you've got a problem, go to a psych, but the problem that if we
don't deal with the political issue, we need a deliberative body that talks
positive and talks about the possibilities inherent in the society, not how
terrible it is.
See, people want to dismiss Du Bois, and they want to talk about Du Bois
reconsidering at the end of his life. What Du Bois said at the beginning that
our race, like every other race, will be saved by its exceptional men and
women. You see, he's right. Not saved in a sense that they're going to save
us, because leadership shouldn't be that. Leadership is what? The
self-conscious capacity to provide philosophy, program and principles that not
only satisfy human need but transform the people in the process, making them
self-conscious agents of their own liberation.
And so, if Du Bois meant that, yes, that's what we need, but at the same
time, what we have to do is to have structures by which that process can take
place. Second, we need an ideology of collective vocation. I'd say it before.
No nation can actually develop itself without a moral vision of human
possibility. This is what this whole country lacks, and for a brief moment,
during the holocaust of enslavement and the struggles there, black people
offered that for white people in this country, and for the brief moment in the
'60s we offered that, but we had these ups and downs where we were seduced by
the very society that we were struggling against, and the new seduction, of
course, is consumerism, this massive access to wealth and big speaking fees and
the whole thing. But I don't think we should criticize them, the middle
class, for wanting wealth. What we want to criticize them for is prostituting
themselves and not seeing beyond cars and houses, and for making the mistake
that thinking that having a big salary is the same thing as having
GATES: No it's not.
KARENGA: When in fact, we've got to about wealth that is productive,
wealth that has to do with financial transaction, wealth that has to do with
ownership, not simply going at a big job, spending eight years of your life in
college and thinking you've done something by going out and working for
somebody. The question is what kind of structures can be put together by which
we can not only solve the fundamental problems of our life, but contribute to
the expanding realm of freedom in this country. People always talk about the
about what America's achieved, but no matter what America has achieved, imagine
what it would have achieved if it had not oppressed the majority of its people.
Half of it was a population of women. The Native American genocide, the
African holocaust, the Mexican dispossession, the Asian exploitation of labor.
If all these marginalized people had been allowed to contribute to the
construction of what it means to be America at its beginning, there's no
telling what America could be. But we won't complain or cry about that. We
will argue that we have reshaped America in spite of itself. We have, through
our struggle, defined America in ways Thomas Jefferson and George Washington
could never conceive and possibly could not accept. You see? There's no way
in the world they would have expected you to be at Harvard.
KARENGA: You see what I'm saying? So we have to be serious. We have to
give ourselves credit and see ourselves as a world historical people with a
world historical mission, and our mission is not simply to free ourselves, but
to bring the whole of humanity to full and final liberation. It just seems to
me that unless we have such an expanding vision, we can't do it. The next
thing we've got to do is develop a communication system that speaks our special
culture truth. You see, we got black newspapers, but they don't have the same
edge of Ida B. Wells or Russ...and Freedom Journal in 1827.
GATES: Well, "Ebony" and "Jet".
KARENGA: In its early days.
KARENGA: You see, but there's fashion there and see who's the lightest
person and who went out with the white people. That kind of stuff. They can't
do that and we've got to be serious.
GATES: You're terrible.
KARENGA: You know what I mean. We can't do that if we're serious. We
have to go back to that cutting edge of writing. We also have to produce an
intellectual group and we're back to them that actually stops saying what can't
be done, stop calling each other names.
KARENGA: And put forth public policy.
GATES: That's right.
KARENGA: -- around which the whole country can unite, and especially our
people. Another thing we have to do is stop believing the only people in the
world we have to deal with is white folks. More important than our lives with
our white alliance our lives --
GATES: With each other.
KARENGA: With each other, first. That's different. I'm talking about
other sets of people. More important than our lives with whites is our lives
with Latinos, especially with Mexicans, which are the key, like, Latino group
in there. How we relate to them will shape ethnic relations for decades to
come, and what we're doing is spending all this time trying to revive an
alliance that unraveled and not paying attention to when we ought to be build,
and if we don't do that, what the Europeans are going to do the established
order, the oppressor is going to do is manipulate one ethnic group against the
other. Already they say to the Latino, you outnumber the blacks. We must
have -- multicultural mutual commitment to an ethics of sharing -- shared
space, shared wealth, shared power, and shared responsibility for building the
society and world we want to live in.
Now one of the most difficult things to do in this context of black
multiculturalism, diversity is deal with power and wealth, and what the
established order tries to do is reduce diversity and multiculturalism to
fashion, foods and festivals. You understand? You dress a certain way, wear
your clothes a certain way, you eat a couple of pieces of ethnic food.
GATES: Celebrate Kwanzaa.
KARENGA: And well, yeah. That's supposed to help but that's different
because Kwanzaa is self-consciously a political-motivator holiday.
GATES: But its bourgeois fried too. You know that. People write books
KARENGA: People have practiced it in bourgeois ways --
KARENGA: -- but the holiday itself has not changed. The fundamental
principles are there. At the core of it is the seven principles. That's what
makes it. That's what makes it grow is that people see that as fundamental,
this value orientation, these principles -- umoja unity. Kujichagalia is
self-determination. Ujima, collective work and responsibility. Ujamaa,
cooperative economics. [Nia], purpose. [Kuma], creativity, and [Imana],
faith. They are all over the world. Twenty million people every year use
these to the bonds between us as a people, to reaffirm their rootedness in
their own culture and to speak their own special culture truth in a
multicultural world, so that's there.
