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50 years in, Kwanzaa principles still work for Karenga

LOS ANGELES — In 1965, Americans received a front-row seat to witness history unfold as the polarization of the Vietnam War heightened, the space race moved into full gear and race riots spilled from the streets onto television sets.

Right in the smorgasbord of pivotal moments, the discussion on race became inescapable as black demonstrators were targeted with tear gas during a voting march in Selma and black entertainers such as Nina Simone, used their platform to assert their value in society and demand that their inalienable rights be recognized

The wave of black consciousness further exploded that same year when young activist Maulana Karenga created the Nguzo Saba, meaning the Seven Principles, for the Pan-African holiday Kwanzaa, which celebrates family, community and culture. The holiday would not be observed for another year, but the principles are the core of the celebration: Umoja (Unity), Kujichagulia (Self-determination),Ujima (Collective Work and Responsibility),Ujamaa (Cooperative Economics), Nia (Purpose), Kuumba (Creativity) and Imani (Faith).

Fifty years later, Karenga is gearing up for the Nguzo Saba 2015 Conference, to be held held Sept. 24 to 27 at the Sheraton Gateway Hotel,to celebrate the creation of the principles along with the anniversaries of African American Cultural Center and and the Organization Us.

Scheduled guest speakers will range from those in academia, such as Cornel West, to elected officials like Assemblywoman Shirley Weber (D-San Diego).

Karenga, the professor and chair of Africana Studies at Cal State Long Beach, shared his thoughts with The Wave about Kwanzaa’s popularity, millennials and principles and the state of modern black consciousness.

Wave: First of all, congratulations on this year marking the 50th anniversary of the Nguzo Saba. How does it feel to celebrate the anniversary?

Karenga: It is a humbling and exhilarating experience to have reached this milestone in our organization, Us, and Movement history. As I have said many times, it’s no easy and every-day achievement to endure, develop and remain productive for 50 years, especially as an organization which continues to put black interests first, in spite of changing times and constantly shifting attitudes and allegiance. So many people who started have passed on, changed their minds or turned their backs on their blackness or been dispirited and defeated. But we have endured and developed, overcome all kinds of obstacles and opposition, and refused to be defeated, dispirited or diverted from our original commitment to work, service, struggle and institution-building for our people.

Wave: In 1965, while creating the principles, what did you hope black America would take away from the seven principles?

Karenga: I developed the principles in order to build and strengthen family, community and culture and to support the black liberation struggle. I wanted the Nguzo Saba to serve as a value system for black people to ground themselves culturally and ethically, successfully wage their freedom struggle, and to direct their lives toward good and expansive ends. These principles, which are the core of Kwanzaa, the Pan-African holiday which I created, have spread throughout the global African community and have remained for 50 years an important part of how our people understand, assert and celebrate themselves as Africans in the world.

Wave: While the principles are celebrated during Kwanzaa, they are really applicable all year long. If you could narrow it down to one principle, which value do African Americans need to gravitate towards during this climate of “black lives matter?”

Karenga: All the principles are equally important and form an unbreakable and inseparable whole. Unity is at the beginning because without unity, nothing else is possible. And faith is at the end because without faith we cannot sustain the work, service, struggle and institution building that leads us to victory and achievement.

Wave: The Kwanzaa celebration helped usher a state of black consciousness in the ’60s. Describe the state of black consciousness today.

Karenga: The state of black consciousness today is once again rising and becoming community focused and committed to struggle. Ferguson became the spark that ignited a forest fire of struggles against police violence, as well as general systemic violence. And here again a vision and value system, which our philosophy Kawaida and the Nguzo Saba have offered consistently in work and struggle for 50 years, becomes a fundamental reference and resource.

Wave: How did the concept for the conference and luncheon come about?

Karenga: Every five years, we hold this kind of conference for remembrance, reflection and recommitment: to remember those who made us possible; to reflect on that which is urgent and important and to recommit ourselves to our highest values, best practices, and our ongoing struggle to bring, increase and sustain good in the world.

Wave: How important was it for you to feature a town hall meeting and dialogue with Cornel West regarding issues impacting black life in America during the conference?

Karenga: It is very important for us to have as a regular feature of our conference a Town Hall in which leaders and activists from across the country can come together and discuss critical issues facing us as a people and the world. Cornel West and I have been discussing having this dialogue for decades and we both felt this was the most auspicious time in this critical period of turning and struggle. The title of our dialog is “Remembrance, Reflection and Resistance: Mapping the Course of Our Current Struggle” and that is clearly an important challenge and task for all of us.

Wave: In your opinion, have you seen millennials embracing the Seven Principles? Some black youth may say they’ve never heard of Kwanzaa or that the celebration is waning. What are your thoughts?

Karenga: I teach and converse with so-called millennials in my classes and across campus at Cal State Long Beach, at the African American Cultural Center (Us) and other venues and I find the majority of them very sensitive to ethical values and ethical reasoning, and the Seven Principles appeal to them as they do all generations. These are not generation-specific principles, but speak to the best of what it means to be African and human in the fullest sense for every generation. One of the things that we as Africans need to do is to avoid borrowing ideas and categories of division from the dominant society. We must be sensitive to the constant need to build and rebuild intergenerational solidarity. And this can only be done in any real and meaningful sense on the basis of common-ground principles. The Seven Principles provide this common ground basis and points toward good and meaningful ways to build community and to strengthen the struggle for racial and social justice.

Wave: Please finish the sentence – “In another 50 years, The Nguzo Saba will….”

Karenga: In another 50 years, the Nguzo Saba will continue to be an important value system for us as African people in this country and throughout the global African community. For the values they teach are timeless and speak to dignity-affirming and life-enhancing ways that we must relate to each other, build the good community and society we all want and deserve to live in and ensure the peace and well-being of the world. Finally, the culture in which they are rooted and out of which they rise give us a continuing fundamental obligation and it is: to know our past and honor it; to engage our present and improve it; and to imagine a whole new future and to forge it in the most ethical, effective and expansive ways.”

The African American Cultural Center will host the National Nguzo Saba 2015 Conference and Awards Luncheon from Sept. 24 to 27 at the Sheraton Gateway Hotel, 6101 W. Century Blvd.