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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 watching 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 spirit house.

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 the Methodists.

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.

GATES: Right.

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.

GATES: Right.

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?

GATES: Really?

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 consciousness.

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 wealth.

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.

GATES: No.

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.

GATES: Right.

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.

GATES: Absolutely.

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 and --

KARENGA: People have practiced it in bourgeois ways --

GATES: Right.

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.

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 this.

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.

    He is considered the father of the black arts movement and of black cultural nationalism.     He came to prominence after helping to rebuild the Watts community in Los Angeles following the 1965 rebellion;  that same year, he founded the black cultural  organization US (as in 'us' versus 'them').   Karenga is the creator of the holiday Kwanzaa, established to celebrate African traditions in an American holiday.  He also wrote the mission statement for the 1995  Million Man March in Washington, D.C. Interview conducted in the spring of 1997.

 

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