And see, that's what I was telling you earlier. The more we talk about
what we have-haven't done or what's happening to us and how we're unraveling,
the less we concentrate on what we're doing. You see? This is why the middle
class can't save itself and therefore can't even talk about helping to save the
masses. You have to in fact stay away from the dominant society, which is
always going to give you deficiency modeling. You are not helping your people,
you should be doing more. They don't know what you're doing. The question is
in your own self-evaluation, in the evaluation among peers that respect you,
what do they say you should be doing? This is not something for public
concession. What people ever survived and developed by just doing public
pronouncements of their pathology? And people hide that under the guise of
saying what I'm doing, I think we need to bring out the laundry. We got to be
able to criticize ourselves. But that's all we do.
GATES: That's true.
KARENGA: When have these intellectuals, and I'm one of them, and I try to
produce. If you read my writing, most of it has to do with programmatic
development in public policy orientation.
GATES: That's true.
KARENGA: I make an analysis and I always say these are the things we're
not doing, but I spend more time on projecting possibilities, and I would like
for our intellectuals to project possibilities. I would like for you given
your grounding in literature, to say how can we use this literature to in fact
improve intellectual performance in school?
GATES: Oh, absolutely.
KARENGA: How do we do that? I want a national program, I don't want just a
program.... Your access to the publishing world. How can we publish things
that are accessible to the masses but at the same time have intellectual value?
Do you understand?
GATES: Oh, it's crucial. Even the kitzchification or the
schlockification of culture is crucial in terms of its dissemination throughout
a society. I mean, I think the churches and the boy scouts, but particularly
our churches, could be used as black cultural schools. Instead of teaching
about Jesus only teach about Crispus Atticks and Phillis Wheatley and Maulana
KARENGA: That's what I was saying. The churches, when you asked me about
how the institutions were dismantled and how they moved away from their origin
purpose is that the church played a very radical role in our history. It
always had two sides, a conservative and a radical side, but it did its
best, like all our religious institutions, whether you talk about
Christianity or Islam or Yoruba or Matte, still their best is when they take up
the cause of social justice and social education and bringing out the best of
what it means to be African and human at the same time. My philosophy,
Kawaida, is an ongoing synthesis of the best of African thought and practice in
constant exchange with the world, and one of its fundamental tenets is that we
must constantly dialogue with our culture, asking it questions and seeking
answers from it to the fundamental questions of humankind. What does it mean
to be a man and woman? What does community mean? How do we relate to the
stranger? How do we relate to the most vulnerable among us?
And we read that, not only for my classical culture in Africa but from
also our more modern culture here in this country, and we balanced it too
because a lot of times people go from one extreme to another. They're totally
in modernity or they're totally in the past. The question, how do we deal with
the whole of our history and use it as a foundation to in fact imagine bringing
into being a new present and future, and that's what I would like for our
intellectuals to explore, to dialogue with our own culture. Who else has the
kind of history we have, the kinds that -- We have the most ancient history
and there's no history more varied than ours of tragedy, of triumph, of
achievement against all odds, of this sense of mission and history, this
adaptive vitality, this durability in history. Who else? Who surpasses that?
Do you understand?
GATES: Maulana, many people have described this time as the best of times
and the worst of times, given the fact that the black middle class roughly
tripled since 1967, but the black underclass simultaneously has increased as
well. Forty-five percent of all black children live at or beneath the poverty
line. I believe that the day before Dr. King was killed, that figure was 32%.
How did we get in this crazy place?
KARENGA: Well, the black community got to this position for several
reasons: one, they misread the achievements of the '60s, especially the black
middle class, all right? But second, they did achieve enough to expand the
realm of freedom so that when there was an economic boom in America, they were
skilled enough and in position to take advantage of it. I told you I don't
think that this is anything to talk about, the middle class making these gains
because they're limited, deceptive and fragile, and unless it's tied to an
overall development of the black community, it doesn't mean anything.
GATES: Yeah, but why not? That's what I'm trying to figure out.
KARENGA: One, the movement, especially the black middle class, a segment
of the black middle class leadership as soon as we achieved, they didn't begin
to dismantle the structures that were used, the movement. They actually
talked against the movement. You all got to be quiet now, we've made these
gains. What we got to do is stop talking black power and have some green power
please. If things were that simple, we could have it. The reality -- they
also did this. Look at, this is the only middle class in history that has ever
asked its captive market to disintegrate and to go elsewhere. Not only did
they go elsewhere themselves and leave a problem in the black community, but
they also asked the people themselves to leave. This is unheard of.
Now, people will say wherever I stand, there are black people. I accept
that. But we still have to build institutions in the core of what is called
our community, and without the institutional capacity to define, defend and
develop our entries, you have the deterioration you have now. Let me show you
All the problems that we have now, Skip, we had before because they're
American problems -- teenage pregnancy, gangs, crime, just go on, unwed --
everybody's got that, but what we had then and we don't have now is
institutional capacity, the institutional capacity to intervene in a timely
manner and hold them at bay.
GATES: Most of the people that I went to school with were in the old black
middle class, like at Yale. You had as much to do with creating the black
studies at Yale as anybody, that's one of the ironies.
KARENGA: Just to line up what happened is first of all-- the
misunderstanding of where the movement had come. That it was not at its end it
was only at a stage. People then began to dismantle the very structures by
which they won the battles. This was a bad mistake.
Second, the critical mass of the middle class, began to leave the black
community, This had two or three effects that was wrong. Number one what it did
was it began to take some of our best minds away. And people would say, but I
am still committed, where your fundamental grounding is, that's where your
fundamental attention is. You got to admit that, you don't want to lock people
in the community that, we are not arguing for that, but even if you live
somewhere else you have to help build the institutions in your community. But
what they did was not only leave, but they drained the institutional capacity
of the community to define, defend, and develop its interests.